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Corona Diaries: would you let a dancing bear mind your sheep?

May 6, 2020

Forgive me if I throw a theory out there that has already occurred to those with more sophisticated political instincts than mine. But it’s what everybody else seems to be doing, so why not me?

When we look back on the reasons why the two world leaders in COVID deaths failed to act quickly enough to suppress their outbreaks, one of the main causes will be that both in the UK and the US, perceived opinion mattered more than science.

The United States is perpetually in election mode. Nothing new there, except that two things have amplified the focus on elections.

First, it has a president obsessed more than any other about what he calls ratings. Since there is an election of critical importance every other year – be it the mid-terms or the general election – Trump never stops campaigning. It is his highest priority. Therefore he pays attention to opinion polls and those who influence opinion before all else.

Second, through the social media and the TV networks, the population has been focused on elections and election data more than ever before. Forecasters like Nate Silver, who accurately predicted the outcome of the 2008 and 2012 elections, have become gurus. The media fed Trump. Trump fed them.

It wasn’t just Trump. When hard decisions needed to be made on social measures to contain the virus, every politician with what Nassim Taleb calls skin in the game – including the president and all the governors, senators and house representatives who are up for election this year – asked themselves how their decisions would play in November.

You wouldn’t want to jump into a swimming pool if you’re not sure it’s full of water. At worst you injure yourself, at best you make yourself look like an idiot. In February and early March, as far as Trump and Johnson were concerned, lockdown was that swimming pool.

It’s still going on. Many state governors, with honourable exceptions, are playing a game of chicken. Who dares to reverse the lockdown, and to what extent? Pay lip service to science and give full attention to public opinion. Politics comes before science, unless you can find some science that suits your purpose. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the thinking is not economy first, but election first.

Now let’s look at the UK. It’s not quite the same story, because we’ve just had an election and we don’t have a head of government who spends hours every day watching opinion-formers on networks and cable TV, glowering at twitter feeds and spinning every positive opinion poll that comes his way. Boris Johnson is not a mini-Trump, though he shares some of the president communications liking for bluster and hyperbole.

But we do have a government that has come into being after a critical referendum and two general elections in the four years. A government to whom the opinions of the opinion-shapers seem to matter more than the facts on the ground. For whom facts are there to be ignored, distorted and re-interpreted. In other words, it’s a government that may be assured of another four years in power, yet is still in election mode. Those who helped to win the last election – campaign managers, political advisers – are still at centre stage.

You only have to look at the use of slogans in the government communications on COVID to know that. Those who brought you “Take Back Control” are now telling you to “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”. Slick, succinct and memorable.

Call me a cynic, but I suspect that the government’s electioneering muscle memory contributed as much to the initial hesitation as did what it calls “the science”.

In both cases – the US and the UK – you have to ask the same question: are the skills required to win elections the same as those required to govern effectively? Doing and saying what’s necessary to be liked, versus doing stuff you think necessary regardless of the effect on your popularity?

Of course not. The best leaders and governments manage both. Some, such as Gordon Brown in the UK with his management of the 2008 financial crisis, managed one but not both. Whether Donald Trump manages both, one or neither remains to be seen. History will judge his executive decisions. As for his ability to win elections, we will know more after November.

In countries that are bitterly divided and have huge constituencies of discontent, the temptation is always to go down the route least unpopular among those who shout loudest, especially if governments rely on the opinions of those who are tried and tested in winning elections rather than those who are capable of making and implementing effective policy decisions, however difficult and however unpopular.

Dancing bears don’t easily turn into sheep dogs. Whatever structural difficulties both countries faced in the first few months of this year, I suspect we’ll end up pointing at the dancing bears when we look back at the hard times we’re enduring today.

From → Politics, UK, USA

  1. Both the trumpeting Trumpy and the Bumbling Bragging and equally mendacious Boris are dancing bears.

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