Friday, March 29, 2013

The error of personalizing politics

President Ma Ying-jeou
It’s tempting to single out the head of state when things go bad. Doing so is wrong and prevents us from identifying and fixing the problems 

One is often bewildered by people’s tendency, in Taiwan and elsewhere, to personalize politics. Even in democracies, such as that in Taiwan, critics are often tempted to blame bad policies not on the government itself, but on the leader at the top, as if one were not in a democratic system, but rather in a totalitarian country. 

In Taiwan, every downturn, every policy blunder, is blamed on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), as if he alone — the target recently of a sobriquet that, sadly, won’t go away — were responsible for both determining and implementing policy. Beyond being unfair to Ma, this proclivity elicits a fundamental flaw in people’s appreciation of how government works, a flaw that, in most instances, stems from the critics themselves never had the experience of working for government. 

Why, besides its invidious nature, this failure to understand how governments works is ultimately detrimental to democracy will be made clear in a moment. 

Let’s use an example from a recent article published on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog, which discusses the state of the Ma administration one year into its second (and last) term. After listing a number of reasons why Ma’s approval ratings remain abysmally low, the author concludes:
It is no single politician’s fault that such inequalities exist, but it is inexcusable to lack the ability to appreciate their severity, fail to take the lead in shaming society for allowing them to exist, and bumble in proposing concrete solutions, particularly when a politician has already won reelection and will never have to run for office again. [my italics]  
While obvious, many critics in Taiwan would fail to see what’s wrong with this sentence, and I don’t mean the use of that unfortunate sobriquet. The author makes the mistake of personalizing government and presenting the case as if the president operated in a vacuum. Ma has already won reelection and will never run for office again. He therefore doesn’t care one iota about public approval or the welfare of the country’s 23 million. He can’t run for office. But Ma, whether one likes him or not, is not alone; he is part of a political party, and part of a government that is not only democratic, but is also made of public servants with various levels of competence and different party affiliations. 

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

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