Why is it so much harder to talk about politics than about policies?

I’ve been running into some resistance recently in writing about politics, and some interesting patterns are starting to emerge.vote for nobody

Firstly, when I sent round a draft piece on the politics and policies of national redistribution (i.e. when you look at the countries who have reduced inequality, what did they do and what were the politics that led to them doing it?) the subtext from a number of commentators in the countries concerned was ‘love the policies, but could you not talk about the politics please?’

They felt that talking about politics and political players (whether leaders or movements), especially in a positive way (Government of X has done brilliantly on Y), could be politically compromising, or just felt anxious about being seen as naive, or being denounced by the radicals. Oppositionalism (all politicians are venal, all leaders betray, any progress is purely a grudging response to overwhelming public pressure from below) seems much easier (see right). If politics is mentioned at all, it’s just through the cop-out of lamenting the lack of political will (which all too often means telling politicians to do things that will get them chucked out of power or shot, and then condemning them when they refuse).

Then I sent the outline for my book on How Change Happens to my friend Ha-Joon Chang. Ha-Joon says Koreans make a point of telling it like it is, with no frills or flattery (like the Dutch, only more so), and he certainly sets an example. Isn’t writing a book about how change happens that is largely aimed at activists incredibly elitist? What would it say to the much greater number of people who are not activist? Ouch.

Ha Joon is an economist who writes for a mass audience, brilliantly and with a fantastic knack for making subtle economic arguments accessible. And he hardly ever writes about politics – in the sense of what were the political alignments that allowed countries like his native Korea to introduce industrial policy, move up the value chain, avoid being captured by vested interests etc. I’ve asked him about this, and he says he prefers to leave that to others.

Who wants a seat at the table?
Who wants a seat at the table?

Because when you write about politics, you face some pretty awkward choices. Sure you can write populist stuff about protest movements being the key to change (think Paul Mason and ‘Why it’s all kicking off everywhere’). Trouble is, that is often not the whole story. Look at the Arab Spring in Egypt and its aftermath – lots of political analysis of the initial surge in popular movements, then radio silence, before a completely separate group of writers came with an analysis of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and army takeover. Very little that tries to give a unified overall picture of what has actually happened (I would love to read something if you have suggestions). One fascinating exception is this recent piece by Chris Hill, a former US Ambassador to Iraq, foreseeing the ‘end of the Arab state’, destroyed by a combination of external intervention, and upheaval from below. What do you think?

Don’t get me wrong: active citizens are of course a key player, as From Poverty to Power argued, but lots of decisions are taken without their involvement, and not all of those decisions are obviously bad. But as soon as you start writing about them, and especially trying to influence them through lobbying, advocacy etc, you a) risk ‘giving away your secrets’ (another criticism I get within Oxfam sometimes) and b) come across as endorsing some kind of elitist power play.

A final obstacle is the language. Somehow the people who write about politics and development seem intent on doing even more violence to the language than the econs or policy wonks. I’m not sure why, but all that jargon (political settlements, elite bargains, neopatrimonialism, clientilism etc) definitely helps confine the subject to aficionados only. Maybe that’s the point.

Which is why, as a reflex contrarian, I will in future be thinking and writing more about politics (eg the politics of redistribution, or how change happens). Sorry.

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16 Responses to “Why is it so much harder to talk about politics than about policies?”
  1. Sophia Murphy

    Of course we have to write about the politics. Please keep it up! And find a way to replace Political Science’s term “regime” while you are at it. But I think it’s Sociology that takes the prize for language mangling, at least in my non-scientific review of the situation.

  2. Don Stoll

    Isn’t the resistance you’re running into connected to the “distraction” of social entrepreneurship that Pamela Hartigan wrote about in this space last week? She pointed out that the “early corporations that began to take shape around the 16th century,” although profit-seeking, “were still expected to carry out activities with a public purpose.” The recent all-conquering dogma that corporations have no responsibility other than to maximize shareholder value created the need for the alternate vision of social entrepreneurship. Yet the power of social entrepreneurship is nothing compared to the power of mainstream capitalism; despite the good intentions and hard work of social entrepreneurs, mainstream capitalism keeps rolling along, smashing everything in its path.

