Change is the international buzzword of modern politics. Bill Clinton won on that magic theme in 1992. His wife got beaten by it in 2008. In Italy, former Mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni tried to do the impossible and promised change while his party was the one still in government. Considering the awkwardness of that promise he didn’t even do that bad. And back in Holland every new populist party, with the promise of change embedded in the newness of the party, starts off with huge poll results. Until they are no longer new, of course.
And therein lies the catch. The late, great Dutch Social Democrat leader Joop den Uyl once famously said that ‘the margins are narrow’, meaning that there wasn’t much at all he could change; there isn’t that much room to manoeuvre in politics. Once you’re running the show, you’ll discover that it’s a game of compromises, leaving behind a seriously watered-down version of your big promises. That is especially true in a multi-party democracy where a clean one-party majority is practically impossible, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that a President of the United States or a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom have unlimited possibilities. Their compromises are forced upon them by huge, internally not very homogenous party machineries – and by special interest groups of course.
Especially for populists this is a highly vulnerable position to be in. Another famous Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn, murdered in 2002 right before the elections, said: “I say what I think and I do what I say.” That may well be every populist’s motto. Of course, he couldn’t possibly have done exactly what he said and he knew that. But straight talk is what the people want to hear instead of the double talk from Washington, London, The Hague or Rome. However, once you’re in, straight talk is out. Populism therefore, in the long run, is doomed to fail – even the greatest populist of our times, new Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, talked about unpopular measures that were necessary – after he bagged the election, of course.
So where does our love affair with change in politics come from? Surely it’s a good thing to clean out some offices here and there every four or eight years – but at the end of the day that doesn’t change much at all. You need a revolution to really change things, and there aren’t many voters in the Western world prepared to vote for anything revolutionary. And so it’s not really about great, sweeping changes.
Let’s look at Sen. Obama. He may be able to push his country into a slightly different direction, but after four or eight years people will call for – you’ve guessed it – change, thereby effectively robbing the man and his party of any possibility to really make a difference. The country then gets nudged back in the other direction and in the long run that makes for a pretty stable and above all unchanging course. Which leads to the conclusion that our desire for change breeds the opposite.