The death of compromise politics

November 16, 2022 08:58
Photo: Reuters

There’s a saying in politics – a stance made public is a stance that one would never adopt.

This is because, what one says in the public is one thing; what one professes to embrace in private quarters, is another. The former enables one to win votes (in constituencies where elections in fact occur), curry favours with one’s higher-ups (where elections are not held), or, establish one’s presence and tenacity in the long game (cutting across both electoral and non-electoral regimes). The latter, on the other hand, is the meat and stuff, the brick and mortar of what ‘gets things done’. Things are not ‘done’ via hard-lined, unyielding stances that are performed to placate a very narrow and specific audience. Compromise is what makes the impossible possible; politics is the art of the compromise.

We were taught to embrace compromise, to venerate dialogue, to celebrate the ability of politicians to cut deals and drive forward changes despite the adverse circumstances and harrowing specter of mass polarisation (and sometimes, hysteria, too). Those were the days of triangulation, a ‘third path’, moderation and pragmatics – the center held, if not in virtue of favourable mass sentiments, then certainly due to the tenacity of the politicians who persevered then. The early 2000s were arguably the golden era of such compromise-driven politics.

Then it all changed. Whether it be the rapidly expanding inequality and gulf that had separated the ‘Havers’ from the ‘Have-nots’, or the emergence of precipitously nefarious identity politics rooted in a combination of a sense of displacement/anomie, and the righteous entitlement that is seen across white supremacist, xenophobic narratives, there has been a palpable though gradual shift in public sentiments when it comes to the ‘political other’. The ‘other’ – once touted as a respectable partner in the crime of political and civic engagement – has now morphed into a threat to be attacked, to be purged.

Then came social media – platforms that brought out the absolute worse in individuals, no less amplified through nascent technologies that encouraged individuals to exclusively draw information and inferences from narrowly defined echo chambers of individuals who shared their views. Sycophants and loyalists were recognised, radicals and extremists rewarded, and those who dared deviate or stray from the communal norm were sidelined, pushed aside, and eventually trampled in silence as the floor gave way to the bitter bickering across the aisle.

In the meanwhilst, the older generation of politicians had an existential decision of their own to make – would they ‘go’, or would they ‘stay’? To stay in the game behooved them to change their gear, to shake up their tactics, and to adopt the very antics that had promulgated potential competitors to rise meteorically – the kind of hoo-hah and effervescent bellicosity, once ridiculed for being over-melodramatic, has now come to the forefront and fray as a clear path to victory. Some chose to fade out gradually, whilst others fought to hold onto their ideals. Still, many more took to compromising with the zeitgeist, and came to – in time or in no time – adopt the kinds of speech that they would once look down and frown upon as signs of political immaturity.

Public performance and declaration became all the more important; gridlocks grew more ubiquitous, and debates increasingly locked into intractable positions and hamfisted discussions. The people were thrown under the bus, in name of the people. Now that’s what we call populism – or, shall I say, the ‘people’s will’; a retweet to Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen may be appropriate here.

And it’s not just about electoral democracies, too. Across semi-authoritarian regimes and façade democracies, we have seen the increasing prosecution of agenda by actors who had gained the upper hand – with a radical shift towards an all-or-nothing, zero-sum mindset coming to dominate decision-making. Gone were the days when internalising and incorporating dissent were taken to be acceptable, if not advisable, paths of action. In its place is a vociferous, unyielding kind of ossification and vengeance – the state was here to win, and to win it all. Whilst democracies languished in their own inefficiencies and deadlocks, non-democracies equally suffered from their fair share of unchecked executives, exercising the will of a few, in name of the will of all.

The death of compromise politics is lamentable. And perhaps uncharacteristically, I am of the view that the malaise described above would only worsen for the years to come. Tribalism is dangerous – but also incredibly sexy and alluring. As the old saying goes in Chinese, we shall not come to fear the dark, until we see phantoms. My worry, however, is that through exposure to one too many a phantom, we shall become too paralysed to act. Such is life.

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Assistant Professor, HKU