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Civil political discourse is dying a messy public death in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In an increasingly partisan climate, political chatter is at its peak, but civility at its lowest ebb. People with opposing political viewpoints don’t even engage each other in conversation, much less debate. We talk past each other, we shout at each other, but rarely, if ever, talk to each other. And when we do, the conversation – if it can be called that – is polluted with personal attacks, baseless accusations, and relentlessly vicious negativism.
There is nothing new in that paragraph. Nothing unique to SVG either. This is the condition of the modern world, of the perpetual campaign, of talk radio and Internet bloggers; of spin-doctors and campaign advisors; of scarce benefits and spoils. It is the logical byproduct of competitive western electoral democracy, freedom of speech, and a sensationalist sound bite culture. Almost every country in the modern western world is afflicted with this condition. We all struggle with the side effects of increasing politicization of thought, coupled with democratization of media.
Yet, in SVG, the death of political civility seems somehow messier, its murder more vicious. Part of that reason is size: Our population is so small, our islands and villages so tiny, and our families so interconnected, that the venom engendered by political tribalism is much more personal and in-your-face.
In SVG, in the past, such proximity would mean that neighbours would only disagree once every five years over the month-long “silly season” of a General Election campaign. However, in an environment where electoral campaigns never truly end, and where each camp is constantly fanning the flames of partisan discord, this proximity, and familiarity, breeds a simmering contempt that permeates the social fabric.
Mind you, my lamentations on the disintegration of civility have nothing to do with a desire for us all to get along, or to agree with each other. Far from it. Disagreement is not only healthy, but necessary. Debate is to be desired, contrarians celebrated, viewpoints valued. But it is the tone and tenor of the discourse that is so deeply distasteful. Today, our discourse is so toxic that no two people with differing political opinions can stomach listening to each other. In an environment where a disagreement or a differing philosophy is cast as a life-or-death struggle against tyranny or backwardness, each side retreats to the comfort of its respective echo chamber. There is no exchange or cross-pollination of ideas, and we are, collectively, the poorer for it. [For a contrary view, see this opinion].
I could go on. But describing our current malaise isn’t the point of this post, nor is it particularly interesting. We all feel the deteriorating climate of civility in SVG. Let’s not belabor the point.
The aftermath of the Christmas Floods has crystalised the terms of an apparent suicide pact that exists among our political mass parties, civil society and the press. Each party to this suicide pact has committed itself to various courses of action and inaction, which, whatever their narrow individual benefits, combine to create massive impediments to a political discussion free of nastiness, name-calling and negativism. Of all the cross-cutting and overlapping narratives that define any group’s purpose and personality, let me highlight three that help to bring this point into sharper relief:
NARRATIVE #1 – The NDP’s “Bribery” Narrative
The NDP has lost the popular vote in four consecutive General Elections, but has never conceded graciously. A standard trope of NDP mythology is that the ULP is corrupt and dishonest, and that it clings to the reins of power through an unholy trinity of intimidation, victimization and bribery. (This, despite the fact that the ULP’s first two popular-vote victories were achieved while in the opposition: a position wholly unsuited to intimidation, victimization or bribery).
The results of the 2010 elections, which the NDP fully expected to win, have been particularly difficult to swallow for the party. After an initial declaration that the results were invalid and illegal, the NDP settled on a narrative that has come to define its post-2010 existence: “We had that election in the bag until Hurricane Thomas came along, then the ULP stole it from us with blatant bribery and purchasing of votes using hurricane relief supplies.”
Settling upon the “Bribery” narrative was very comforting to the leadership and core supporters of the NDP. Primarily, it allowed them to sidestep the internal soul-searching and reform that would normally accompany any major political party coming off its fourth consecutive popular defeat. If the ULP victory was due solely to the happenstance of a storm and a surge of last-minute relief supplies, it means that the NDP was defeated by bad timing, not bad strategy/leadership/candidates/message/etc. As such, no need to disturb the internal status quo of the party. Between 2005 and 2014, there has been almost no change to the upper echelons of the NDP party structure and leadership. The “Bribery” narrative also placated the party’s dispirited rank-and-file, whose ever-increasing hatred of the ULP and its leadership is impossible to reconcile with Labour’s continuing electoral triumphs.
As such, it has been instructive to witness the NDP’s near hysterical response to the heartbreaking tragedy and destruction of the Christmas Floods. After an initial, statesmanlike response in the hours immediately following the storm, the NDP is increasingly descending into a state of tone-deaf political warmongering that is out of place and ill-timed. It is, however, understandable: having conjured up and convinced itself that the bogeyman of “storm relief bribery” is real, it must be politically terrifying to see another epic disaster befall the electoral swing states one year ahead of the next polls.
