Wednesday, May 21, 2008

plus ca change

I’m still catching up on the day’s events, and there’s no point to speculating on results that will be announced shortly, so here’s some pre-analysis. I just returned from a conference on Georgian culture, attended by scholars of Georgia, many of whom follow politics closely.

I spoke about Georgia’s contemporary political culture and its remarkable continuity over the past fifteen years, despite periodic upheavals and more recent improvement in many measures of development. Roads can be fixed, petty corruption rooted out, NATO membership sorta kinda guaranteed—why, then, is Georgia stuck with hyperventilating political dialogue, personality-based parties, and endless arguments over process rather than policy? Surveys of the political-party landscape and assessments of local and parliamentary elections from five or ten years ago find the same patterns—and many of the same characters—as we’ve seen this year.

The discussion considered causes and consequences of this stasis. Some favored cultural/historical explanations—we’re still burdened by a Soviet legacy of top-down initiative, or Georgians will only mobilize to a charismatic leader’s call to mass action, and suchlike. Others contended that it’s a matter of setting the rules—if parliamentary-seating thresholds and party-financing regulations are tuned properly, then parties will respond with substantive platforms and build grassroots bases of support. Many felt that the tone of political discourse doesn’t much matter, nor does the fragility of the party system; the public is sophisticated enough to see through and ignore diatribes and appeals to emotion, and plenty of states muddle along just fine with dysfunctional legislatures and divisive executives. And a few said that citizens get the politics they deserve. (As Adlai Stevenson is reported to have responded, upon being told that he had the support of all right-thinking Americans, “That’s not enough—I need a majority.”) Not a ringing endorsement of Georgian politics, and not a fate to which I’d want Georgia to resign itself.

Political leanings and sympathies varied, but no one was pleased with the state of affairs or the political leaders’ comportment. One Georgian participant said to me, “why do otherwise-reasonable people start acting so loopy when they go into politics?”

1 Comments:

At May 21, 2008 at 9:27 PM , Blogger xcaucasus said...

Jonathan,

I would be much more optimistic.I think generally, the political space wasn't around in the past, but overall my sense is that the debates have already gotten more sophisticated. I'm happy to offer a sizable bet that in eight years time, the political culture will have differentiated sufficiently.

In the past, there was not even a shred of good governance, so not much reason to have a policy debate. Now we arguably have a reasonable amount of it reasonable governance. Reasonable debate will also follow.

Best,
Hans

 

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