Thursday, 15 January 2009

A new kind of disappointment in our government

Disappointment in our leaders is inevitable. They obtain their status by claiming to believe x, y and z to be important, and when we fickle members of the population begin to reinterpret our world, and to see a, b and c as important instead, they are faced with some lose-lose choices:

Box 1) Admitting that they do not know as much about a, b and c as they did the old problems of x, y and z, and handing their privilege and power to someone else.

Box 2) Shifting their position on both x, y and z and a, b and c to reflect the new priorities which have emerged. We then publicly humiliate them for having performed a U-turn, the press characterise them as weak and confused and shortly afterwards they are forced to hand their privilege and power to someone else.

Box 3) Pretending that they don't agree with the shift in priorities and clinging to the ideas which afforded them their privilege in the first place, desperately defending the seriousness of the old problems and denying the validity of the new ones.

Nobody gets to be a politician by lacking confidence in their own 'I know better'ness, so inevitably our leaders respond to change - change which is simply a natural and unavoidable consequence of the experiment of democracy unfolding over time - by sticking with box number 3: I was right, I continue to be right, please listen to the scary things I have to say about what will happen if you don't wake up to how right I still am.

In the climate change / sociology book I'm just finishing (still) we call this "The Alpha Trap", and believe it is the source of the inevitable emergence of distance and disappointment between the leaders and the people, as well as many of the reckless and destructive actions they undertake on our behalf. 

The key to reducing the negative impact The Alpha Trap has would of course be to make it easier for our leaders to open box number 2, but "open minded leader reassesses position in the light of new information and further experience" doesn't make for much of a headline.

It would also hinge upon the recognition that all societies are simply a series of experiments. The unique aspect of a democracy is that the subjects of the experiments get to influence the design of the next experiment. The difficulty we face is that our biology drives us to assume certainty, particularly in the face of danger. 'Oh, I wonder if that might be a tiger...' is not the kind of thinking which keeps a species on the rise. So, we don't like to hear about experiments with education and health care, we like our leaders to tell us that they definitely know that the new plan they are proposing will be successful. Who is more to blame, the leader who lies about their confidence or the follower who only follows leaders who lie about their confidence?

And now, suddenly, I face an even greater source of disappointment in our leaders. One I'm not sure I will ever be able to recover from. I have almost finished watching five series of The West Wing. And I want my politicians and my press to be as witty and incisive as Josh, Toby, CJ and President Bartlett. 

Yesterday, Badger and I were watching Prime Minister's Questions while we ate our eggs. And Cameron accused Brown's VAT cut sales stimulus of being an 'Expensive Failure'. And I waited for someone, anyone, politician or press, to point out that a sales stimulus tax cut could be either expensive or a failure, but probably not both. And I'm still waiting.


Anonymous said...

Well said Stray. I particularly enjoyed your take on our biological responses to insecurity. These are uncertain times and we need flexibility and determination to ride the waves and hopefully flourish at the end of it all.

Jean said...

Incredibly well put, Stray! I haven't seen this expressed more clearly and incisively anywhere, and completely agree with you.

I presume you're responding in particular to the horrifying decision to go ahead with the new Heathrow runway, as well as to wider issues.

I had actually had a faint glimmering of positive (well, at least less negative) response to some recent pronouncements from Gordon Brown about how he intends to respond to the economic crisis - the first positive response I had had to anything a British politician had said for a very long time. But the Heathrow decision tells me to stop hoping - such short-termism is truly horrifying.

As for the VAT discussion, yes, quite ludicrous. I can't tolerate Prime Minister's Questions at all. Makes me feel so alienated I just want to go and bang my head.

Random Reflections said...

Tbis post has made me want to read your book even more. Please finish it soon!