Managing Expectations.

A while back I wrote a series of posts on deconstructing democracy in which I noted that this form of rule ultimately rests on the consent of the majority, and that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is the contingent outcome of repeated conflict resolution efforts made at the political, social and economic levels. Because they are contingent, the three dimensions of consent are the subject of regular re-negotiation leading to collective compromises, the terms of which serve as the threshold of consent to which the majority must agree if democracy is to be consolidated and maintained over time.

The need for majority contingent consent in order to successfully reproduce democracy as both a political and social construct leads to self-limiting, incremental gains approaches on the part of groups and factions. The strategy is to advance sectoral fortunes via institutional means that ameliorate open conflict and facilitate the type of material and political compromises that reproduce mass contingent consent over time. Self-limiting and incremental gains approaches to realizing collective and individual interests are used in pursuit of mutual second best outcomes whereby all groups accept that attempts to maximize unilateral opportunities leads to collectively sub-optimal outcomes for the society at large.

Ideological and redistributive conflicts are denatured by the pursuit of the mutual second best, which in turn facilitates the achievement of material and political compromises that are reproducible over time. When that occurs, contingent compromises on matters of material and political interest frame public expectations of what are reasonable demands and achievable objectives on and by governments of the day.

That is why democracies are replete with calls for ideological moderation and centrist voting, and why they utilize institutions such as collective bargaining and compulsory arbitration when it comes to sectoral conflict.

In another series of posts I noted the problems inherent in transitional dynamics, which are the processes by which political regime change occurs. I wrote the posts early in the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, and I noted that bottom up transitions are not always revolutionary nor do they lead to democracy, and that top down transitions are more likely to result in negotiated and relatively peaceful devolution of political authority even if these too are not always, or even likely to be democratic. For those who may remember, I repeated the view that the interplay between opposition moderates and militants and regime hardliners and soft liners would most significantly influence the immediate outcome of a given transition, and that there would likely be a purgative phase following the transitional moment in which adherents of the old regime would be ostracized or victimized by supporters of the new one (if not the new regime itself). The latter is particularly true for countries with no historical experience with democratic forms of rule.

Needless to say, the Arab Spring and its sequels have tested these propositions and added a few new chapters to the regime transitions literature. But what continues to get relative short shrift, and which is a topic pertinent to any form of government that relies on majority support for its continuance in power, is the subject of managing expectations.

Achieving and maintaining the threshold of contingent majority consent requires management of public expectations of what is reasonable in terms of demands and what is achievable given the socio-economic and political context of the times. Resource availability, trade dependency, labor force skill base, nature of political representation and a host of other factors influence what are considered to be “reasonable” demands and “achievable” goals at any given point in time.

If individuals and groups concur on what is generally reasonable and achievable, mass contingent consent based upon self-limiting and incremental gains strategies leading to mutual second best outcomes is possible. Sectoral agreement on specific issues does not have to be uniform or absolute, and instead is the subject of institutionalized conflict resolution mechanisms involving debate and negotiation.

In democracies the key element in determining what is reasonable and achievable in a particular historical moment is government framing of the issues that condition individual and group approaches to making demands on political authority. Issue framing not only allows the government of the day to define the terms of debate about the specifics on which reasonable demands and achievable objectives are construed. It also allows the government to manage popular expectations as to what is and is not reasonable or achievable.

I mention this because one major problem for nascent regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere is and has been managing popular expectations of what can be delivered by a sudden move to electoral rule. “Democracy” means a lot of things to a lot of people, from unfettered freedom of expression to free blue jeans and TV sets. Many envision democracy as being a panoply of rights unencumbered by responsibility, to include the need for tolerance of others whose views, persuasion or traits are not congruent with one’s preferred world view.

The rush away from authoritarianism also has a tendency to encourage demagogic promise-making on the part of political contenders that has little relation to (or bearing on) what can be reasonably demanded on or achieved by the new regime. The syndrome is compounded when the incoming elite has little knowledge of, much less training or skills in the complexities of macroeconomic management, social policy, international diplomacy and trade or a myriad of other areas of government responsibility. Sometimes the best opposition leaders are the least qualified to govern.

The combination sets up the scenario of failed expectations: new political regimes based on popular support often fail to adequately manage expectations so as to give themselves time to learn the intricacies of their position and to establish priorities as to what can be reasonably demanded and achieved. Popular demands for short-term remedies and immediate material gains outweigh the regime’s capacity to deliver on what was promised, much less what was implicitly expected at the moment of transition. That produces a withdrawal of mass consent and a reversion to first-best or maximalist group strategies that lead to non-institutionalized mass collective conflict. This has been evident in Egypt and, with some significant differences in terms of the specifics of what is being debated and the intensity with which it is being contested, is also apparent in Turkey.