However, the impact of this narrative on our civil discourse is devastating. Imagine, for a minute, that the NDP had decided instead that the reason for its multiple defeats was a failure to properly articulate its vision; or a failure to offer a sufficiently compelling alternative to the status-quo. The intervening years would have then been spent refining the articulation of a vision, or trading honestly in the marketplace of ideas. Maybe even listening to the ULP, to understand what themes and visions seem to have resonated with the electorate over the last 15 years.
But having convinced themselves that the election was “bought” with bribes, the NDP has dealt itself and political discourse a double blow. First, if the ULP is merely a crass wholesale buyer of votes, there is nothing to be gained by engaging the party in a reasoned debate. Instead, above anything else, it is imperative that the NDP be vigilant, to avoid future “purchases” of elections. Reasoned engagement, at the party or parliamentary level, becomes superfluous.
Second, if the voters themselves are simply mindless lemmings who are easily swayed by last-minute plywood deliveries, there is no need to structure a policy to engage them intellectually. Since it is difficult for an opposition party to outspend the State in a nationwide bribery campaign, and since the electorate is simply a collection of votes for hire, the logical opposition strategy is to deter the government from distributing assistance, distract from the effectiveness of such distribution, highlight any inefficiencies in the process, and embarrass individuals from accepting any such offerings.
Apart from the obvious, elitist, disrespectful view of the voting public that they aspire to represent, such a narrative and outlook reduce political discussion to a series of baseless accusations and far-fetched conspiracy theories. It ratchets up the levels of inter-party distrust and paranoia to such levels that it fatally poisons the well from which goodwill and civility normally spring.
NARRATIVE #2 – The ULP’s “Counterpunch” Narrative
Despite the ULP’s enviable string of electoral triumphs, its recent history is not without anxieties and missteps. For one, the party’s share of the popular vote, while dominant, has been slipping steadily since 2001. Left unchecked, this trend leads inexorably to a return to the opposition benches. For another, the resounding “No” vote on the constitutional reform referendum was a sobering reminder that the party is not infallible, and that trust in the political leader is far from absolute.
But those anxieties, when coupled with the pugnacious personalities of the party leader and Chairman, have themselves given birth to a civility-affecting narrative: “The ULP only ever loses a fight when it doesn’t fight back.”
Exhibit “A” in this narrative is the stinging loss in referendum campaign. While the “Yes” Vote campaign was not, strictly speaking, a ULP campaign, the major figures on either side of the debate split along party lines (with the notable exception of Parnell Campbell, QC). The inability of the “Yes” vote to cross a 50% threshold, much less the 67% required for its passage, was viewed by many at the time as the death knell of the ULP’s time in government. History proved otherwise, but one of the enduring lessons and narratives emerging from the referendum campaign was that you don’t win a political fight in SVG with one hand tied behind your back. No matter how high-minded your arguments, you can’t talk your way out of a brawl. If a guy punches you in the nose, punch him back. Harder.
During the referendum campaign, ULP leader Ralph Gonsalves forbade wearing party colours and ordered party members to avoid any attempt by the No Vote/NDP to lure them into partisan political mudslinging. Take the high road, was the instruction, and focus your comments and advocacy strictly on the merits of the proposed new constitution. The result was a mountain’s of unanswered NDP political attacks and an island flooded in yellow “no” t-shirts, with nary a red jersey to be found.
The loss cemented the “fightback” narrative, whose seeds were first sown with the creation of the ULP Radio Station, StarFM. Before StarFM, the only overtly politically-controlled radio station was NDP’s Nice Radio. The NDP, given voice by the slanderously gifted EG Lynch, was hammering the ULP with a barrage of below-the-belt potshots and ridicule. Nice Radio, then and now, wasn’t doing much exposition of issues or changing of minds. But it was effective in shoring up a wobbly NDP base, and in drawing increasing listenership from political junkies of all political stripes. Even diehard ULP supporters could ruefully quote Lynch’s most colourful attacks verbatim, because listening to Nice Radio briefly became SVG’s favourite guilty pleasure.
The answer, of course, was to fight fire with fire. StarFM took flight, providing an effective counterpoint to the NDP’s air war. While Star, on the instructions of the legally savvy ULP, took great care not to cross the line of defamation with the frequency and glee of an unconcerned and unconstrained Nice, the tone of the competing stations – from hosts to callers – were often indistinguishable. (My personal opinion is that the Star hosts are of a much higher quality, generally, than Nice – particularly since Lynch’s departure – but I concede that my view may well be a product of political bias and personal friendships).
