God, but it’s great to win! It’s euphoric: a hormonal high that justifies all the effort, the discipline, pain and calculation that goes into achieving… and the greater the pain, the worthier the win.
The publicity, respect, new friends and opportunities, accompanied perhaps by wealth and power, re-brand our identity.
Yes, success also has its hazards. It can download new responsibilities and unexpected obligations. It affirms the priorities effort and focus that led to the success; it can also affirm any mistakes that were in the mix. It can bring new temptations and distance a winner from nurturing relationships of the past. Success can also lock into place a punishing need to keep winning… a one-time winner can quickly lose the lustre.
In a democracy, where people “fight” for electoral “victory” and the laurels of governance and have to face that contest for re-election time and time again, strategies for re-election necessarily kick in the moment a politician takes that coveted seat.
It’s good and necessary that those who govern be accountable to those who consent to be governed. But obtaining that consent can invite the deployment of devices that are more apparent than real. Dumbing things down to self-evident slogans, for example, can side-step a lot of complicated rationale. Clothes and charisma can hide shortcomings. Announcing “fresh” crises can divert an electorate, particularly if the crises can be blamed on others and/or easily solved. Self-promotion and the power of the party influence perceptions of personal effectiveness; the immediacy of “good” outcomes can be persuasive. But initiatives that are slow to yield returns offer windfall kudos for one’s successor.
Addressing issues of complexity or long-term social change can leave an electorate wondering what the hell you’re up to: keep it simple, keep it quick. Attention spans in contemporary culture are short and readily re-directed. Some issues, therefore, are best kept in the background. Politicians are criticised for “spin” but there may be no alternative. No politician can do everything, be everywhere, or fully satisfy everybody. It’s a high-risk occupation… ignore the wrong issues and any one of them can blow up in your face; focus on the wrong issue and you’ll be accused of ignoring “real” problems.
And, the more complicated societies become, the harder it gets to please most of the people most of the time. Any opportunity to do so will be snatched up before the opposition gets hold of it. Issues that deny opponents a popular advantage are pretty sure to be pushed into the spotlight, whether or not they’re particularly significant.
And the difficulties of evaluating vast amounts of information make decision-making tricky. Few people have the time, training and expertise, or the patience, to wade discerningly through, for example, the 111 million hits I get when I Google “climate change”. And that’s before I start getting into the real science behind the issue. Information flows have become such torrents of confusion that most people get bored and go away.
So governments tend to crowd their concerns around a few fetishistic issues that can be illustrated by way of clear, vivid personal impacts. So “health services” gets presented as wait times, cures for cancer or pandemics like ‘flu or HIV viruses; “the economy” is reduced to sets of indicators like share market indices, unemployment rates and GDP; “crime and security” to things like “crackdowns” (longer prison sentences), crime rates, police and military budgets and interminably repeated rhetoric about the hair-raising threats we face from terrorists abroad and “youth crime” at home. And this makes life easy for a nation’s lazy or under-resourced media: all that readily accessible chatter.
Within all of this the nature of “success” bears examination: competitive success and the psychology of winning… and the social implications of winning in a competitive society. By definition, the least competitive are destined to be losers. Will they also be of the least concern, the least listened to?
In most contexts, one winner will be surrounded by a field of losers. And, for a winner, being well ahead of all those losers in the distance is comforting. Yet “losers” in the game of acquiring power and money nevertheless make many necessary contributions to society and its sustainability.
Power and money, removed from social contexts, are worthless… but how concerned for the “losers” that sustain his or her community can a “winner” really afford to become?
What are the reciprocities? Should there be reciprocities? What are the privileges and responsibilities of winning? What constitute the reasonable expectations of “losers”? Can good ideas, good people and wider arrays of choice, better solutions and greater hope be left to die in chasms between the rival collectivities of party politics?
All of these things are, of course, in fact worked out, in a sort of a way, in the to and fro flux of government action and inaction, prioritisation and policy formation, most of it implicitly. But, as an encouragement to raise these questions more explicitly… let me offer several thought experiments:
1. Consider is the high-ranked notion of “efficiency”. What would “efficient” government look like? Efficiency calls for predictability and reliability and, in real life, efficiency can be over-rated. A highly efficient government would have to micro-manage our every inclination… it would be an excruciating, dystopian dictatorship by experts and cost accountants. So perhaps we should call for the formation of a Bureau of Inefficiency to modulate the level of efficiency in our society. If things get too regimented, it would be empowered to introduce new reporting standards and evaluation procedures, overstaff top performing offices, restructure core functions, pass out caffeinated alcopops at lunchtime and launch viral attacks on the databases. In extreme cases, it should be empowered to contract the French civil service to conduct a performance review.
2. THEN there is, in any society, “the last guy”. I don’t believe anyone chooses to be out of work, drug-addicted, poor, illiterate, scorned, banged up in jail, vulnerable, homeless or embroiled in pointless violence. Rather, I think life’s often unfair and we’re far too casual about preventing or redressing the inequities… and it’s our community’s good health that suffers, hurting us all. I recall an old Arlo Guthrie monologue that’s very funny in a serious sort of a way. It includes the following: “You know, you have a bad time of it, and you always have a friend who says ‘Hey man, you ain’t got it that bad. Look at that guy.’ And you look at that guy, and he’s got it worse than you. And it makes you feel better that there’s somebody that’s got it worse than you. But think of the last guy. For one minute, think of the last guy. Nobody’s got it worse than that guy.”