    Writing about “the politics of national redistribution” in the shadow of the triumph of neoliberalism is bound to seem like an elitist project. But formative New Right thinkers like Clarence Manion and F. Clifton White seemed like elitists—or crackpots: voices crying in the wilderness—to most people at least until Goldwater’s moment (if not later, when Reagan enjoyed happier times). Keep crying in the wilderness, please.

  3. Andy Mold

    I have to say Duncan that I agree with Ha-Joon’s stance. As an economist, once you start talking about politics too explicitly, it becomes a slippery slope. You inevitably get dragged into supporting one political party or leader or opposing them. Ultimately, if you are a serious political scientist or policy wonk, this will undermine your credibility. Moreover, if we are honest, our political opinions shift too much too to be good guides, and if we are working on a whole host of countries in any case, it is highly presumptuous to suppose that we really understand the dynamics of domestic politics. Language alone is usually a very significant barrier to a proper understanding of what is going on on the ground. And personally, I am a bit tired of reading the ‘opinions’ of political scientists based in far-off London or whereever talking blandly about ‘political settlements’ or ‘elite bargains’, when they are usually just peddling their world view of things. Better to keep a semblance of objectivity in our policy work and keep the political analysis to a minimum. Political assessments are in any case usually much better done in retrospect – think of ‘New Labour’, for instance!

    • Duncan Green

      Hmm, thanks Andy, but aren’t economists at least as ‘highly presumptuous to suppose that we really understand the dynamics of domestic’ economies?! Probably even more so if they are part of the subset of economists suffering from serious physics envy/delusions that they are engineers or scientists. Can can I propose a small thought experiment? In your comment, try transposing the words economist/economic etc with political scientist/politics – makes equally convincing reading!

      • Andy Mold

        I agree Duncan. Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying as a defense of the ‘purity of economics’ – that is baloney, and I very much agree (again) with Ha-Joon about the subjective nature of a lot of ‘economic theory’, which postures as objective, but in reality does not make clear a lot of the underlying assumptions. BUT….actually what I think I am advocating is a more cautious approach for all social scientists with regards to political analysis in the developing world. With a few exceptions, we all generally know much more about our own domestic politics than we do of even neighbouring countries – which is logical, because we are not interacting all the time with people in those countries. Certainly in the region I work in (East Africa), there is a tendency among some social scientists to readily take ‘sides’, to clearly identify with one political project or leader or another. High profile economists do this as much as political scientists. And I am usually rather sceptical as to the grounds on which they base these judgments….And judging by some of your previous postings, I get the impression so are you!

        • Andy Mold

          P.S. the best class I ever took on development at Cambridge was not by an economist, but a political scientist! Again, however, he was providing a retroactive analysis of WHY certain things had or hadn’t happened in the developing world. Would he have been so good in providing an analysis of the here-and-now? I’m not so sure….

        • Duncan Green

          You’ve put your finger on something their Andy – I’m always struck by the extent to which people interpret what they see around them in terms of their own national histories and mythology (approaches to welfare state, religion v state or whatever). Impossible to see things as a neutral, the most you can aspire to is to be conscious of your bias, and try and make allowances/be open to new possibilities.

  4. David Jacobstein

    Interesting and not altogether unexpected finding. One of the challenges, I feel, in the idea of political analysis as part of the story, is that political analysis is most often done by activists. They tend to collapse “what we saw happen,” “what we pushed to happen,” and “what should have happened/happen now” into a single narrative, often with good guys and bad guys, which makes the story itself a political action.

    A keen challenge for those of us advocating for more widespread use of political analysis is that for it to be effective, it should be as objectively grounded as possible in facts and stakeholders’ perceptions of what happened. It may imply conclusions, but should not attempt to mobilize people around them. And it should remind people that the situation itself is the main driver of the behavior of people in it, not their morality or character. Incidentally, you do this very well in the short write-up of the case studies, very descriptive and not very normative.

    Thinking politically is a lens through which to understand circumstances, together with many others; I think it is best left to the user to determine how to benefit from its insights. Indeed, this humility about how change happens – the realization that we sit on the sidelines and not much will happen just because we shout “it should” – is generally one of the conclusions drawn by folks who promote thinking and working politically. It will strengthen our case if we can produce analyses that reflect that humility.

    • Duncan Green

      Wise words David, it’s often uncomfortable trying to strike a balance between the descriptive and the normative, but I think there are huge benefits in doing so, in terms of improving our understanding and impact.

