To understand how we got here, and where this might be headed, it is useful to start with a tree; a Chankiri Tree, to be specific. What is a Chankiri tree, you ask. Well, Chankiri was a Tree in Cambodia against which children were smashed by the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s rule. It was not enough to kill their parents for being suspected enemies of the state; children had to be killed lest they grow up to take revenge for their parent’s death. In total, an estimated two million people were killed in what is one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.
It is reported that, as they grabbed the children by the legs and swung them around to smash their heads against the Chankiri Tree, the soldiers laughed because not to laugh could have indicated sympathy for the victims and therefore mark them out as enemies of the state!
The Chankiri Tree is therefore a fitting metaphor for the evil madness that can possess human minds. It stands to reason, therefore, that to understand the current political mess in our country, we need to start with what is going on in the minds of politicians and their advisors. But first, let us be clear about the proximate cause of the highly charged melodrama we are witnessing, and it is this: both political formations are employing classic Machiavellian tactics that are driving the country towards a date with uncertain destiny.
The dutiful and zealous practice of Machiavellian manoeuvres provides us with a hint. What you hear clanging loudly in the minds of politicians and their cheer leaders are three things: naiveté, the bandwagon effect and the delusion of certainty.
Naiveté in the sense of ignorant, emotional innocence is evident in their obsession with Machiavellian tactics. You hear words like humiliate, crush, destroy, bomb, outwit. Even if we assume they are faithful followers of Machiavelli’s advice in his (in)famous book The Prince, it is obvious that they are either grossly ignorant, misguided or deliberately selective. In a column a couple of years back, I explained that Machiavelli’s prescription was in the context of an invaded Italy. Within that context Machiavelli believed in the use of ruthless methods “only when the normal tools of government have failed to meet a crisis.” He was categorical that the prince or leader must have the council of wise men and not flatters. In Discourses on Livy, his other arguable more important work, the same Machiavelli who advocated manipulation and repression of people in The Prince, says “Doubtless these means [of attaining power] are cruel and destructive of all civilized life…and should be avoided by everyone.”
In that article, I continued: “And lest the power-by-any-means crowd also misread Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, the author in his other book, Mastery, is category that true success in leadership is not about cynical manipulation of human weaknesses, but patient and tenacious honing of skills and knowledge. The lesson from history is unambiguous: repressive, hegemonic, cynical and manipulative leadership may work for a while. In the long run, sustainable and widely shared prosperity and power comes from a governance approach that is firm but fair; consensual but accountable; and responsive but meritocratic.”
Now we turn to the bandwagon effect. Psychologists have observed that people will often ignore or override their own beliefs and do things because other people are doing them. In business school, this is akin to the Abilene Paradox: a group of people collectively agreeing on a course of action that many or even all in the group know is irrational! In politics, a few noisy, assertive types will parrot a practiced narrative and soon there is a full-blown choir. A few, solitary ‘grasshoppers’ recruit others and soon there is a ‘locust swarm’, with potentially dangerous consequences!
But why do people act irrationally? It is a complex topic and one that two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, first tackled in the 1970s. Kahneman later earned a Nobel Prize for an elaboration of this work in 2002. It is also a topic that this year earned Richard Thaler a similar prize. In layman’s language, people make illogical choices because mental short-cuts are convenient and more efficient in the use of limited brain resources. Mental laziness is our default position and we are easily ‘nudged’ into certain actions.
Finally, what is going on in the minds of our politicians and their advisors is the delusion of certainty. It should be obvious that, if we are incurably irrational, it is difficult to predict the course that our thoughts and actions will take us. A line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” sums it best: ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!’
Are we sleepwalking into dictatorship? No one knows. It may be that the current ‘crisis’ will lead us to a sober discourse on the need to reduce – constitutionally – the dangerously charged and damaging competition for the presidency of the country. Clearly, devolution has not diminished the attraction and power of this office.