Saturday, June 19, 2021

Why Politics isn't for the Honest

This is not a pessimistic post. I'll explain why honest people can't do well in politics. And then I'll also urge honest people to be political.

When I say politics isn't for the honest, I mean that the identity of a politician isn't for the honest. They cannot win elections on their own. They cannot sway votes on their own. They can't do anything in politics on their own.

Why? Because the country is full of human beings who are irrational and we have a first-past-the-vote voting system.

Winston Churchill probably never said that “the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, that's true. And it doesn't require you to have contempt for others to agree with that statement. You just have to remember that we are all humans and that we are all bound by cognitive biases.

We stereotype, we assume, we guess, we make up, we are swayed by public perception, we change our stances under social pressure, we are biased, and we have cognitive blind spots. We are all irrational human beings.

When it comes to an election we choose a candidate based on our view of the world and our view of the candidates. Both of these are colored by the biases I mentioned above.

Here's where the first-past-the-vote system comes in. The vast majority of people won't vote for a candidate they think do not have any chance to win. "Why waste your vote on a candidate who will anyhow lose?" The elections are therefore already reduced to a two-party (or a three-party) election.

You can still start a new party and enter the three-party race (like AAP did in Delhi). It requires entering the consciousness of voters at large and, mostly, at once. AAP could do this because of the wide media coverage of India Against Corruption. Another way of attaining this kind of prominence is to split off from an existing party. In essence, being in people's minds is the first step to being a potential winner.

Now that is already our cognitive biases in action. And at this point the line between irrationality and reality blurs too. For, how do you do governance if you don't have the trust of the people. Why should people trust a random party based on their manifesto?

Trust. Trust could thus be considered the defining force of winning election. And trust is at the edge of what is called irrational. We make up trust in politics based on the circumstances. If we feel like there is a threat of war, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to win a war to lead us. If we feel like there is a threat of breakdown of social order, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to keep the society together to lead us. Our trust depends a lot on how we feel.

This is where politics becomes a game in which honest people have no chance. You can manipulate people's feelings in two ways - you can change their threat perceptions and you can change their perception about the ability of different political candidates to handle those threats.

How you feel about the how big a problem terrorism, war, global warming, fascism, or sedition is depends a lot on what you've been fed by the world and how rational you are. For example, let me take me. I am a person who avoids news. I do so because I believe that news is about sensationalization of the trivial matters because they're newsworthy. For me, matters like terrorism are quantitatively less important than matters like road safety. Whereas it is totally possible that another person looks at road safety as an unavoidable problem but terrorism as unwarranted, avoidable threats to the psyche of our nation. The perception of what the largest threats we face are can be manipulated by manipulating the media that people consume - be it news media or social media.

The next kind of manipulation is one that people routinely employ all around, but is the bread and butter of politicians. Image management. For a politician to succeed they need to project an image of leadership that suits the "largest threats" that we are facing. Image is ridiculously irrational. For example, let us look at very personal things that are all part of the image - clothing, fashion, colors, facial hair, hairstyle, make-up, facial expression, gait, speed of walking, phone, spectacles, ... Everything that you can think of affects the "image" one projects.

Let us take the biggest example in front of us. In 2007, 5 years after Godra, Karan Thapar did an interview of Narendra Modi. Narendra was not so much of an adult at that time and ended the interview at 3 minutes because Karan started with questions about Narendra's murderer image. A lot of people don't know what happened after that. In another video, Karan talks about it. The interesting bit is that Narendra looked at that 3 minute interview many many times afterwards to learn from their mistakes and do better. Maybe Narendra gave up and stopped doing interviews instead. But the fact is that playing to their strengths allows Narendra to project an image of a strong leader.

Every successful politician has done this. They've managed the perception they create in the mind of their voters. Barack Obama has done and wrote about it. It maybe interesting to know about how Michelle Obama in the first few speeches about Barack's presidential campaign was being perceived as an angry person and immediately course corrected with softer speeches (and clothing choices). Rahul Gandhi must be trying really hard to do this after Narendra knocked down Rahul Gandhi's image.

That brings us to another point. It is not just your image that you manage in politics. You also manage others' image. You tell voters how to look at other candidates. You make them look like fools, you win.

Now why does all of this matter for the honest politician? Can't they project an image of their own honesty and succeed? Not as easy. If you are an honest politician and if you believe that terrorism is not as big a problem as global warming or road safety, and you take that idea honestly to a set of voters who believe strongly that terrorism needs to be curbed, that is pretty much the end of your political career.

You will have to bend the truth, if not lie. And bending truth has its limits. There is only so much you can accomplish with bent truths, especially if your opponents are fighting with lies.

But politics is so important that you can't give up just because you don't have a chance to win. What should honest people do about politics?

First, they have to realize how irrationality rules politics. Then they have to use that knowledge to guide how they approach people. They need to turn the irrationality on its head and make it question the lies. 

They might have avenues other than politics to reach powerful and influential positions where it is easier for them to sway people's perceptions. 

Maybe they can be excellent researchers and use research as a political tool. Maybe they can be good artists. Or programmers. Or doctors. Or teachers. Or anything! Anyone who does their thing well gets some power and influence. And they can use those to sway irrational voters to things that matter.

Politics is for everyone. And honest people have their own options.

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