Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Of political partisanship and tantrum-throwing three-year-olds

Imagine a situation where two groups of construction workers are ostensibly working together to build one house, but insist on following entirely different blueprints. They spend the whole day working on the site, with their interactions frequently exploding into arguments over which plan is better. And, whenever they can, they sabotage each other’s previous efforts. It would be laughable to imagine that, together, these two groups would actually be able to put up a stable structure. And yet that is what polarized partisan politics is all about.


In case you're wondering what brought these thoughts to my mind, I am following Darrell Issa’s latest crusade, which seems to be geared at humiliating Eric Holder into resigning. For the record, I think the "Fast and Furious" probe is absolutely necessary. The operation was deeply flawed, and the onus is on any responsible government to find out what went wrong and why. In my opinion, however, the direction in which Darrell Issa is steering the questioning is unlikely to shed light on the factors that led to the "Fast and Furious" debacle. 

I think that fixating solely on the actions of the Department of Justice after the crisis conveniently allows one to ignore the fact that the operation was launched during a Republican administration. Clearly, Republicans and Democrats alike have made missteps. In an ideal world, any well-meaning, civic-minded legislator would be inclined to set aside the labels "Republican" or "Democrat" and to look into the actual non-partisan facts on the ground. He or she would cast a larger net and call a larger number of people to testify. He or she would certainly make sure to question all of those who were involved in implementing the minute and not-so-minute aspects of the operation. He or she would also be inclined to look into the problem of gun-control, and its implications for gun-walking.

The "Fast and Furious" probe is not the only thing on my mind. I am also pondering on the inauguration night meeting at which top Republican lawmakers made the commitment to challenge Obama’s attempts to govern by raising roadblocks in the path of his administration and of Democratic legislators whenever possible. Essentially, this was a conscious decision by mature, intelligent, highly-educated, and privileged adults to oppose, oppose, oppose everything their political opponents said or did, even when doing so would violate their own ideals and contradict their previous policy positions. Their aim: to make a Democratic presidency so dysfunctional that it would become untenable in the minds of American voters. Strategically, it has been an effective plan: It is bound to succeed. If we were talking about a chess game, I would say it was an ingenious strategy. But we are talking about a nation here. At what cost will this potential political victory come?


Unfortunately, the destructive my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics has been so normalized over time that people think it’s the natural way to do things. And yet it is not. Such a polarized approach to life is consistent with the behavior of a 3-year old throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle. It may succeed in getting the child a candy bar or a toy car, but turns a simple shopping trip into a nightmare for everybody else.

The thing about tantrum-throwing three year olds is that they are infuriating, but they are children: innocent children. We keep our anger in check as we deal with them because they are wired to believe they are the center of the world, and too young to know better. But as they grow and learn, we start to expect more of them. What about politicians? Do we expect more of them, or do we simply give them free rein to play Machiavellian games?


It may seem like I am talking about a uniquely American situation, but I am not. Partisanship seems to be the bread-and-butter of many politicians globally. It has certainly found a home in Kenyan politics, and I am sure other people can point to parallels in their respective nations.

I can’t help reflecting on the historical turns taken by Kenyan politics over the decades, beginning with Kenya’s 1963 independence from the United Kingdom. Almost from the moment of its birth, independent Kenya has been divided along ethnopolitical lines. Today, the ethnic and political alliances and rivalries of old remain intact to a significant extent.


Kenya is a polarized nation. It is also a poor nation. However much people point to economic growth figures and improved GDPs, that wealth is simply not trickling down to the average person. So we remain poor. Despite our poverty and our great need for collaborative interventions by our legislators, they still manage to find joy in partisanship. And, like fools, we dance to the tunes they play. Sometimes I wonder about this. Are we marionettes being manipulated by cynical politicians, or are we part of the problem? Do our politicians simply represent everything that we are deep down inside?

I remember many Kenyan journalists remarking cynically some years ago that the only thing our parliamentarians had ever voted unanimously on was the decision to increase their incomes and the benefits that came with their jobs. It’s still a running joke today, and makes good fodder for political cartoons and satire. Only, the average Kenyan is not laughing.

Thanks to the perks that come with their jobs, Kenyan Members of Parliament are insulated from the most basic problems that come with daily life in the nation. So they really have no incentive to work together on substantive issues. The average citizen, however, cannot escape the neglected infrastructure, the ill-equipped hospitals, the land tenure issues, the escalating prices of food and fuel, the depressed job market, and the ill-regulated financial sector.

Is America there yet? I leave it to you to answer this question, my dear reader.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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