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FRONT PORCH: The delusions of political power

THOSE entranced by political power alternately amuse, frustrate, perplex and infuriate. Such power is similar to a dangerous drug like heroin. It induces euphoria and exhilaration. It quickly becomes addictive. Recall the expression: “Why they can’t give up that power?”

Some will do all manner of things, licit and illicit, to sustain the high. Power, like narcotics, often causes politicians to lose certain inhibitions and to do the stupidest, dumbest, and most reckless things, which make observers scratch their heads.

In Humankind: A Hopeful History, historian and writer, Rutger Bergmam, offers insights on the psychology of power: “Power appears to work like an anaesthetic that makes you insensate to other people. … The more I found out about … power, the more I understood that power is like a drug – one with a catalogue of side effects.”

These side effects, such as extreme narcissism and arrogance, promote delusional thinking, feelings of superiority, and the paradox of a sense of invulnerability nestled aside outsized insecurities. Some with power actually look and act deranged and unhinged.

Observe a new prime minister. He becomes convinced that it was his campaign cum political communications brilliance and his personal appeal that brought his party to power.

Campaigns and appealing leaders do make a difference. However, we know that for the most part, incumbent leaders and parties in The Bahamas tend to lose office, resulting in the opposition coming to power.

It is easier for voters to find reasons to reject an incumbent government. Oppositions are typically recipients of this disappointment and disavowal of a sitting government.

The best oppositions perform a sort of political jujitsu, utilising the weight and energy of the perceived strengths and actions of a government to topple those in power. Most governments, especially midway through their term, become increasingly unpopular.

It is an amusing irony when those who are gaining in unpopularity become even smugger, more self-satisfied, increasingly aloof, and at times complacent, believing their own propaganda as to how well they are supposedly doing. They truly cannot see beyond their bubbled comfort zones of delusion.

Name a sitting a prime minister in the last two decades or so who thought they were going to lose an upcoming general election. Despite internal polling and signs of impending defeat, they are convinced that victory cometh in the morning.

Party supporters and advisers, many of whom are dependent on the patronage of the prime minister, tend to blow smoke in certain anatomical directions. They endlessly gush at how wonderful and well he is doing.

Those who suggest how well a prime minister or leader is doing, is typically someone benefitting from patronage or a hardcore party supporter.

Civil servants are courteous and fawning, even as they are leaking damaging information to the media and opposition parties. Children, who cannot vote, offer an adoring backdrop to prime ministerial special events.

One telltale sign that a government may be in trouble is when the media pack begins to grumble and turn. The media is very sensitive to real and perceived slights and attacks. Journalists and editors are genuinely especially exercised by a lack of transparency and accountability.

In opposition, parties beat their chests as to how democratic and accountable they will be in office. Once in office, “a veil of secrecy” often descends, with ministers acting like unaccountable potentates who do not have to answer to the public, parliament and the media.

Bergman explored that psychology that befalls many politicians, including those here at home in both major parties.

“It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies … like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than the average, they … are less attentive to other people and less interested in others’ perspectives.

“They’re also more shameless, often failing to manifest the one facial phenomenon that makes human beings unique among primates. They don’t blush.”

He continues: “One of the effects of power, myriad studies show, is that it makes you see others in a negative light. Once you arrive at the top, there’s less of an impetus to see things from other perspectives.

“There’s no imperative for empathy, because anyone you find irrational or irritating can simply be ignored, sanctioned, locked up, or worse. Powerful people don’t have to justify their actions and therefore can have a blinkered view.”

Journalists relish puncturing such blinkered mindsets. Journalists also have favourites and biases. Look at some editorials, which purport to be non-biased, and you are able to see through the language and tone of the lead, the personal and entrenched animus some editors have toward certain politicians.

When those with such biases become increasingly more critical of those to whom they once gave a sort of pass at times, those in power should take notice.

When they feel snubbed or dissed, some in the media, including certain celebrity journalists, who are often thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of their commentary and journalism, unleash unholy hell on prime ministers and parties.

Never mind the talk from many journalists at home and abroad that they are mostly observers reporting the news. Many journalists love power. They love being next to power. They love the power they have to affect events. Many in the Fourth Estate see themselves as power players, no matter who is in office.

