Promising more than can be delivered
March 18, 2001
Promising more than can be delivered
Politicians - especially those in Third World countries - have to be supreme optimists, otherwise they would hardly get out of bed in the morning to face the harsh realities that await them. I imagine they can only work in a constant state of false euphoria.
This innate optimism which has no basis in fact must be a great strength in maintaining their own morale and allowing them to continue functioning long after more normal people would have despaired. This super optimism gives them a resilience denied to us lesser mortals. It is an X-factor secreted in their adrenalin glands which enables them to respond to every new disaster with increased certainty that all will be well in the future and elevate every little gain into a major triumph. It is an enviable characteristic.
However, the optimism of politicians can cause trouble. It commonly raises expectations which are impossible to fulfil and the end result is a disillusioned people left with little faith in their political representatives.
Politicians get so accustomed to looking on the bright side of things that the glare blinds them to reality. Making mountains of achievement out of mice-like items of good news becomes a laughably compulsive habit. And because it is laughable people not unnaturally laugh - but it soon becomes a bitterly disillusioned laugh.
The fixing of a few hundred yards of damaged sea defence is acclaimed while the seawall along its entire length slowly but surely crumbles. A hundred new school buildings are opened with fanfare and cut ribbons but where are the qualified teachers to fill them? The small achievements activate the politician's X-factor, the deeper problems ruin the rest of us.
Politicians in opposition are of course no better. They get accustomed to making the absurd claim that if they get their chance all will be well. They equate removal of those in power with removal of the problems that exist. It sounds presumptuous and even stupid but it is a simple fact of political life. The X-factor in opposition politicians assures them that they are the solution. They even get hurt when the suggestion is made that this is not likely to be so.
We have been in the throes of a hard fought election campaign, now at an end, so naturally the X-factor has been in a highly activated state in all politicians. We should make every allowance for this. Beyond election day reality will set in for all of us and we must deal with it.
There is a magnificent history of the French Revolution called Citizens by Simon Schama, Professor of History at Harvard, which all should read. Among the many wonders of this book is how well the author conveys the feeling of glorious excitement released by the overthrow of the old, hidebound authoritarian regime but also how clearly the author assesses the souring of the euphoria as excited expectations quickly give way to resentful disillusionment. One of the more clear-sighted of the French revolutionaries, the Comte de Mirabeau, soon recognized what was happening and expressed in the National Assembly a truth which all politicians prone to incontinent rhetoric might remember.
"The people", Mirabeau said not long after the storming of the Bastille, "have been promised more than they should have been promised; they have been given hopes that it will be impossible to realize; they have been allowed to shake off a yoke which it will be impossible to restore and even if there should be fine retrenchments and economies .... the expenses of the new regime will actually be higher than the old, and in the last analysis the people will judge the revolution by this fact alone - does it take more or less money? Are they better off?. Do they have more work? And is that work better paid?"
It is easy to criticise the ill-founded and dangerous optimism of politicians and their X-factored propensity to promise more than they can deliver. But I admit it is hard, especially in a poor country where spirits need to be lifted, to suggest what might take its place. I keep thinking, however, of Vaclav Havel's certainty even in his country Czechoslovakia's darkest time, when he himself was in prison, that "to live in truth" was the only way for all his countrymen. And the truth was not to be contained in elaborate, X-factored manifestos promising the solution of all problems and heaven on earth in no time at all. No, the truth for him was, as I suggest it will be for us, a much more muddled, uncertain, anxious, troubled business - but it will be the truth and therefore it will inspire hope, not disillusion and strength, not despair. It will be "a real, everyday, sometimes unsuccessful struggle for a better life here and now."
"The political and structural systems that life discovers
for itself will clearly always be - for some time to come,
at least - limited, halfway, unsatisfying and polluted by
debilitating tactics. It cannot be otherwise, and we must expect this and not be demoralized by it. It is of great importance that the main thing - the everyday, thankless and never ending struggle of human beings to live more freely, truthfully and in quiet dignity - never imposes any limits on itself, never is half-hearted, inconsistent, never traps itself in political tactics, speculating on the outcome of its actions or entertaining fantasies about the future."
In the purity, in the persistence, of such a struggle there is no room for outrageous optimism or falsely elevated hopes but in it lies the best chance of living in dignity with some promise of a better life for all of us - whoever wins the election tomorrow.