Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

The rise of demagoguery

Demagoguery politics is a manipulative approach that appeals to people’s emotions and prejudices rather than on their rational side. Demagoguery politics favours knee-jerk policy preferences that embraces short term emotional relief at the expense of rational, evidence-based policies that would better advance the long-term welfare of the nation-state.

Common methods employed by demagogues include: (1) dividing the population into an in-group and out-group, and blaming the out-group for social troubles; (2) fear mongering and intimidation; (3) lying; (4) exploiting humans’ inherent cognitive biases with logical fallacies and gross simplification; (5) promising the impossible.

Demagoguery politics has caused problems to democracies. Consider the consequences of the rule of high-profile demagogues such as Hitler’s ethnic cleansing policies, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution that was launched upon Mao call to purge bourgeois elements in society.

With the recent Brexit Vote and Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory, and several parallels in the methodology employed by involved politicians, it has showed how better policies can be side-lined by political manoeuvres. Good policies require political support to be effective. We cannot have policy reversals every other election cycle. However, the problem remains that politicians are primarily interested in attaining power, with political ethics taking a backseat. Thus, I find it timely to discuss the dichotomy of politics first vs policy first approach in governance.

On the importance of politics and the limitations of policy pragmatism

Politics involves the distribution of power and resources within a given community as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities, which in turn shapes the process which decisions are made. In democracies, politicians are primarily interested in winning elections. Without winning elections, they would not have formal powers to effect policies or to advance their agenda.

Governance is about more than just rational policy. If we live in an idealized world isolated from economic interests, political ambitions, and ideologies, then we can afford the luxury of a more rational approach to policy making. We are not. In fact, humans are not perfectly rational creatures. We face cognitive limitations. Humans are subject to numerous cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, attribution errors, self-serving bias, etc., and are susceptible to committing logical fallacies. It is impossible to expect humans to consider all policies rationally, instead, people rely on cognitive shortcuts such as dependence on emotions and dogmatism. This results in value-conflicts that are difficult to resolve and prevalent inconsideration of facts. In democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices.

Taking the example of the removal of fuel subsidies in Nigeria. The removal of fuel subsidies makes good economic sense, however, a protest movement called ‘Occupy Nigeria’ occurred. The government then had to commence new mass transit schemes to cushion the pain felt by affected groups.

So, good politics are necessary to resolve value and interest conflicts. It makes a lot of sense to anticipate the legitimate objections of opponents and find ways to give them some recognition in proposed policy solutions. Successful policies require acceptance across a broad spectrum of opinion and circumstances. If policies are perceived as simply the narrow special interests of the current political majority, they are unlikely to be effective or long-lasting.

The stories politicians tell

The nature of politics is such that the making and execution of good policies requires citizens’ faith in the government. However, relying on “pure politics” to make public policy carries equal risks.

Politicians often tell stories to shape people’s perceptions, facts and scientific evidences being secondary in importance. They rely on anecdotes and selected pieces of statistics to frame the perception of voters. Policy stories are like fairy tales, with universal themes.

For instance, the story of decline often goes like this: “things have gotten worse, that things were once better than they are now, that the current trend of affairs is insufferable. Unless this potential crisis is addressed, inevitable doom will occur”. The story of decline aims to paint a negative trend of affairs to motivate people to seize control. Here, facts are of secondary importance and perception of needs in society can be manufactured. Think of the way Apple market its products.

Politicians then tell stories of taking back control, where they pose as the heroes in the story. They offer to solve the problems that the people now perceive to exist. It goes like this: “Things are not hopeless. Let me show you how we can control and solve the situation. You have a choice and by supporting me, you are taking control of this mess.”

This pattern of political narratives exists in many countries.

In the recent U.S. presidential elections, we hear of unsubstantial claims by Donald Trump that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations are redundant and hurting businesses, that “what they are doing is a disgrace” and therefore EPA regulations should be scrapped.

In the events leading up to Brexit, we hear of deceptive claims by Nigel Farage that the UK “sends the EU £350 million a week”, this money could be used to “fund our NHS instead”. Farage later admitted that what he said was a mistake and blamed it on other Leave Campaigners.

Limitations of politics first approach

By now, it is clear that politics on its own cannot generate solutions. In a democracy, politicians main goal is to win elections, and in a political environment, there are some actors that are more influential than the others. This often leads to politicians pandering to powerful interests. An excellent example would be in the US, where campaign financing rules entrenches the influence of the rich in politics, and winner takes all system in the electoral college system led presidential candidates to focus on swing states, or congressional representatives engaging in pork barrel politics. Furthermore, politicians engaging in bad politics could exploit the cognitive biases of people prejudices, dogmatism, and short-sightedness, and informational asymmetries between the laypeople and the elites towards their political goals. Thus, creating policies that are equally bad.

Over the long run, populist but unworkable policies collapse under their own contradictions, sometimes replaced by equally ineffective policies. This precipitates further political upheavals, culminating in a wicked cycle.

Importance of policy pragmatism

Policy is what the elected politicians, analysts, and administrators are supposed to accomplish on a day to day basis as part of their jobs to maximize welfare for their people. A strong framework for rational policy making that is logical and evidence-based is required to produce good, rational, policies that maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long term.

As I would believe, short term popularity does not equate to long term popularity. It takes time for citizens to realize the long-term benefits of policies that may be unpopular in the short run. Making good policies with a long-term view sometimes requires the political will to push through unpopular policies. Despite that, good policies could still yield good political returns over the long run.

Take Singapore for example. The government had transited the language medium in all public schools to English. This had proven unpopular with the Chinese-educated. However, today, Singaporeans English proficiency had minimized barriers for Singaporeans to participate in the global economy.

In overall, politics and policies needs to work together. With politics playing the role of maintaining faith of people in policies and good policies translating political goals into effective action.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

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