Though social media has become even more influential in influencing opinion and attitudes, the newspapers and broadcast stations remain influential as gatekeepers. Those leaders who lose media influence become more susceptible to political attacks and a growing mood of discomfort and anger in the country.

When the media swing, it is often, though not always, a bellwether of changing opinions and a deteriorating public mood and moodiness. Moreover, when the media perceive that government communications is too slick, such communications is increasingly dismissed and regarded as mere saccharine-like spin.

There remains a stubborn and wrongheaded conceit that government and political communications is a sort of savior for prime ministers and politicians. Some believe that communications is a substitute for policy and that speechwriters are supposed to craft policy.

Successive prime ministers continue to confuse policy formulation and speechwriting. A number of them still do not appreciate the kind of mindset and personnel needed for both a competent policy unit and communications department.

In the United Kingdom, Peter Mandelson was known as a communications and campaign guru. He served as Labour’s director of communications from 1985 to 1990. He served for a period as part of a triumvirate of power with former Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Mandelson helped to rebrand the party as New Labour, which was critical in bringing the party to power in 1997 after bitter defeats and many years in the wilderness.

“He was one of the first to whom the term ‘spin doctor’ was applied and gained the nickname ‘the Prince of Darkness’ because of his ‘ruthlessness’ and ‘media savvy’.”

A communications and public relations expert, Mandelson understood the role and limits of both. He disdained the amateurish and uninformed view that it is mostly communications that moves an electorate or sustains a government in office.

He famously quipped: “Wonderful communications can only take you so far, it’s your policies that take you past the winning post!” Such policy includes how a government actually governs and performs.

No amount of PR can convince a family dealing with high costs that things are getting better. When voters see politicians amassing contracts and political goodies for themselves, no amount of spin will dispel their discontent.

People vote based on their individual circumstances and not on how many tourists are coming or how much the economy is supposedly growing. When Hubert Ingraham won reelection in 1997, there was a palpable sense that “all boats were rising” and that the country was modernising at a quickened pace.

One of the problems President Joe Biden is confronting is that despite the US economy doing generally well, many people are still anxious and being affected by inflation. Communications may help Biden as the fall general election nears. But communications alone will not win an election.

The delusions of power are ancient. It is the rare and the wise modern Bahamian politician who appreciates these delusions and the need for restraint.

While voters are amused by the hubris and sometimes stupidity of our leaders, while reveling in their eventual fall from power, it is these very same voters and the country that pays the ultimate price for the delusions of political power.

Comments

Porcupine 1 month ago

Hey Simon,

You say, "While voters are amused by the hubris and sometimes stupidity of our leaders, while reveling in their eventual fall from power, it is these very same voters and the country that pays the ultimate price for the delusions of political power."

Perhaps, but ultimately, once armed with this same knowledge, we would treat these politicians in the same way we treat those high on narcotics. If we mind Lord Acton's observation that "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.", we would couch understanding of politicians actions with the need to limit and decentralize power, along the lines of our supposedly democratic values. We have already agreed that most people have personal difficulty handling power. We accept this as a given. This should be our starting point. Our goal in a post modern society should be to deconstruct power bases. All. Political, religious, economic. All power bases must fall. This is not in contradiction to freedom and fairness, but as a tangible solution to what is tacitly agreed to in your editorial.

And dear Simon, please elaborate further on "Party supporters and advisers, many of whom are dependent on the patronage of the prime minister, tend to blow smoke in certain anatomical directions." As these anatomical directions increase in size year after year, is there a point at which this smoke permeates the entire area rendering the arse unable to distinguish the arse from a hole in the ground? The answer to the perennial question of what to do about the human weakness and seemingly ubiquitous problem of not being able to handle power seems to be to seriously, significantly and continuously breaking down power structures, disallowing most of us who are thus affected by this human frailty even the opportunity to become characterized by the failings you so aptly describe above. This must be an ongoing community effort, as history has shown the difficulty of shaking the euphoria of this elixir on one's own. Some days Simon, the blown smoke is so thick that it is near impossible to distinguish arses from arses. And yes, even in opposition, certain anatomical directions tend to coagulate, giving a perfectly reasonable and well understood thesis for your editorial.

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