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David Thunder,, researcher of the project 'Religion and Civil Society' of the Institute for Culture and Society

Recovering the value of political promises

Fri, 15 May 2015 10:16:00 +0000 Posted in Expansion

If a lifelong friend had promised to support you in a legal dispute and then sided with your opponent at the last moment, would you accept as an excuse that he did not believe he had enough allies on his side to ensure victory? On the contrary, you would feel outraged and betrayed and probably wonder how you could have been so naive in considering him your friend for so many years. Surely, he would have to put great effort into regaining your friendship.

We intuitively understand the importance of keeping promises in friendly relationships, yet we seem to tolerate empty promises from our political leaders, promises they cannot keep, promises they are not in a position to guarantee, promises that have more basis in imagination and marketing than in reality, promises that seem feasible but are quickly abandoned as soon as unexpected difficulties arise. In extraordinary circumstances such as deep economic crises, political loyalties can change dramatically. In fact, it seems to be happening already, to some extent. However, it is often the case that the same old political parties get elected and re-elected despite a strong record of false, empty, irresponsible and broken promises. At this point the question naturally arises: why do voters seem to tolerate the breaking of promises by political leaders when they would not accept such behavior from their family and friends?

We may have become accustomed to empty and broken promises in the political arena and therefore subtract much of what we hear when a politician says "I promise" or "I pledge". After de-weighting the promise, we may feel less surprised and disappointed when they are broken or forgotten. The more we reduce the value of political promises, the less it will hurt a politician to make and break them lightly and the more he or she will continue to do so, confirming to the voter the conviction that political promises are meaningless. Political cynicism feeds itself.

In fact, we have reached a point where the people of this country almost expect our politicians to lie to us. The level of disillusionment and distrust among Spanish citizens towards the political class -status which does not differ much from other European countries - is palpable. However, it is doubtful that the Spanish political system can survive this level of public cynicism for long. Trust, as many sociologists have observed, is the cement of social order. Trust in the word of others is what allows us to enter into good faith contracts, build communities, make friendships, collaborate on projects, pay our taxes, obey the law even when it hurts, accept court rulings and so on.

If we cannot trust our politicians to tell the truth about public affairs, to present their intentions in an honest and straightforward manner to voters, and to stick to those intentions once elected, then the entire electoral system becomes an empty sham, in which substantive criteria are replaced by empty rhetoric and emotional manipulation. If we cannot trust the word of politicians, then the rational basis for voting for a candidate or party - a coherent sense of their present commitments and future actions - collapses.

The consequences of a political culture in which speech has lost its value should not be underestimated. A generalized distrust of political class tends to engender widespread apathy and disaffection among citizens towards political institutions, jeopardizing the future of the democratic political order and the legitimacy of the modern nation-state. This subject of delegitimization of the reigning political order can create dangerous power and legitimacy vacuums, which can be filled by increasingly brazen tax evasion, the taking of justice into one's own hands and the growth of criminality. Lest this seem like an exaggeration, one need only consider how quickly Germany descended from a constitutional political order into an oppressive fascist regime. In that case, an entire generation of citizens who felt abandoned and betrayed by their political leaders fell under the spell of a populist leader who made and broke his promises lightly, who employed the procedures of a democratic order to shatter the values of democracy and the rule of law.

The shift to a culture of distrust is not unstoppable, but it requires a fundamental change in both the values of our political culture and the sensibilities of voters. This transformation includes several aspects: among them, the need for courageous and exemplary moral leadership, a determined effort within the political elite to instill new mores and standards of conduct, and a set of electoral and parliamentary system reforms to ensure institutional transparency and to free politicians from the suffocating and all-encompassing discipline of party, so that they can vote from agreement with their conscience rather than being forced to blindly conform to the party line in order to thrive on the degree program political .

This subject of reforms in the leadership, ethos and structure of our political institutions requires careful planning and oversight and will not happen overnight. In the meantime, politicians and voters can develop their role in restoring a culture of trust. Politicians, for their part, can communicate more clearly the difference between long-term hopes deadline, the causes they will support against all odds, and the projects they will have occasion to develop in a given period. If a politician tries not to promise what he knows he cannot or will not undertake, then he will demonstrate to voters that his word means more than a cheap election slogan. We voters, for our part, must break the habit of downplaying political promises and turning a blind eye to empty and broken promises. When we cast our vote, each of us should keep in mind that a politician who is inconsistent with his or her word does not deserve our support or our loyalty.