Politics and Polemics


In my first blog I reflected (in Finnish) on the pitfalls of polemics in the media, set off by a rather trivial personal incident. For the polemist the first and foremost aim is to win the war of words. This provokes retaliation in kind and the outcome is intellectual shipwreck ̶ truth is sinking out of sight.

Politics and politicians are generally detested in democratic societies. This is a deplorable and dangerous condition. Lack of trust in our elected representatives strikes at the very core of democratic decision making. The United States, for instance, seems to sink ever deeper in a swamp of mutual recrimination. Why?

The increase in size of democratic communities is the most obvious reason. In democracies, distrust grows with distance whereas dictators enjoy the mystic aura of distant, invincible power. More often than not, democratic leaders are stripped of authority by the ravenous media. Every misstep and mishap, be it personal or political, is divulged and gloated over.

The frenzy is fed by the increasing self-conceit of modern man. Respect for authority has been replaced by democratic hubris. Everyman has become the measure of all things and the public polls are distorting political decisions. The adulation of public opinion only increases the contempt for the spineless politicians. They are perceived as followers, not leaders.

In this querulous atmosphere, polemical discourse carries the day. The quest for truth, or even for an equitable solution, is thrown to the winds. Unbridled self-interest, envy, spite, prejudice ­̶ the collected meanness of human nature is mobilized to crush the opponents.

Democratic fundamentalists do not query this state of affairs. The will of the people should prevail, full stop. Alas, direct democracy works only in small communities. Referendums and various kinds of citizen’s initiatives can provide room for “participatory” democracy, but by and large we must rely on on our elected representatives.

Compromise is the lifeblood of democracy. Nobody is ever fully satisfied and everybody has to give in on personal advantage or a pet idea. Compromise involves a complex give-and-take in order to minimize the pain and maximize the gain. This can only be achieved be representatives, who are trusted by the electorate and can take responsibility for the necessary concessions.

Politics can be perceived as a zero-sum game but its mission is to secure and promote societal plus-sum play. To bridge our myriad differences of opinion, we must draw on the available funds of trust capital. Vicious polemics poisons the very source of good will, the base of democratic cooperation.

In the last instance the citizens are responsible and in charge. The sovereign people is free to make mistakes. But if the people fails to learn, the rebuff will be repeated. Politics can overcome the temptations of zero-sum play only if a majority of votes fall to upright candidates.

A democracy has the politicians and the policies it deserves.

PS: In Finland a populist party, The Basic Finns (perussuomalaiset), has seen a spectacular rise in support to over 17%. It draws on all the diverse resentments and prejudices of the population. For a populist movement the party is rather moderate. Even so, one shudders when recalling the fascist marches against unemployment, foreign elements, international conspiracies, capitalists and ineffectual politicians.

For a broader view see Democratic Learning and Unlearning.