It is very easy to blame politicians for societal ills and inequities. They are often seen as the source of all our woes. They distort the polity and our politics for selfish reasons, it is believed. They also embody and represent the ugly face of society, many say. We often see them as heartless and greedy. Yes, in some instances, they appear as perceived and as guilty as accused, but how true are these claims and how do we make sense of them? In other words, is the situation much deeper than often presented?
After all said and done, we often forget or generously take for granted the view that democratic politics is a market – with obvious buyers and sellers. In a democracy, where politicians are obliged to canvass for votes, this market is anchored on the continuous interactions between politicians, on one hand, and voters, on the other hand. The right and legitimacy to govern is the main product sold and purchased in this market. The politicians are the buyers and the voters are the sellers. Hence, democracy can be conceived as a full-fledged functional market. Like any other market, therefore, it is governed by specified and specific rules of the game. As typical of markets, it is also prone to fail and sometimes catastrophically – especially where appropriate regulations, values, and boundaries are significantly compromised and or absent.
The cost of the failure of the market for democracy can be very expensive to society. As Nigerians, we witness this at various times and in different guises. The question begging for credible answers is always how we can avoid such calamities. We grope and grapple with this obnoxious quagmire. The more we do, the more it eludes us. A missing part of the jigsaw is a failure to appreciate the market and democracy as one with many actors – sometimes with misaligned interests and expectations – and varied tactics. Moreover, at the heart of this market is the continuous and endless negotiation between politicians and voters pre- and post-elections.
No matter how we look at it, politicians and voters are collectively products of the same society. In addition, societies are defined by their values, choices, and preferences. As such, one can argue that the market for democracy in any society reflects the values and expectations of that society. These values constitute and inform the solutions proffered to common existential and metaphysical challenges. That is exactly what societal and national cultures mean.
Over time, this process of value negotiation, integration and calibration, leads societies to reproduce their efficiencies and or inefficiencies through their intended and unintended options and choices. It is from this perspective that the true understanding of democratic politics can be very much appreciated. In other words, the quality of democracy is and should be a collective responsibility of citizens (politicians and voters alike), instead of the partial attribution of blames to politicians.
In that regard, the easy choice of scapegoating politicians is lame, diversionary, and contradictory, because neither the politicians nor the voters are necessarily aliens. Both are inextricably and simultaneously embedded, informed, enabled, and constrained by socially constructed values and norms and should equally be held responsible for the consequences of their choices. This common denominator is both revealing and perplexing.
It is revealing because it unravels and shames the complacency of voters who pretend they are victims of their politicians. It confirms that voters are the architects of their blessings and misfortunes. Although one might be swayed by the reality of power relations and information asymmetry between politicians and voters, it remains a fact that voters are the majority, while politicians are the minority. Of course, the minority can sometimes be more powerful and knowledgeable than the majority, but that only works where the majority allows itself to be deceived, hoodwinked, and cajoled into bizarre options and choices.
Obviously, the art of deception is at the heart of “politricks” – a dangerous form of realpolitik – that has continued to bedevil and undermine our democracy. A democracy founded on politricks can only be a forge and an embarrassment to the reality of true democracy, which adds to the perplexity of the situation.
It is perplexing because one would anticipate that democratic politics is about rational choices between politicians and voters. Obviously, both often pursue their self-interests. However, when and where these interests align and converge, they do not necessarily guarantee desirable outcomes. A good example is a voter selling his or her vote for a paltry sum. Although one may see that as the convergence of interests, as well as the willingness to transact, between the politician and the voter, it may not necessarily produce outcomes the voter would likely admire.
The politician sees it as an investment, which would be recouped at some point in the democratic dispensation. In the process, the politician diverts funds meant for societal development to make up for his or her upfront investments. Voters lose significantly because they have sold their rights to good governance and lost the legitimacy to hold the politicians to account. The politicians see this as some benefits. However, because the politician is a member of society, he or she eventually suffers the inefficiencies and ills engineered and orchestrated by bad governance. In the end, both politicians and voters inadvertently fall on their own swords, despite what seem like individual rational choices.
Notwithstanding, identities are not that static and permanent. The politician today, probably, was once a voter, and might become one, again, tomorrow. The same also applies to the voter. Identities are fluid but our shared citizenships remain constant despite the fluidity of our identities. This central message should not elude us, as we negotiate and exchange our interests in the market of democratic politics.
The elections are around the corner again. It is very easy to climb the proverbial moral high horse and castigate politicians as evil. Before we do that, let us examine our consciences and be convinced that we are not in any way contributing to corrupting the market for democratic politics. The key currency of transaction should be credible, practical, pragmatic, believable and redeemable political pledges on the part of the politicians, and discernible minds and moral resilience on the part of the voters. Once this equilibrium is dislocated, then, we should not blame anyone but be prepared to live with the negative consequences of our options and choices. No ifs, no buts!
In sum, let us be the change we want to see. That is how societies develop and grow. In the end, there are no context-less evil politicians, as such. They do not exist in a vacuum. They are simply the creation and products of society. If we do not want them, let us not create them in the first instance, by abusing and misusing our votes. The question remains: are you ready for a progressive change?
MacDonald Ebere holds a PhD in political philosophy and writes from Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria.
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