Politics on Ideas: A New Approach to Political Engagement

For a few years now I have been trying to rethink politics as we know it. How to transform it to a better working environment and culture. In my coming blogs I will do my very best to express my thoughts and feelings on this crucial issue in more detail.

My thinking centers around two questions I thought I could easily answer when I got started, but which turned out to be more difficult to answer than I expected. These two central questions were:

1. How do you get a political environment and culture in which you have a continuous development of political ideas?

2. How do you get people to want to engage more with politics?

I believe that the development and sharing of ideas that matter to you is a powerful tool for constructive change. When you are engaged, have a passion for a certain subject, you will be more committed in its pursuit. Luckily we all have different interests, so we can tackle many issues at the same time. The better you understand that there are different ways of organizing something with regard to the issues you care about, the more likely you will be able to move forward and do something which will have an effect. There is no need to feel completely helpless or frustrated with things which at first sight seem totally out of your control.

It is my perception that politics in the professional political world is less and less about the issues. A dumbing down of the content, if discussed at all. The main reason that I was for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary election, even though I do not live in the United States of America and I am not an American, was that he campaigned on the issues that mattered to me. In a normal intelligent debate a politician will try to explain how his or her policies would have an impact on the lives of citizens, and also how the policies of the opponent would affect them. Clinton and Trump campaigned more on the bad personality of the other candidate, than on their policy views for the country. They are an example of a trend among most politicians. A trend which seems to get worse with every election cycle. There seems to be no more room in politics to discuss and develop ideas that matter. If most of the insiders refuse to change their ways, then we as outsiders must change our ways to get democracy back on track in 21st century.

What is the main problem in politics in our day and age?

Politics should be about finding and executing the best ideas for the people. If politics is more about personalities than the issues, then we are not focussing on that important task. Now it is important to keep in my mind that even in a real intellectual and engaging environment there will be a struggle in which direction we as a community should go. This can be a community on the local level, city level, state level, national level, continental level or on the global level. One person can be part of different communities geographically, but also a member in other community-forms like schools, companies, sport organizations and religious institutions. We learn by repetition, so I will repeat my point: that there are more ideas flowing in a certain community you belong to doesn’t mean there won’t be a fight between different people and interest groups with regard to which of those ideas are the right ones to implement. And in many circumstances we will need to make compromises in the end to get anything done at all.

We the people is not one person, but many different people with different views on how society should be organized. However, nowadays many of us do not even know which options are on the table, because they are not discussed in our public discourse. We as citizens from multiple communities are also not engaged in a continuous process to get more constructive ideas on our public table. When people don’t know what the choices are we can pick from there is not much to debate and almost nothing to consider. When people are not invited to think of solutions for challenges that we face as a society; we should not be surprised that they don’t feel the need to engage in the political process.

In short, politics from the perception of a particular political ideology should be about maintaining what works, think of and create new ideas to improve the lives of people, developing those ideas, getting them on the political agenda, getting them executed, evaluate what works and adjust those ideas where necessary, or cancel them, if they are beyond fixing. The same goes for persons not committed to any ideology, when they want to improve society. They will also need to go through to a process from developing ideas to executing them to evaluating the end results.

Not all Republicans think the same on everything, Colin Powell is of different wing of the party than Donald Trump on certain issues. Not all Democrats think the same on everything, Elizabeth Warren is from a different wing of the party than Tim Kaine on certain issues. This doesn’t mean they cannot work together in those areas. It does how ever mean it takes more effort to find common ground with another wing in your own party on the divisive issues, not to mention the other party. The same goes for independents, people not affiliated with any party, they too differ among themselves in certain areas on what they think are good and bad ideas for their country, or for another particular community of which they are a member.

We have more political parties in my country, The Netherlands, than the Republican Party and Democratic Party have as wings in their parties together. I am Dutch, in my country we have many different parties from far-left to far-right and everything in between, to name a few: VVD, D66, PvdA, SP, GroenLinks, PVV, CDA, ChristenUnie, SGP and so on. Because of how the Dutch parliamentary system works there has never been one party in power here, in contrast to the parliamentary system of the United Kingdom where one party being in charge is common practice. Dutch parties always have to make a coalition government with a minimum of two parties to have a majority in parliament and govern effectively, which is becoming more difficult every election cycle. Some people think that after the coming election in March, 2017 in The Netherlands the coalition government may well end up to exist out of four or five parties.

To make a government possible in a Dutch democratic system governing parties have to make compromises on what they said they wanted to do during the elections. Because they have to negotiate a policy-agreement with other parties or another party to form a majority government. So, no voter in my country gets what he or she voted for, because we don’t have a winner takes all system. If my country would have had an American political system many of those parties I mentioned would be wings in one of the two main parties. The difference between the ideas people have don’t go away because you have more or less political parties. If the United States of America had a democratic system that looked like the Dutch one you probably have at least the following separate parties in Congress: the Tea Party, Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and the Greens.

What you really have to understand is that it is not the particular democratic system of governance that’s causing the main problems, but the way we are operating within it. My country may have a different democratic system than the United States of America, but we have the same kind of problems of disengaged citizens with the political process. In other words, the democratic institutions in itself aren’t the real problem: it is the way we are using them. Or, to be clearer, how we are not using them.

Simplified: democracy gives us the rules of the game and politics is how the game is played within the existing democratic rules. You can compare it with board games like Monopoly, Risk and Catan. But remember, you can use politics to try and change the existing democratic rules, which if successful will impact how the game can be played from that moment on. When I play Monopoly or Risk with my friends we always play by some special rules that aren’t in the original rules book of the game, but that we agreed upon collectively. Call it an upgrade. The same can be done in a democratic system. For example, you could have a Convention of States to amendment to American constitution to get money out of politics. However, you will need to mobilize a critical mass of the people to make that change possible. That cannot be done without a (grassroots) political campaign.

In the first sentence of my first blog for the Huffington Post in 2014 I wrote the following:

I think the biggest political change is not going to come out of the political system, but out of the environment in which it operates. We the people.

This is still my core believe. People have ideas about what’s good for them, or can develop those ideas. You don’t need to be part of a political party for that. Your primary focus should not be to reform democratic institutions, but should be on how citizens engage with them. This means we need to rethink our modus of operandi, our ways of working, and change that for the better. When you focus on a new way of operating make sure this new approach can be used by people who agree with you and also by people with completely different ideas than your own. Else it isn’t a good working political environment.

We need to create, and give a structure for a culture of candor in which collective creativity and intelligence can flourish in our society. I hope you will join me on this journey. If it is only me or a few people the world of politics won’t change, it is going to take a lot more than you probably realize.

First thing we have to discuss is what our concept of politics is. If you agree with me that the aim of politics is to create ideas, get those ideas on the political agenda, get them to be executed and to evaluate afterwards to see if there is a need to adjust or cancel the implemented ideas, then the question becomes which forces in these different stages influence this final outcome we get as a society. What’s the role of citizens? What’s the role of politicians? What’s the role of journalists? What’s the role of artists? What’s the role of scientists? What is the role of other professionals in shaping our framework of ideas? And how do all these groups interact with each other and influence each other intentionally and unintentionally? Even within one person someone could take on different roles at different times. For example, at your work you’re a journalist and at home you’re a citizen.

The reason I think it is necessary to discuss these kind of issues is simple: you cannot change what you do not (almost) fully understand. A statement attributed to Albert Einstein says it best:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
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