So, just imagine: what if, instead if evaluating a government’s performance by sets of economic data and policy implementation, broken election “promises” and screeds of social statistics, the whole reckoning was based on just one measure: the health, welfare and happiness of one person… the “last guy”. If, through the structural workings of the state, the “last guy” was feeling better about life, everyone better off than the “last guy” would also, in all likelihood, also be better off or happier. Imagine, every New Year’s Eve… an in-depth interview on national television with the “last guy”.
A first step on the road towards this might be to pay politicians the median wage (whatever it is), ban lobbyists and toughen up penalties for corruption.
3. How about the issue of democratic representation? In the western tradition, we usually appeal to the blatantly elitist Athenian model. In the Samoan matai system, all male heads of families also sat in on decision making at the fono, or assembly, as of right, rather than as the result of election. And decision-making in the fono is by consensus. Then, in the decentralised federation of the Haudenosaunee democracy of North America, women were granted a bit more respect. So there’ve been attempts in several cultures to get it right. But, even where things have moved beyond the majority-rule principle of the “Westminster” system to consensus decision-making, and despite attempts to improve representation by way of various forms of proportional voting, it’s always stopped short of actually trusting each other to get it right.
So… how about representation by random selection? It’s good enough for jury service, and what is Parliament but a big jury? “Called up” for parliamentary duty you’d face, say, a five-year term at the “helm” as a parliamentary panellist; you’d get a living income and reasonable expenses, job protection while you’re “away” and rehabilitative assistance afterwards. Each year, a fifth of the representatives would be chosen, given a quick orientation course, and begin their terms of service; and the longest serving fifth would be retired to resume their lives as ordinary citizens. In between, there’d be a nice flow, enough for continuity’s sake, and, although parliamentary panellists would pick up influence along with experience, they’d be out the door before lobbyists could completely corrupt them totally or the power trip gave them too many ruinously dangerous ideas. Some panellists would bring wonderful ideas for reform with them, and be partial to wide-ranging views in the communities that their terms of appointment required them to serve. But, best of all, they’d be genuinely “representative”. Some lazy, stupid people would be bound to get into the net… and that would change things?
THE real reason I brought you here …
is to suggest that the most robust safeguard we losers can offer our democratic cabinets of political winners is critique.
We should be constantly agitating, not on our own behalf for petty advantages and trivial tax cuts, but especially and most vehemently wherever we see failures of democratic principle or natural justice, or impartiality, and ant endangerment to the land and its resources… things, in other words, that involve risks of damage that’s not readily be undone.
The eyes of an elected politician can seldom focus on anything more than a few years distant; the winner sees the next challenge, and has to understand it in personal terms. We losers are less bound by the detail and proximity of all that. We can vote people into power then get on with framing longer-term, bigger views… grander , worthier views to do with the kinds of experience that are going to be available to the generations of our grandchildren, and their children after them.
It was a high-powered oil company executive who introduced me to this view of politics, in the course of an interview for a book I’d been commissioned to write. He was a company-trained strategist who referred to the parliamentarians and cabinet ministers a couple of times as “here-today, gone-tomorrow bunnies”.
He told me that his company’s approach was keep its main objectives straightforward and consistent. And to work to a 20-year plan. The Chinese were successful, he said, because they took a much longer-term view of things than countries in the West. The idea, he said, was to keep a succession of current, glossy, politically attractive “big proposals” on the appropriate cabinet ministers’ desks. Sooner or later, they’d be faced with circumstances that called for a persuasive response and, if your proposal was on top of the pile and the best looking, the bunnies would be bound to pick it up in their panic.
Anyway, it wasn’t necessary for a government to always do what you wanted — the critical need was for decision-making to move forward. With laws in place, his company could work to its own advantage within the terms of whatever came down. “It’s like sailing a yacht,” he told me. “If there’s a wind, you make way; if not, you go nowhere.”
His company and others, he said, had helped several countries — he mentioned Indonesia — draft environmental protection legislation because, if they then complied and things still went wrong, the solution would be to tighten to legislation.
And, regularly, his company offered tactfully worded appraisals of government policy and its “public” impacts.
He was describing an adversarial relationship between his company and the countries it worked in… very profitably.
And I’d suggest that we losers can learn from that sort of bunny-baiting approach to government — and make it more thoroughly “our” government — by keeping our main objectives as straightforward and consistent as demands for “justice, honesty and good government”. And, if we’re looking towards the welfare of our grandchildren, we can work to a 20-year plan too. In fact, we could make that a 30-year plan.
Along the way, we keep throwing ideas at the “ bunnies”, we persistently offer our tactfully worded critiques, and we push them to make substantive decisions that let us make our communities happier, healthier, friendlier and more satisfying, interesting places to inhabit — just as the oil companies have to engineer their own massive returns, we can do “compliance”… then it’s up to us to furnish our living space with the qualities of life we seek.
Even the “last guy” should benefit from that.