The error of personalizing politics

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Fri, Mar 29, 2013 - Page 8

One is often bewildered by people’s tendency, in Taiwan and elsewhere, to personalize politics. Even in democracies, such as 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 where the man or woman at the top dictates everything.

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, “bumbler,” that, sadly, will not go away — were responsible for both determining and implementing policy. Beyond being unfair to Ma, and those who sat in the Presidential Office before him, 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 having 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 us use an example from “Mind the Gap,” 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 final term.

After listing a number of reasons why Ma’s approval ratings remain abysmally low, the author writes: “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 re-election and will never have to run for office again.”

While obvious, many critics in Taiwan would fail to see what’s wrong with this sentence, and I do not mean the use of that unfortunate sobriquet. The author makes the mistake of personalizing government and presenting the case as if the president operates in a vacuum.

Ma has already won re-election and will never run for office again: He therefore does not care one iota about public approval or the welfare of the country’s 23 million people. He cannot run for office, but Ma, whether one likes him or not, is not alone — he is part of a political party and a government that is not only democratic, but is also made up of public servants with various levels of competence and different party affiliations.

Ma himself will not be able to run for a third term in 2016, but someone from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will. Surely, given that Taiwan is a democracy, that candidate, along with the party that will choose him or her, cares about his or her chances of being elected.

Consequently, support levels for the KMT, and the Ma administration in general, are not something that Ma, his Cabinet and the party that he chairs take lightly. Nor should we forget that policy implementation, as noted, is carried out not only by KMT officials, but by civil servants of all stripes, many appointed by, or who served under, the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, just as I, a Liberal, served a Canadian Liberal government alongside a large number of Conservatives, New Democrats and even a few, I’m pretty sure, Pequistes.

Much of the malaise that today contributes to the Ma administration’s low popularity was carried over from the DPP, which itself was handed several contradictions by preceding KMT administrations.

One person alone, however powerful he or she may be, cannot find all the solutions, nor can he or she take the blame for everything. Accusing Ma of failing to “appreciate the severity” of current social problems will not take us anywhere closer to finding the solutions to fix them and it acquits the individuals and the system that, external factors aside, gave rise to them in the first place.

Ultimately, by attacking Ma as an “ineffective bumbler,” his critics commit the dangerous error of assuming that the KMT, perhaps as a carryover of its previous iteration as an authoritarian regime that did not have to compete with other political parties, does not care about its reputation and its chances of prevailing at the polls.

Ma cares about his reputation, if only because he knows, as I observed in a recent piece on the same blog, that the KMT he heads expects him to leave it in as favorable a position as possible ahead of future elections.

The KMT would not, will not, allow him to sabotage its chances at the polls. As such, that he cannot run again makes no difference.

It is easy to make fun of Ma, to underestimate him and dismiss him as an incompetent, and that is exactly the reason why his detractors in the pan-green camp and the media have incessantly done so.

Not only do I disagree with this characterization — Ma would not be the head of the KMT if he were an idiot — but I will make a prediction: If the green camp continues to focus on Ma’s “incompetence,” there is no way the DPP will win the presidential election in 2016 and the KMT will not have to buy a single vote in order to prevail.

J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.