Monday, 12 November 2012

What The Godfather Can Teach Politicians

Never hate your enemies, it affects your judgement. (Michael Corleone, The Godfather pt 2)

Michael Corleone had a talent which set him apart from every other character in the Godfather films. Unlike his hot-headed brothers and rivals, he had an empathetic understanding of his opponents. This was the gift which let him to rise to the top of his fictional mafia empire, because it allowed him to understand exactly how others thought and reacted to certain situations. It is a gift which is lacking in a great many people who are interested, or indeed active, in politics today.

To understand what I mean, think about the process which causes some on the left to claim that child sex abuse is the result of “a small minority of rich white men”, or some on the right to claim that Obama’s election victory means “bye bye western civilisation”. The root cause of these obviously ridiculous claims is that the people who make them see the world as being divided up in to the good, who agree with them, and the evil, who don’t. I use the terms good and evil deliberately, because those who hold this dualistic world view choose not to engage with their opponent’s arguments, but instead with their motivations. This effect is amplified by groupthink, where many people coalesce around a particular viewpoint, reinforcing each other’s belief in their own virtue and demonising their opponents.

This effect is not confined to the extremist fringes; actually it infects more or less every level of public debate. If a right leaning government decides to cut tax on high earners, a left leaning opposition will cry that they are doing it for the benefit of their wealthy friends. The debate is never conducted in terms of what level of taxation best balances economic growth with state revenue, because the left leaning opposition can never accept that the right leaning government has the national interest at heart, and assumes a sinister motivation instead.

In a similar way, if a left leaning government increases the size of the welfare state, a right leaning opposition will claim that they are trying to create a client state of ‘takers’ who will always vote left to keep their benefits, at the expense of the ‘makers’. It is assumed by the right that those on the left must have a sinister ulterior motive for their actions, and the idea that they simply want to improve the lives of the poor is discounted.   

Michael Corleone would not make this mistake, because he would realise that in the end misunderstanding your opponents in this way is a form of self delusion which can be highly self destructive. Just because you sincerely believe yourself to be right, and your enemies to be evil, does not make it true. If you base your actions on this false premise, the chances are that you will find yourself isolated from more rational people, who can see things more objectively. This is what has happened to the US Republican Party in recent years. So convinced were they of their own essential rightness, contrasted with Obama’s inherent evil, they failed to spot that most people didn’t see things this way. Lest we get too smug, it is also a pretty good explanation of the irrelevance of the British Labour Party during the 1980’s, or indeed the British Conservative Party during the Blair years. It is the curious fate of political movements in these situations that they cast round for some kind of ideologically pure saint to save them, when they would in fact be better off looking for Michael Corleone. In the words of Don Vito himself; “there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues”.

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