Monday, January 2, 2012

"You get the government you deserve"

We're all familiar with the phrase "you get what you pay for". Another phrase which also rings true is that people tend to get the government they deserve.

Why, for example, does David Cameron still enjoy higher personal ratings compared to other party leaders? Cameron is more popular personally than his party as a whole; with Ed Milliband, the opposite is true. For Nick Clegg and the LibDems, both are in the popularity doldrums.
This is mostly down to the psychology of British people themselves. Cameron has successfully been able to convince enough people that the mess that the government and the country is in is mostly down to people as a whole spending too much money. Whether the facts prove this, is irrelevant (the facts, from what I can see, don't support this hypothesis; the banks' bailout and government overspending combined created the problem, not the people themselves).
In other words, British people want to believe that they created the mess; that's why the government as a whole remains much more popular than would have been thought possible. Whereas in Greece the cuts have caused riots and outrage, British people's attitude is to grumble, shrug, then meekly carry on as before. Britain doesn't "do" revolution or outrage; they're too polite.
The attitude of "keep calm and carry on" has infected Britain; as a result, David Cameron's condescending attitude of "I feel your pain" goes mostly unremarked. Thatcher had a similar approach (although Cameron is no Thatcher in terms of personality); it seems people are happy to re-live the agony and the ecstasy of the Eighties. The difference, however, is that even the government admits that the "agony" of cuts and stagnation will last a lot longer than they previously said - lasting for most of the decade. Most British people, though, seem don't seem to mind; maybe they enjoy self-imposed hardship. Why that is so is another question.

Culture therefore plays a large role in the kind of government people get. The USA is another example. Why is the USA consumed with political paralysis? Why has the USA not been able to see what caused the financial crisis (a deregulated an uncontrolled banking sector), and deal with it?
This is because political orthodoxy in the USA has been ruled for the past thirty years and more by the idea that government, by definition, is bad. That's thanks to the likes of Reagan's famous quote that the nine most frightening words spoken are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" - as he also said, the government wasn't the answer to their problems; that government WAS the problem.
But before his time (and since the Depression), government had become the main provider of services to its people, including employment. Reagan smashed that, so generations since then have grown up on the thinking that "government" is almost a curse word. This is why the Republicans have become masters of manipulation; so that all problems cannot, by definition, come from the markets or the ruthlessness of corporations, but must be the fault of government interference. This is why Obama was unable to get through more than half of his programme (with the notable exception of health care reform, though this also was watered down under pressure), and why the Republicans were able to counter-intuitively blame him for the lack of recovery after the financial crisis (even though it was their party who helped to create it).
So the paralysis inside The Beltway is the result of decades of cultural in-fighting over the role of government (or more exactly, "government" versus "anti-government"), making American voters progressively more and more disillusioned with the power of politics; this has been most symbolically displayed in the reign of Barack Obama, and the guerilla tactics of the Republican party.
No wonder, then, that in 2012 the American people feel they will be choosing between a failed leader on one side, and a charlatan on the other (whoever the Republicans choose).
The American people will only get a government that that does something for them when they start believing in government.

A similar sentiment can be said of many of the former Soviet states, such as in Central Asia, and in authoritarian states in general. The circumstances of some countries are different, and can depend on culture as well. In the Middle East, it was long assumed by many historians and theorists that authoritarian government was "natural" for Arabs as they would never understand the concept of democracy. 2011 proved that theory wrong, however: Arabs across the region have shown that if they fight for freedom, it can be achieved. "Freedom" is not a Western luxury.
The regions with the highest number of authoritarian governments include Africa and the former Soviet Union. These are also countries with some of the highest levels of corruption in the world; and that is not coincidence.
Corruption is a cultural trait. Georgia was until recent years also extremely corrupt, until the people decided they had had enough and voted in someone to do something about it; President Saakashvili, although he has lost support since then for other reasons, at least made genuine efforts to get rid of the endemic police corruption, with immediate positive results. Georgia now has much lower levels of corruption.
This contrasts with many other former Soviet states, where corruption so permeates all parts of life it is difficult for people to imagine doing things any other way. Here, corruption is a cultural norm. It has become so because people's levels of distrust in government and each other are, in some countries in particular, so neurotic that it renders any thought of changing the form of government unthinkable. And unthinkable because people's psychology of human nature is so negative that they have become resigned to their fate; a nation's people trapped in a slow sinking quicksand. That is why they have been reduced to deception and official thievery to survive.
This state of affairs is the other end of the spectrum to the optimism of Barack Obama: "Yes, we can". To people in some of the former Soviet states, or abysmally-corrupt regimes in Africa, they only think "No, we can't".
Why do they think they can't? Because their morale and sense of belief in themselves or each other is so low that they think even if they provoke change, the "change" will quickly revert to the situation as it was already, because they believe that anybody else would behave in the same, corrupt way.
If people in states like these start believing in themselves and each other, as those in the Arab world did, then they can make the positive change. If not, then they have only themselves to blame.

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