jump to navigation

“A new political culture” – the solution to old problems? August 21, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Norwegian politics, Political Theory , trackback

President of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), Thorbjørn Jagland, this week called for a “New political culture” in Norway in a feature article in the newspaper Aftenposten. He claims that the combination of media, opinion polls and opportunist politicians have displaced the political virtues of long term and larger view thinking. In his words political leaders have been made into characters in a play organized by media and opinion polls. Political leaders no longer show the leadership necessary to enforce policies that are too complex to be explained simply to the public.

His answer to these problems:

Vi trenger en annen politisk kultur enn den mediene og mange andre har forsøkt å oppdra oss til i sommer. Vi trenger en styringsdyktig politisk kultur i stedet for en galluppreget politisk elite. Vi trenger politikere som også er i stand til å se inn i fremtiden og føre an. Hvis ikke kan en stadig økende kravmentalitet ødelegge for oss alle.

My translation:

We need a different political culture than the one the media and many others have tried to educate us about this summer. We need a political culture for leadership rather than a political elite dominated by opinion polls. We need politicians that are able to look into the future and take the lead. If not, an ever increasing mentality of demands will ruin things for us all.

This isn’t a particularly novel point. Edmund Burke warned his constituency in Bristol about leaders who were nothing but slaves to public opinion all the way back in 1774. And in 1784, James Madison stated that:

Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

It may be an old issue, but it’s an important one, and one that has become very visible in Norway over the last months. A series of cabinet ministers have come and gone – not because of their policies but because of media campaigns where they have been tricked into making blunders. Over the last few years, we have also seen the populist radical right grow bolder and more confident, gradually boosting the close combat fight over next week’s opinion polls.

The usual explanation is some sort of meaningless catchphrase about how media has transformed politics. It’s far too simple to blame it all on the media. It’s been going on since 1774, and most likely before. Media may have been a catalyst, though. Surely the pressure on Burke who had to correspond with his constituents by Royal Mail must have been a lot easier than the pressure on Thorbjørn Jagland who has TV reporters ready to have his response in the voters’ living rooms in a couple of seconds.

So what can be done about it? If media is the catalyst (or according to some the main reason), can we somehow reform them and make them put a more responsible focus on the long term? At first thought this might make some people nod. But what if I refer to ‘media’ by the term usually used in democracy theory: ‘the free press’. Making the press behave more responsibly sounds like what every dictatorship claims it’s doing. And it’s the same point Madison makes in the same 1784 article:

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence… …It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

When we’re building democracies, we praise them under the name ‘the free press’, when our democracies are in trouble we berate them under a different name. The media themselves, on the other hand, defend themselves as being mere reflections of society. I believe we have to look for a more substantial explanation than merely blaming them for democracy’s ailments. Curbing media’s freedom to write what they want when they want will be more dangerous than the problem we’re trying to cure.

So we’re back to Jagland’s call for a “new political culture”. What does that really mean?

Let’s look at what the problem really is. As Burke said it, it will always be difficult to prioritize long term concerns over the immediate. The challenges of the present are apparent, the challenges of the future are uncertain at best. In mature democracies, the practical difference between the major political parties are rather minor and complex in nature. Those minor differences are much more easy to see in the well known short term than in the little known long term. Thus it’s a lot easier to prove you’re better than your opponent when you can show immediate results. If you focus on the long term and your opponent delievers results now, then he’s sure to beat you at the upcoming election, and your brilliant long term plan wil be of little consequence.

Political Economists call it a ‘chicken race’ or a ‘hawk-dove game’. If both keep going, they’ll crash. In our case the future for either politician will be wildly unpredictible, and politicians in general will lose influence as voters grow frustrated by the lack of clear direction. The politician who backs down first will, however lose right away to the one that keeps going. If both turn away, in our case abandons short-sightedness, the future is less certain for either, but society is sure to gain some sort of consistent long term strategy. Society would be best off if both backed down, but politicians are at a so-called Nash equilibirum: Unless they can influence the behavior of the other it will be in their interest to continue.

So the only one who can find a way out is a politician who can, by his own actions, change the behavior of his opponents. The kind of great political leader that by force of his own personality can stake out a long term course and shrug off short term attacks. The kind of leader with a so strong vision of the future that whoever wants to compete with him (or her) must compete with that vision, not trying to trip (or Tripp?) him and push him aside over issues that’ll be minor and inconsequential in the long term. We certainly won’t find him among Norwegian politicians who for example fall from grace over issues of violating the rules for renting out a farm outhouse, or Americans who keep being dismissed for their personal indiscretions. Neither will we find him among leaders who manage to stay in power by trampling freedom of speech and other liberties.

Some say that the time of great leaders is gone. I sincerely hope they’re wrong….


Sorry comments are closed for this entry