  5. Nicholas Colloff

    Do keep writing about politics in a way that is readable but complicates before it (hopefully) illuminates our experience of how it actually happens because in my experience our pictures of it (like our economic models) are hopelessly simplistic. My favourite example is a conversation with a senior (American) oil executive on Iraq. ‘Morality aside, if we had the power we are alleged to have, we would have done a deal with Saddam.’ ‘Why?’ I enquired – the oil industry needs 30+ investment horizons, a stable regime is more preferable to the uncertainty of an invasion was the reply. In other words ‘Do a Gaddafi’ (though, as we see from that example, people’s predictive power and ability to manage events is always circumscribed)!

  6. Heather Marquette

    Being a political scientist is hard work sometimes (cue the world’s tiniest violin!). Most people you meet don’t really understand what that means, and they say things like, ‘Why would you want to study that? I hate politics’. A great stopper of pub conversations! Like any other social science – and I would definitely include economics and sociology in this, it is difficult to take yourself out of your own research. When I’ve taught classes on democracy, I always preface it by saying that I’m a product of 12 years of US civic education, growing up in what is seen as one of the best governed states with the highest social capital, and it shapes how I see the subject. But that doesn’t mean I can’t engage with different debates and differing viewpoints and experiences, nor that I can’t give those full respect and challenge my own assumptions.
    I suspect a part of the problem is that there is a lot of ‘armchair’ political analysis being done – by political scientists or others – where people don’t put their own positionality on the table. And that distrust in politicians anywhere and everywhere leads to a general lack of willingness to engage meaningfully with the politics that is an intrinsic part of both policy and development. How you can understand labour markets or health care reform or LGBT rights without understanding politics is beyond me? But then, as a political scientist, I’d say that, wouldn’t I?

  7. Scott Weathers

    Great post, Duncan!

    In the US, I think this definitely comes down to identity politics. I can’t talk about my “liberal politics” without immediately being pinned down for all the stereotypes that come with them. Yes… I drink craft beer, but does that really have to be the first thing people bring up? The stereotypes and habits associated with party politics differ by country, but the principle generally applies.

    Talking about politics inevitably (but usually unintentionally) involves contradicting/criticizing the very being of another person… that’s why it’s so painful to do so.

  8. Gloria Ospina

    Very good post Duncan!As we know ,there are no policies without a process of political interventions, decisions, challenges and controversies. On the other hand, identifying the political factors that intervene in the making of policy decisions requires a rigorous analysis of the political factors that play a role before and during the process of the making of policies.Once the policy is approved , the policy implementation will be influenced by economic factors, but predominantly by political factors.Reform Policies, and Development Policies are the “perfect cases” to analyze the role Politics play in the Policy Decision Process.

  9. Enrique Mendizabal

    The idea that one can talk about the allocation of resources with in a State and NOT be talking about politics is… well… how can they not see it?
    Every time one talks about policies one is talking about politics.
    Science/economics may tell you how things are but it is politics that tell us what to study and ‘what to do about how things are’. And that is policies.
    In the development industry however, politics are unpopular and confused with partisanship. Reports after reports argue that we must engage with politics but this really only means undertaking political economy analyses or maybe measuring some governance indicator. For the most part the industry is driven by indicators: did the dictator reduce child mortality? Then let’s not call him a dictator any more.
    The problem is that the industry is removed from politics -both literally (by distance) and figuratively (conceptually). The development industry does not participate in the politics of the countries it intervenes in. It insists in calling these processes (these politics) ‘development’. So even if they leave the comfort of their offices in London or NY and join a local NGO (or the local office of the international NGO) they insist in being outside politics… focused only in (self-less and evidence based) development.
    So, I would say that talking about politics is not hard. We do it all the time. But we pretend we don’t.

  10. Albert van Zyl

    As usual you put your finger right in the eye of a key issue – thanks Duncan.
    My two cents is that the reason why we shy away from writing about the politics of social change is that we don’t know as much about how it works as we feel we should (our silence is a fig leaf).
    We often talk about how few economists predicted the financial melt down. But how many political scientists foresaw events in Egypt/Libya/Tunisia?

    And so the reason why activists tend “to collapse ‘what we saw happen,’ ‘what we pushed to happen,’ and ‘what should have happened/happen now” is because political theorists have not managed to descend from their Ivory towers often enough to given activists the mid-level theory [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_range_theory_(sociology)] needed to help make sense of ‘what we saw happen’. Discuss 🙂

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