David Friggieri | Sunday, 30 November 2008

We don’t do identity crises

In 1990, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quoted the philosopher Paul Feyerabend who wrote that the Church’s “verdict against Galileo was rational and just and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune”. If there is one thing we should admire about the Church, it’s got to be its consistency and stubbornness.
Political parties clearly don’t have that privilege so you can hardly expect them to emulate the Church in their approach to changing scenarios. They have to win elections. But is it normal for political parties to reinvent themselves as something they clearly were not the night before? Can conservative, isolationist parties become liberal, pro-European parties at the drop of a hat without going through the trauma of an identity crisis? Can the leopard change its spots after all?
Politics is the art of the possible, so perhaps political parties are better off than both the Church and the poor old leopard. But I think that electorates are owed a clear, honest explanation when political parties undergo radical surgery on their identity. This is particularly true if the revamped, sexy version of the formerly haggard formation is essentially made up of the same people. Alternatively, we might as well be voting for a pair of Adidas jogging shoes: we were turned off by their clunky design throughout the 90s but their 70s retro range is really cool.
It’s difficult not to be cynical about politicians’ grand schemes and big statements if they can’t be bothered to subject themselves to some serious scrutiny. If we’re to believe that politics is primarily a battle of ideas rather than just another career choice, politicians need to engage in some genuine explaining about how their past decisions can co-exist with their present stance. And I don’t mean the convenient “everyone makes mistakes” line which we’ve been hearing lately. Politicians who want us to believe that they’ve changed should prove that they’ve gone through some serious soul-searching before they wear the smug look. To put it bluntly, if the Nationalist Party turned overnight into the local version of Marco Pannella's Partito Radicale, it would be a shock to the system. I would want to know what brought about the radical change, regardless of whether or not I subscribed to liberal politics myself. And the explanations would have to be pretty solid if they wanted me to believe that they hadn’t taken me for a very long ride and that they didn’t intend to take me on a longer ride in the future.
What I’m saying is: simply emblazoning the word PROGRESSIVI on your podium is one small step, arguably nothing more than a marketing ploy. Putting what that means in context in a way that respects your electorate’s intelligence would make that step politically significant.

David Friggieri lives and works in Brussels


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