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The Road to Issue-Based Politics is Very, Very Short

Antonio Lambino's picture

Many years back, a reporter asked a respected senator running for reelection in the Philippines why he remained in the opposition when most members of congress had joined the president’s party.  The answer he gave was memorable: “I stay with the opposition because I believe our country’s party system needs to be strengthened.”

I’m not sure what he meant exactly, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the role of ideology in politics.  As we know, dominant political parties in the developing world are deeply deficient in formulating and advocating coherent policy positions.  There are, of course, notable examples of ideologically grounded parties that have risen to prominence in Argentina, India, and South Africa.  But these are relatively rare occurrences.

In developing countries, it seems that issue-based politics is overwhelmed by personality and patronage.  This means that in any of these contexts, the dominant political party might very well be called what I am told Nigerians refer to as AGIP, or “Any Government in Power.”  The industrialized countries of the West are certainly not exempt from personality and character issues figuring prominently in democratic selection processes.  A few examples immediately come to mind from among today’s current crop of charismatic world leaders.  But a least common denominator remains: their policy positions tend to orbit around ideological centers of gravity.

In the developed world, the social sciences have demonstrated that (now, take a deep breath) citizens often use heuristics or “mental shortcuts” which are based on “schema” or “mental maps” to make sense of politics.  Essentially, we use a combination of these shortcuts and maps to make inferences as regards what pieces of information hang well together.  For example, in the U.S. context, one could often rightly assume that a Republican governor would favor smaller government, laissez faire economics, and conservative social policies.  There are exceptions, to be sure.  But with just a little more information, citizens can recognize issue positions that defy expectations and feed that knowledge into their own personal decision-making processes.  In the applied study of political communication, these mental shortcuts and maps, at their best, help citizens make sense of political information gluts whenever they choose to be attentive.  At their worst, they lead to inaccurate inferences and hasty generalizations.  Insofar as citizens are provided enough access to information to periodically make mental course corrections, I believe the best outweighs the worst.

It seems reasonable to argue that in many developing countries, a different set of mental maps and shortcuts are salient.  Perhaps we’ll find maps of social and political identities with lines drawn depicting the shortest and most promising routes to multiple patron-client relationships.  This is, of course, mere speculation.  The point is that there are variations in how these concepts apply in different places.  And it would be wrongheaded to forcibly juxtapose mental maps suited for one context onto another location.

All that said, the reality in developing countries means it's more difficult to have grounded debates that citizens can use to evaluate party platforms and government performance.  Corollary to this, citizen demand for accountability is reduced to counting public goods and bads, not evaluating the beliefs and policies that produce them.  Leaders should certainly be held accountable for efficient and effective governance, or the lack thereof, but they should also be evaluated based on their fundamental views on distributive justice.

Photo credit: Flickr user stephenphampshire


Interesting piece; well argued. But I'm not sure that there is such a difference between so-called developed and developing countries in terms of the incentives that lead people to support particular parties or groups. In most of the developed world, the ideologogical centres of gravity (as you elegantly describe them) have long since lost their saliency as parties compete for the middle ground. And, as we are seeing today in the UK, people tend to vote on pocket book issues (what does this mean for me and my family?) rather than on issues of 'redistributive justice'.

Submitted by Jane on
Years ago, my father was involved in state politics (in the USA). He ran for the State Senate, which had 40 members, and he was part of a distinct minority party. I was campaigning with him, and someone asked him "Why should I vote for you? You will not be [in the majority party] so we won't have any influence." He said, "Right now, the [minority party] has only 6 members, short of the 7 needed to ensure a roll call vote is taken. This means that your legislature does not need to go on record about how it votes. A stronger opposition - if we can just get one more member - will be able to demand a roll call vote. This is one step towards better government." The other big issue was that the majority party, generally driven by the special interests of the big city, demanded loyalty from our local Senator, even against the interests of the small towns in this district. Sadly, however, I cannot say that all of the politicians in my home state were as honest as my father! I agree with the first commentator that there is not a lot of difference among countries in the political incentives. At the end of the day, it is only the strength of democratic institutions (including a free press) and citizens demanding their rights that institutes any accountability.

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