Political radio stations, unlike nuclear weapons, have no deterrent effect. We lob partisan bombs back and forth at each other from the relative comfort and security of our respective echo chambers. ULP’s access to its own radio station, combined with the pressure to stay interesting on a daily basis, and the “counterpunch” narrative, means that no loose talk or stray comment from the other side is left unanswered. The “counterpunch” narrative compels the elevation of skirmishes to battles and battles to wars, each of which must be individually – and convincingly – won.
The result is a political divide in which one side refuses to listen, and the other side listens only to refute and ridicule. The implications are as obvious as they are unfortunate.
NARRATIVE #3 – Civil Society and the Press’ “No sellout” Narrative
Like most small island states, SVG does not have a particularly strong set of, homegrown, influential, civil society organisations. Beyond churches and labour unions, the pickings are relatively slim. Very often, the memberships of local NGOs are microcosms of Vincentian society: small and politically divided.
In many societies, Civil Society and/or the press can be counted upon to be the adults in a room full of squabbling politicians. An economic think-tank can refute this or that claim from a political party. A reputable human rights body could shine a light on victimsation or discrimination (or he absence thereof). A scientific body could settle a dispute about how a common weather system could metamorphose into a one-in-500-year event. And a courageous, opinionated, but basically impartial press could dig beyond the simple reporting of competing “he said/she said” political statements and keep the parties honest, if nothing else.
But our local NGO community has a narrative too: “in the long run, our group’s credibility is more important than any individual political dispute. So unless you want to be called a sellout, bootlicker or backward lackey, its better to be silent than weigh in on any partisan squabble.”
There are numerous NGOs that are – correctly or not – viewed as politically partisan. Their pronouncements may play well internationally, but are automatically disregarded on the local scene (more on this in another post). They are rubbished as impotent and ineffectual contributors to any civilized discourse.
Those few “non-aligned” NGOs guard perceived independence and impartiality with such jealousy that they are afraid to put it to good use. But in refusing to get their clothes dirty, Civil Society places itself in its own echo chamber: a tiny world of pseudo-intellectuals who quietly bemoan “what politicians do” or “the way people think” without doing a single thing to effect any meaningful change or expand the influence of the non-governmental sector.
In ensconcing themselves in an imaginary ivory tower of impartiality, these Civil Society actors abandon the very role that they are collectively designed to play. In their cowardly retreat from the possibility of criticism, they cede all political debate to political parties. These parties, fighting without a referee, lacking respect for their opponent, and confident in the knowledge that no third party will call them out on their excesses, slide predictably down the rabbit hole of incivility.
No political party will unilaterally disarm in the face of constant enemy fire. Civil society (and the press) must find a way to lead us back to civility. Such leadership will be messy. It does not mean a disdainful aloofness that places self-appointed Civil Society leaders on pedestals above those of popularly-elected politicians. It does not mean heaping scorn on the populism and pugilism that must form part of any competitive Western democracy. Nor does it entail placing genuine disagreement in a stifling straitjacket of civility that elevates style over substantive disagreement. Civil society and the press must encourage debate, while having the courage to name and shame those who depart from the bounds of decency, honesty or integrity.
The first step, therefore, is for the “non-partisan” sectors of society (assuming they exist) to abandon their “no sellout” narrative and insert themselves squarely into the local political discourse. Once engaged, they must demand a level of genuine, reasoned interaction between the political parties, while simultaneously seeking ways to chip away at the narrow narratives that stifle civil debate.
That said, let’s be real: Politicians are trying to score intellectual as well as emotional points; to harness energies and tap wells of joy, fear and discontent. Those with neither the stomach, the work ethic nor the aptitude to engage in political combat must resist the temptation to sit in the idle comfort of their armchairs and arbitrarily judge the actions and motivations of those who offer themselves in the service of their nation.
Competitive politics in a small island democracy cannot and should not be an academic debate or seminar. Nonetheless, our context, our interconnectedness, and our Caribbeanness means that our disagreements must occur against the backdrop of good faith and good-natured exchanges: substantively serious, passionately political, and geared towards producing a clear winner and loser. But, leavened always with humour, common decency, and a recognition that we will be seeing each other later in church, the rum shop, the cricket game, the fete, the beach, or at our next family gathering.
These are not the whiny pontifications of a wimpy, mealy-mouthed liberal who can’t take the heat but won’t leave the kitchen. Far from it. I am unabashedly partisan, firm in my political support and convictions, and personally invigorated by the clanging of ideological sword and shield. But even in real war, there are rules (no nuclear/chemical/biological weapons, treat POWs with respect, don’t torture, wear uniforms, etc). No less should be expected of and demanded by SVG’s political combatants.
We can lift our game. And clean up our act.