Forging a Path Forward in Crisis Politics (Patrick Balke)

30 Dec

The political situation in Italy just written about by Daniel represents, as he mentioned, a common form of political struggle faced by communities and countries across the world.  He is right to point out that nuances make it hard to generalize, but it is striking to see that from Detroit to Dublin, democratic governments across the world struggle to balance popular pressures for immediate benefits and protection from changing economic forces with the long term challenges exacerbated by the ongoing financial crisis and global slowdown.  The question is how is it possible for governments to lead in the face of these competing pressures?  This is the central question governments face today, and whether they can find an answer will determine whether we continue to limp on or if we can forge a new, better path forward.

We know the short term political pressures governments face – in the United States, the Tea Party pressed for immediate government spending cuts, in Italy, Greece, Spain, Ireland, etc. popular pressure is against austerity measures and economic reforms, etc.  The general form is that there is widespread agreement that something must be done: at the very least, the financial crisis illustrated how flawed the construction of our economies have been, and how easily the whole society tears apart when even just one sector of the economy fails.  Further, there is consensus that reforms to the economy will benefit everyone in the long-run but may hurt some in the short-run. Any effort to reform entitlements, tax rates, regulation, etc. will run into this problem, and the issue of discounting the future is one that plagues almost every policy decision: we should sacrifice now, but politically, it’s a challenge to pull off. Finally, there is sharp disagreement over what must be done, i.e. what reforms are necessary, what balance to strike between protection and reform, and this problem is made worse by those who seek to take advantage of the crisis to push through their private agendas in the name of “sacrifice” and those who resist any sacrifice in the name of evading governmental overreach. 

It is from these confusing and malicious forces that the continuing crises arise.  Where almost any action is better than no action, all action is feared.  When everyone has something at stake, no one takes responsibility for the whole, everyone looks after, fears and fights for their own.  It is in this way that financial crises, such as the one that plagued the world economy, so unyielding and so all-encompassing that there is not one aspect of daily life that is not affected, break down the social compact that maintains democratic societies.  It is essentially a run on democracy: where compassion and sacrifice is needed, where everyone needs to pitch in and stake something of their own in the common interest, in these years of uncertainty, powerful interests in countries across the world have fought tooth and nail to keep what’s theirs now at the expense of what could be theirs and their children’s and their neighbors’ children’s years from now. 

Into these crises wade national leaders like Mario Monti. Facing massive economic slowdowns needing to be addressed, growing budget shortfalls grabbing headlines and market attention, and electorates that are impatient, divided, and frightened, these leaders have struggled immensely to balance political survival with political efficacy. 

How these leaders have done is a matter of opinion, though only time will tell.  The question is how can these competing forces be balanced in a way that produces the best policy? In the face of the shrill voices against change, how can these leaders press on for reform? With so much history to show that reforms can often be hijacked in the name of ideology at the expense of the common good – think IMF conditionality in the 1980s, current union busting efforts, even Hollande’s 75% tax on the income is more bark than bite– how can popular concerns be used to improve policy making, and be discerned from astroturfed opposition?

I propose that there cannot be a generalized answer to each answer, yet there are clearly some guidelines.  The best a leader can do is to foster the maximum amount of public participation through building confidence in government by open and transparent government.  It is clear that the worst of democracy, the reactionary forces resisting all change, the conspiracies, the self-interested opportunists, maintain relevancy only when public participation ebbs.  Ironically, these forces that claim to represent the people fade as the people find more and more of a voice.  But where there is a vacuum, when voter turnout shrinks or when government is least sensitive to the voice of the people, these opportunist forces flood the landscape and obfuscate the aims of government.  These forces are the Silvio Berlusconis, the Tea Parties, etc. of the world.  To counter their impact, leaders must foster wide public discussion through open dialogue with the government, to pursue an agenda with the vigor of a campaign, because as governments across history have illustrated, a la Kennedy in the 1960s and FDR during WWII, the public can and will, in the face of crisis, buy sacrifice, but only when it is backed by the passion and determination of the leadership.  Only when public participation is maximized can any governmental action truly represent the people.  And I have faith that the people of a nation, being adults that make sacrifices in their own lives and see how society works, have the courage to bear the sacrifices needed to make for a brighter future.

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