Saturday, April 12, 2008

Politics for the common good

According to the Democrat sponsored strategy think tank, Common Good Strategies much of what passes for debate and argument in today's world revolves around the politics of division and personal destruction. The American columnist, EJ Dionne in his book Why Americans Hate Politics argues that one of the main reasons for people being turned off politics is because it (political debate) seems irrelevant to them, they feel that they are being manipulated because they are always being asked to make false choices: you're either staunchly religious or vehemently secular, pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, a progressive or a dinosaur. The truth is, of course, that most people don't think like this, most people don't live their lives in this way, and most people long for a politics where we have genuine arguments, vigorous disagreements, where we don't claim to have a monopoly on what is right or wrong, where we don't demonise our political opponents. Most people want their politicians to engage in what Barack Obama has called a "fair-minded" approach to politics; politics that understands that truth and certainty are not the same thing.
Being "fair-minded" is, it could be argued, a philosophical approach to politics. It is a philosophical approach that ultimately has as its goal the pursuit of the common good. Common good politics is the politics of empowerment; it is the politics that espouses cooperation not competition, the hand up and not just the hand out. The uncomfortable truth is however, that rather than some broad common good philosophy it has been what might be called an "uncommon-good", a rigid ideological approach to politics that has dominated the political landscape in the US and Europe over the past fifty years.

Ideologues like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher believed that nations were best served by ensuring that the maximum concentration of wealth and power was in the hands of the right people. Whilst those that argued for the common good promoted the need for mutual responsibility, they were opposed by those that believed that in large measure people made their own luck, that there was no such thing as society. The belief that collective endeavour is both a strength and a virtue, that a problem shared is a problem partly solved was countered by often unilateral and isolationist policies - particularly in terms of trade and immigration.

Those who adopt the "fair-minded" and common good approach to politics tend to believe that debate should be dominated by evidence and argument; that it is political philosophers that we need to embrace and political ideologues that we need to be wary of. Having a political philosophy generally pushes you in a certain direction or another and encourages you to engage in discussion and argument, you might even end up making a principled agreement with someone with a different philosophical approach. However, if you have adapted an ideological approach to politics then you already have your mind made up. You know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to resort to vague assertions and personal attacks on your opponents.

Perhaps what we really need are more philosopher politicians who will devise policies that promote equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive communities. Is it not obvious that in increasingly multi-cultural, multi-faith societies we need an approach to politics that celebrates partisan differences but is humble enough to recognise that adherence to a particular ideology can be both debilitating and divisive?

The truth then is that progressive politics must also be "fair-minded politics."


Anonymous said...

And if other politicians "vigorously disagree" against these policies?

wonkotsane said...

Common Good? Is that like Common Purpose, much favoured by British government departments, where "political empowerment" is offered to "business leaders" so they can have the influence over how the country is run that normal voters don't get?