‘Muddling through’ is the new politics

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“New Poll Finds Americans View Death of Close Relative More Favorably Than Congress,” headlined the American satirical magazine The Onion recently.

That’s about right. Approval ratings for the US Congress last year were 14 per cent, the lowest since measurements began in 1974, according to the pollsters Gallup – and even that figure seems suspiciously high. Meanwhile, Barack Obama has nearly the lowest ratings of his presidency and François Hollande the lowest of any modern French president. Italian prime ministers change so quickly that it’s hard to rate them at all. Elected politicians probably haven’t been this maligned since the 1930s.

Happily, there is a solution. Voters and politicians need to grasp a basic truth: almost all politicians will fail. The good they do will happen mostly by accident. None of this is even their fault. Once we accept that, healing can begin.

We’re currently recovering from a period of political overconfidence. From 1979 to 2004, the west experienced a mini-utopian era stuffed with grand projects. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan discovered deregulation. We had the “war on drugs”, the “war on terror” and the war on Iraq. European politicians created the euro.

Generally, politicians posed as strong leaders, much like the era’s cocky CEOs. As George W Bush put it: “I am the decider, and I decide what is best.” His next words, not always remembered, were: “And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defence.” Rumsfeld himself remains an object of horrified fascination partly because of his self-certainty – a relic of that political era.

The defining quotation of these 25 years was recorded by the journalist Ron Suskind from a “Bush aide” in 2004. The aide had accused Suskind of belonging to “the reality-based community”, and defined that as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. The aide added: “That’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.”

But creating their own reality didn’t work so well. By 2004, the Iraq war had gone further wrong than even vehement opponents had predicted. Then the global economy blew up. Seven lean years later, the current political moment feels so hopeless that the “reality-based community” itself has disintegrated: hardly anyone still believes that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. Rather, today’s dominant political philosophy is Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong, will.

Christopher Clark’s recent book The Sleepwalkers, about the outbreak of the first world war, is a history for our times. Clark depicts countries sleepwalking into war, largely through accidents, oscillations and misunderstandings. “It is not clear,” he writes, “that the term ‘policy’ is always appropriate in the pre-1914 context.”

Recently the most powerful man on earth came out and said it: he can’t do much. Obama had become president promising intentionalism: “Yes we can!” But five years on, in a 17,000-word series of interviews with The New Yorker, he gave a very different statement of his matured thinking. He said he would make mistakes. He didn’t have a “joystick” to manipulate exact outcomes. And he said his three big Middle Eastern initiatives – Iran, Israel/Palestine and Syria – each had a less than 50-50 chance of achieving a final treaty.

This statement of limitations is the vision we need now. Humans are fallible. They often cannot even perceive their own best interests, as behavioural economists have pointed out. Almost every new policy will initially fail.

The discovery of human fallibility comes in cycles but isn’t new. A favourite contemporary response is: “Let’s sideline people and let data decide.” But the American data guru Nate Silver dismisses that idea. Data almost never reveal an unmistakable truth, he says. Human interpretation – inevitably fallible – is required.

Thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich Hayek drew a conservative conclusion from human fallibility: politicians should beware of changing anything. But there is a more optimistic conclusion: politicians can improve the world, but only slowly, bit by bit. Rather than grand projects, the philosopher Karl Popper advocated “piecemeal social engineering”. Try something small, that’s easily reversed – a new tax, say, or sanctions against Iran. If it works, you scale it up. If not, you drop it. Politicians should be encouraged to “flip-flop”. Flip-flopping is often smart policy. By contrast, grand projects such as invading Iraq or creating the euro are hard to exit, says Peter Antonioni, lecturer in management at University College London.

Even climate change requires piecemeal solutions, says Roger Pielke Jr, political scientist at the University of Colorado. Rather than pursuing a grand global treaty, try lots of smaller initiatives – funding renewables, carbon capture experiments – and scale up the promising ones. This is the science of “muddling through”.

To embrace it, we need a new politics. Politicians traditionally promise the moon tomorrow. As Pielke says, nobody wins elections with, “What do we want?” “Muddling through!” “When do we want it?” “Incrementally!” But promising the moon no longer persuades anyone. Politicians might try offering muddling through instead.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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