The politics of time

Image of Gillian Tett

Why has Britain managed to press ahead with an austerity plan, while America has not? The question hangs heavily over Washington these days, as President Barack Obama wearily tries to forge a deal to cut America’s debt.

American politicians have been bickering for months about the spiralling US debt burden, but have hitherto failed to produce any tangible action. In London, by contrast, the coalition government devised an austerity plan a year ago. Whether you love or hate this British plan, nobody can deny that the scheme exists, or – more surprising – that it is being implemented. Hence all the teachers’ strikes.

So what explains the difference in action – or inaction? Some eggheads might point to economics: Britain has recently recorded less growth than America and since it does not have the luxury of being a reserve currency – and is sitting next to the eurozone – neither voters nor politicians are feeling complacent. History is also important: since Britain experienced the last bout of belt-tightening as recently as the 1970s, the concept of grim austerity is less of an existential shock. Then there is the difference in political structures. Britain’s parliamentary system enables governments to implement plans; America’s system, however, emerged in reaction to British royal rule – and is deliberately designed to limit the power of government, and its ability to impose unpopular policies too fast.

But another aspect also deserves debate: the political time horizon. Psychologists and neuroscientists have long been fascinated by how we humans conceive of time and live accordingly. So have anthropologists. After all, cultures that lack clocks have a subtly different mental map from those which plot hours – if not nanoseconds – with precision; similarly, while many western cultures visualise the passage of time in a linear way, some eastern religions have a more cyclical map.

There are subtle distinctions in political calendars too, which can affect political discourse. In Britain, parliaments can remain in place for up to five years, before fresh elections must be called. Right now, there is no guarantee that the parliament will last that long; if the coalition fragments before 2015, another election may be called. (In recent decades, British parliaments have averaged slightly less than five years.) But the coalition leaders insist they will serve the full term. Thus their austerity scheme has been drawn up with reference to a five-year plan.

This is brief compared to the mental map that predominates in some other countries, particularly the less democratic ones. Chinese leaders, for example, famously like to say that they are planning for decades, not years (although ironically in official circles they also operate with so-called “five-year” programmes); the former Soviet Union was so wedded to the “five-year” idea that the slogan “We must fulfil the five-year plan” was plastered everywhere.

Compared to America, five years is almost a luxurious length of time. In the US political system, the president is elected every four years, along with part of Congress. However, another part of Congress is re-elected halfway through this four-year cycle, in a mid-term vote. Thus, in practical terms, there is a fixed two-year cycle: no sooner is one political contest finished than another looms, as candidates scramble to raise funds, win votes or jump through primary contests. To a journalist, the rhythm feels as predictable as the planting cycle in the peasant communities that anthropologists often study. And wearingly – irritatingly – incessant.

This two-year cycle produces some benefits: precisely because politicians face elections so frequently, they cannot afford to ignore the views of voters. But there are big drawbacks too (and not just the media exhaustion). The pressure to respond to short-term concerns, or threatened voter revolts, makes it harder for leaders to take long-term decisions, or inflict pain. Little wonder, then, that Washington keeps procrastinating over an austerity plan: neither party wants to take big political risks since an election looms in 2012.

To be fair, America is not alone in this. If the UK coalition falls apart, British politics could quickly become more frenetic again. And the current pattern in the eurozone is arguably even worse. Sixteen countries hold elections in different cycles (with additional regional votes too). This creates a constant, unpredictable political cacophony and risk of voter backlash – and makes it even harder for politicians to take tough, proactive measures.

The fact that the US is not alone in its “short-termism” is hardly comforting: on the contrary, the sheer size of the structural dilemmas in the western world makes this alarming. Whatever Washington does – or does not – decide to do about its debt, the reality is that any solution will need more than two years. Indeed, five is a stretch.

Somehow, we all need to rethink our time horizons in politics – not just for the sake of disenchanted voters and tired journalists, but for those harried, hamstrung politicians too.

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