Most people are familiar with the definition of politics as the art of the possible. What is perhaps not so widely known is that the original axiom of Otto von Bismarck, the great, 19th century Prussian statesman, was actually, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” The expanded quotation has the advantage of making the inherent element of compromise more explicit and, almost contradictorily, elevates the successful practice of politics as an ideal in and of itself.
A more dyspeptic view of politics, however, was that of John F Kennedy’s Ambassador to India, the famous, Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who in 1962 sourly observed, with regard to the politics of the Vietnam War, “Politics is not the art of the possible; it consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
The latter postulate would perhaps have more resonance in Guyana today, so sceptical are we about politicians and politics and so inured have we become to the practice of politics as a zero-sum game.
Yet, both positions recognise that the practice of politics is rooted in pragmatism and practicality. And whilst it may be somewhat dispiriting that principles and ideals are too often sacrificed on the altar of expediency, we would do well to bear in mind that in the confrontational world of politics, constructive dialogue built on an incremental process of compromise and consensus is the only way forward for a divided society.
Certainly, in Guyana, after a total of 47 years of mutual distrust, suspicion and rancour, we cannot afford to have any one side continuing to try to impose its vision and its vision alone upon the other side, whether it be the government itself or the combined opposition with its, so far, untested parliamentary majority of one seat.
Thus, even as we contemplate the uncertain reality of a hung parliament, the immediate political future – and all that it entails for national stability, development and prosperity – hangs in the balance.
We are told that consultations are ongoing and it appears as if the opposition parties can agree on a joint platform for engagement with the government. But for the dialogue with the government to be constructive, the opposition must remember one of the basic rules of negotiation – there have to be options for mutual benefit. Indeed, the government must equally recognise that it cannot dictate terms to the opposition parties and Parliament. In short, both sides must give each other wiggle room.
This may be the greatest challenge of the new dispensation, especially in a political climate accustomed to the demonization of the other and in a culture in which making concessions is viewed as a sign of weakness. As a people, we need to move beyond the tendency to walk away from each other, hurling expletives in the air; as a nation, we need our politicians to put behind them the baggage and behaviour of the past and the temptation to sacrifice common sense rather than admit that they can find common ground.
In this respect, our leaders would do well to remember that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest was not so much premised on the fittest being the strongest, toughest or most powerful, but rather on their ability to adapt to change and circumstances.
So, we need our politicians, supported and encouraged by civil society, to be at their most reasonable and adaptable in the coming days, weeks and months, if we are to avoid the added stress of an early election. We need them to engage in constructive dialogue, to make deals, as the only practical, political strategy, if all Guyana is to win something out of the realignment of forces in Parliament. Obviously, for this to happen, the political will must exist on all sides to move the country forward.
Our leaders should therefore seize the opportunity to refine and elevate our political process from the realm of “the disastrous and the unpalatable” to strive for what is possible and to realise “the art of the next best.” The good of the country demands this of them. To do otherwise would be to court catastrophe and inflict more pain all around.