In established democracies the issue of managing expectations has roots not so much in what is immediately promised but in what has been historically delivered. The longer and more deeply embedded the concepts of reasonable and achievable are in the public consciousness, the more difficult it is to significantly alter downwards the threshold of mass contingent consent. Should democratic governments move to redraw the concepts of reasonable and achievable in order to downgrade or reduce the combined threshold of consent, the more likely it will be the non-institutionalized collective conflict will result. That has been the case in Greece and Spain.

In light of all of this, the National government in New Zealand has a challenge on its hands. Since the late 1990s the move to narrow the definition of citizenship rights and entitlements (the subject of yet another earlier post) has responded to incrementally applied corporate logics on the subject of collective demands in market driven climates of fiscal austerity in which reduction in state-provided public goods is seen as a basic requisite for economic competitiveness. The objective is to diminish public expectations of what is reasonably achievable and what can be reasonably demanded in a small open market economy.

The effort to reforge collective identities, at least with regards to public expectations of what is reasonable and achievable, has been largely successful. That has help lower the threshold of mass contingent consent in contemporary Aotearoa to levels that more closely approximate those of Asia than those of Europe or the Americas, and which are a far cry from those that existed before Rogernomics was imposed.

Even so, there is a limit to the downgrading of the threshold of consent and National appears to be approaching it. Be it the non-response to the Pike River or Rena disasters, the third world response to the Christchurch earthquake, the passing of legislation under urgency, the attempts to intimidate the media on both large and small issues (such as the Tea Cup affair or the personal denigration of Jon Stephenson because of his critical writing about the NZDF in Afghanistan), the focus on maximizing trade opportunities rather than affordable domestic consumption, the penchant for secrecy rather than transparency in policy-making, or even the arrogance and indifference of the PM when it comes to important questions about his leadership (epitomized by his repeated brain fades and his holidaying in the US rather than attending the funeral of NZ war dead), the combined effect may be that there comes a point where he and his government can no longer manage public expectations with a smile and a wave.

I am not sure when it will come or what that tipping point may be precipitated by, but it seems that we are well down the path towards a public withdrawal of consent to this government. It certainly will not look like the events in Athens, Cairo, Istanbul or Madrid, and the opposition may not have the ability to capitalize on the moment of opportunity provided it by public repudiation of the narrow definition of what is reasonable, achievable and expected of government, but it seems to me that the debased threshold of mass contingent consent has reached its limits in New Zealand.

The question is whether, should it eventuate, the withdrawal of consent in New Zealand will be confined to “manageable” institutional channels focused on specific aspects of the three dimensions on which it is given, or whether it will evolve into something more.


18 thoughts on “Managing Expectations.

  1. Would be nice if this was written in middle class english
    ie use a simple word rather than corporate/gummint ese
    The effort to reforge collective identities, at least with regards to public expectations of what is reasonable and achievable, has been largely successful.
    Make organisations live up to their values.

    or are you intentionally taking the piss?

  2. Sorry Roy, but I write for people with a bit more than high school grammar and comprehension skills. No piss take intended.

  3. Pingback: The Daily Blog Watch Tuesday 16th July « The Daily Blog

  4. Sorry Pablo, but I read for ideas that are not authenticated merely by being loaded with academic jargon. Your style lends itself to the suspicion that you’re using it in search of false authority. I have a Masters, btw, and I have adequate comprehension skills. No reference to grammatical competency was made by Roy.

  5. Galeandra.

    Again, sorry if you think I am using academic jargon to boost my supposed authority. I simply think that some complex ideas are not reducible to “making organizations live up to their values.” Even for an institutionalist that type of statement does not suffice by way of an explanation or analysis.

    Such reductionism is part of the problem of much contemporary political argument. I understand the need to cut to the chase and cut out the bs, but I also think that there are processes and phenomena that need to be thought through analytically and conceptually in their full dimensions. Somethings have more depth than is immediately apparent, something that cannot be captured in a pithy phrase or a simple form of English.

    Of course, my writing is clearly influenced by long years in academia. Even so, it is not so much the language but the literature on the subject in question that orients how I think about and phrase things.

    Needless to say my posts are not for everyone. They are not intended to be. The good news is that one is spoiled for choice when it comes to political blogs, NZ political blogs, and NZ leftist political blogs, so if my writing style gets up a reader’s nose, s/he can find solace elsewhere.

  6. Hugh: Good insult, even if you took a few days to think of it.

    The trouble with the KISS principle, especially the way you use it, is that the last two letters define the acronym: simple and stupid.

