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

August 12, 2014 16 By Duncan Green

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.