Uncertainties in politics

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Why common sense is lost in politics

A correspondent recently asked me if I, as a sociologist, had an explanation for the foolishness of politicians. The question intrigued me, since nothing distinguishes politicians that makes them, in principle, more or less sensible than ordinary citizens. In fact, it is now internationally recognized that our political class was very sensible during the pandemic, inspiring the Portuguese to a model of behavior that is considered exemplary and with the SNS responding to demands more effectively than many countries richer than Portugal.

The question obviously referred to the political crisis triggered by the disapproval of the budget. The reasons that the politicians involved invoked to justify it did not convince the overwhelming majority of citizens and their behavior seemed foolish. It's just that citizenship was mainly concerned with the uncertainties that the pandemic had inscribed in their lives. Since they were in excess, it was unwise to add others, and more, in a way that seemed artificial.

Citizens had the feeling of entering a long period of intermittent pandemic with alternating moments of acute crisis and chronic threat. Since then, the conditions of the pandemic have given more reasons for this feeling. It is to be expected that this feeling will guide their behavior in the next elections. With the exception of extremist fringes, the Portuguese will want to guarantee political stability because they have had enough of the personal, interpersonal and social instability that they fear will come to characterize their lives in the near future.

Why is the political sense that accompanied us in the early stages of the pandemic now lost? In 1935, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson coined the term schismogenesis to designate a pattern of behavior consisting of the tendency for individuals or groups to define themselves in opposition to others and to increase their differences as a result of dialogue, interaction and confrontation. Differences that, prior to the interaction, would seem minor or attenuable, become larger and more intransigent as the interaction progresses. The investigation was carried out in Papua New Guinea. Does this have anything to do with us? The budget discussions reminded me of Bateson.

When the talks between the PS, the BE and the PCP began, there was a widespread feeling that the differences between the two sides (center-left and left) were bridgeable. However, as the dialogue progressed, the differences became polarized, to the point that they became irreconcilable. It even gave the feeling that what was budgetary conciliable was not politically so. For example, as the dialogue/confrontation progressed, it became clear that the differences that previously seemed to be contradictions within the same classes or social strata (intra-class) were metamorphosing into contradictions between opposing classes or social strata with interests potentially irreconcilable (interclassist). The temporizing and mild discourse of intra-class differences was giving way to the polarizing and caustic discourse of inter-class differences.

The disenchantment of citizenship affects this political “family”(?) and the consequent sense of foolishness resulted from a fatal mismatch between parties and voters. While the parties revealed interclass contradictions, the citizens only saw intraclass contradictions. While politicians saw the contradictions from their ideologies and political calculations, citizens saw them from the perspective of the pandemic and the abysmal uncertainties it caused them. The senselessness and inconsistency took on particular intensity in those sectors that feared that early elections could strengthen the extreme right; if that were to happen, the discourse (and actions) of hate would increase and its privileged targets would be the flags and left-wing politicians as a whole.

But foolishness was not a monopoly of leftist forces. The right-wing forces were not far behind. At a time when the budget's disapproval was already foreseeable and the left was giving them the opportunity to strengthen themselves in the next elections, they became involved in exhausting internal disputes that can only have counterproductive effects. Here, too, schismogenesis between leadership candidates was verified: differences in personality and “between friends” gradually turned into political differences of the type between oil and water. And there was also a discrepancy between political leaders and their voters.

While the former made political calculations (some quite mediocre), the latter, like left-wing voters, feared above all the uncertainties of the pandemic and the political instability that could exacerbate them. And if the recent direct elections in the PSD reveal something important, it is precisely the desire for stability of its base militants, a desire not shared by many of its leaders. What if there were direct calls on PS, BE or PCP?

Schismogenesis is not a fatality, nor is what is valid for the boys and girls of Papua New Guinea necessarily valid for Portuguese politicians. But that's how it is, at least in the opinion of political commentators. The idea that the contraption is over is almost unanimous, given the irreconcilable positions. Among commentators, schismogenesis does not seem to exist. On the contrary, if some dynamic exists between them, it would be appropriate to designate it as conformogenesis: however much they differ, their opinions always end up concluding the same. But, on the contrary, there also seems to be a discrepancy, in this case, between his lucubrations and those who read or hear them.

If, in times of a pandemic, citizens are above all anguished by the uncertainties of the near future, and if everyone aspires to some stability, at least until there are conditions to tolerate or even celebrate less existential instabilities, it is far from the truth that everyone thinks that something like the contraption is not possible or desirable. Recent polls show the opposite. The obstacles are much smaller than you might think. Just compare it with the situation in the neighboring country where the political solution in force (the agreement between the PSOE and Unidas-Podemos) was inspired by the Portuguese gambit.

In the Spanish case, these are two political formations with more polarized identities than those that divide the corresponding political forces in Portugal. It is enough to remember that the PSOE defends the monarchy, while the UP is republican. But because the issue of the regime is not part of the limited agreement in which they agreed, the coalition endures and has just achieved what in Portugal has not been achieved so far: the agreement to annul the labor laws that were imposed by the troika. Is it because Spain is the fourth largest economy in the EU and the external debt, despite being large, is smaller than the Portuguese debt? Is it because in Spain the two parties share governance and not just parliamentary decisions? Is it because in Spain the PSOE learned once and for all that articulations with the right can be easier than with the left, but they always give bad results? All of this leads one to believe that there are no insurmountable obstacles if folly is surmountable.

If there is a pre-electoral written commitment between similar political forces and with significant electoral weight, citizens will know that, by voting for one of them, political stability will be guaranteed, if the group has a majority of votes. They will thus be able to vote with peace of mind according to their political convictions. If there is no such agreement, it is predictable that the concern with political stability will encourage the useful vote that always favors the larger parties. This is the only way it will not happen if the different parties involved give convincing evidence and assume revealing commitments that the post-electoral understanding will prevail.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (Authentic).


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