  7. Pablo, I’ve not made personal insults part of my discourse since primary school, and I don’t intend to restart now.

    It was just what I felt was a needed qualifier to your prior post, which seemed to posit academic language and reductionism as opposites, which they aren’t. Academic language and simplicity, maybe, but that’s a different matter.

  8. Thanks Roy/Huck, for that useful contribution and grammar lesson. Is “worser” a word used by your Thai rent mates to describe your performance?

  9. Jeez, tough crowd.

    As well as reasonable expectations, democracy requires:

    * effective rule of law (credible, independent courts which in addition to fairly enforcing laws also defend democratic institutions and processes)

    * freedom – political rights, civil rights, security, freedom of expression association and organisation, employment rights

    * responsiveness – political choices on offer reflect what people want, electoral choices roughly translating into parliamentary representation, backed up by a skilled and honest public service

    * accountability to the public – justification, information and punishment/compensation

    * accountability to other govt agencies – legislative opposition, audit agencies, central bank, anti-corruption commission, various ombudsmen,

    * equality – political and legal equality (rule of law, again), low level of discrimination based on gender, race, etc, some level of economic equality.

    In an authoritarian regime most of the above processes, institutions, etc are weak, fused with the ruling elite or absent. I don’t know enough about Egypt to know what the situation is with the supporting environment that democracy needs but my feeling is that democracy is having a hard time there because of several of the above factors. So parallels with NZ seem a bit tenuous, to me – we have quite good rule of law, freedom, responsiveness, etc.

    That’s not to say National hasn’t pushed the neo-liberal agenda as far as they can this time around, though. I look forward to finding out, in 2014.

  10. @rimu: I think you may be expanding your definition of democracy there. There’s a tendency among western commentators to use ‘democracy’ to mean ‘everything desirable in a political system’, but that’s not really what it is. Democracy is a method of choosing governments, it doesn’t describe the wider characteristics of a society.

    It is theoretically possible, for example, for a democratic society to experience economic inequality and discrimination. In practice, democratic governments are usually better on these fronts than non-democratic ones, but that has more to do with electoral incentives than anything else.

    If people democratically vote for policies that create discrimination or inequality, that’s not anti-democratic, although it is of course regrettable.

  11. Rimu: I agree that equate the National government’s failure to meet expectations with the plight of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere is a bit of conceptual stretch. TBH, I did it more for effect and to bring the point about consent and expectations home to a (mostly disinterested) NZ audience. I do agree with your expanded definition of democracy and then some (see citation below).

    Hugh: You are referring to the procedural level of democracy, which is only one level in a democratic society. The others are institutional, social and economic, which is what Rimu is alluding to.

    Rather than debate the issue here it might be worthwhile for both of you to read Chapter One of State, Labor, Capital: Institutionalizing Democratic Labor Relations in the Southern Cone. Pittsburgh University Press, 1995 (assuming that you can find a library that carries it). It addresses this issue at some length.

  12. Well, I probably shouldn’t comment until I’ve read the book in question, but I think the concept of ‘economic democracy’ in particular is quite contested.

  13. Indeed, that is why you should read that chapter, if nothing else, when you feel the need to comment about democracy.

  14. Do you really feel nobody can comment about what democracy is without being familiar with your chapter? Because I have to say, when I was studying the subject, it wasn’t required reading.

  15. Without getting into the mediocre quality of your NZ education, which is amply evident in your argumentation, the point of referring you to that chapter is that it outlines in detail the procedural and substantive bases of democracy. It follows a long line of theorizing about democracy (which is amply referenced in that chapter). The book is designed for post grad and professional audiences in political science so of course you would not have read it.

    The point being that if you are going to make silly statements like “economic democracy is a contested concept” and “democracy is only a method of choosing government and not a wider characteristic in society” then at a minimum you should have a friggin’ clue about the pertinent literature.

    I guess it was a bit too much to ask as you have a habit of jumping into subjects about which you have little knowledge or grounding. It is irritating for people like me who do have some background writing about the subject in question. I take consolation in the fact that you do this on other blogs, so you are an equal opportunity ignoramus.

    Here is a question: Have you ever heard of the notion of “democratic culture?” If so, how do you reconcile that concept with your procedurally minimalist definition of democracy? Do you even understand what “procedural minimum” means?

    Here is a hint: Elections are a means of choosing incumbents of political decision-making positions. As a procedural minimum they are a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy to obtain. Democracy is therefore not synonymous with or reducible to elections. Instead, democracy is the ensemble of institutions, norms, mores, rules and behaviors that collectively define a political community within a given geographic territory. This includes economic as well as social life outside of production, and when reproduced over time becomes what as known as a democratic culture unique to the polity involved.

    That is why your simplistic claim that democracy is merely a means of choosing government is wrong, and why you should have read that chapter before pontificating on the subject.

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