Negative Politics

Carrying Primary Scars Into the General Election – New York Times

This interesting little article in today’s New York Times reminded me of why I find politics on both sides of the border so tedious. Seems that for years now the candidates have girded themselves and fought it out before the electorate not in terms of who has the best ideas for the country but who can sling the most mud and say the nastiest things about their opponent. Makes me think of these ‘reality’ shows where one player tries to humiliate the other. Guess this is where we seem to end up — in my mind it casts a very dark pall over our potential survival.

Directing a country (or even a company) is not an easy task. There is an infinity of alternatives and tradeoffs to be weighed and balanced. Systems engineering, a long fascination of mine, seeks to find paths through the complexity for simple cases like space missions or even plant locations. But for the far more complex issues of helping society (yes, all of us!) survive and (perhaps) thrive there just isn’t any science, just a lot of opinions. And even those are further obscured by other factors — market economics are touted as the universal Saviour to many problems. The interesting thing is that there is some evidence that it doesn’t always work — but the economic establishment makes it very difficult for these studies to get out. My favorite example of this is the use of markets to provide electricity, despite the history leading back to Enron (remember those guys?) and the disasters this has facilitated in many places — California, anyone? And so it goes.

So here we have it — an open process where candidates slug it out, not so much on the quality of their ideas (and how would we judge?) but by the quantity and quality of their mud slinging. And we seem to give extra points to the nastiest! And this persists after the elections. I don’t know about anybody else but I am absolutely sick of old problems being dredged up with much fanfare by the current Canadian government as further examples of how their opponents were bad. Somehow it seems like this is just one attempt after another to cover up their dearth of ideas as to how to deal with today’s complexities. So this gets left to some future government to handle or perhaps is solved (or not) by the private sector — or little by little the country gets poorer and uglier and opportunities just slip away.

The US is no better. The world is a complex place with many equally valid views and priorities overlapping and tangling. The last few years seem to have demonstrated what a mess can be created by charging out with ‘my mind is made up, do not confuse me with facts’. Internally all the patient work by the Bush and Clinton administrations to dismantle the protective legislation built up over the years and the short-sighted efforts by corporations to move jobs offshore have the country sliding towards deep recession. Its great that goods are cheaper but so what if the folks who want to buy don’t have jobs? And political partisanship, don’t get me started! I am sure Joe Stalin and Adolph Hitler appreciated the pressures towards political monculture — gasp, dont say anything to make the leader unhappy! Somehow I do not see how any of this will lead to better decisions being made by anyone.

A long time ago, President Lincoln picked his cabinet from people who disagreed with him. I think we have forgotten the fundamental wisdom of that choice. But here we are, looking at the spectacle of political processes that choose leaders based not on their ability to work with others and navigate the landscape of ideas but on their nastiness, obstinacy and persistence in trying to get their way regardless of the costs. I fear for our future.

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