The case for political pragmatism

Source: Wikimedia Commons

St Andrews students have recently elected a new Rector. The winning campaign’s slogan was ‘let’s start a revolution’, but there is a silent understanding — I presume even amongst most of Srdja Popovic’s voters — that that is not going to happen. Not just because the voter turnout was pretty low, not just because the Rector doesn’t really do all that much, or because the system is rigged, but because Mr Popovic himself was quite bluntly open about his inability to enact change both in his interviews and his speech at the rectorial debate. Still, apparently talk of revolution appeals to stereotypically young idealistic university students more than the choice of a more pragmatic, ‘status quo’ rector. Who would have thought!

Yet, I don’t think we should take this election that lightly. Sure, the rectorial election is never going to have a very high impact, but there is an underlying principle in Mr Popovic’s rhetoric which I do take issue with. When he said that as Rector, he would teach us how to fight for change, using the methods and strategies developed during his time as leader of the student movement against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević, which he uses to advise non-violent protestors across the globe, the implication was that if enough students signed a petition, wrote enough angry articles for The Saint, or protested in the streets of St Andrews, we would get a rail link built. The rail link is in his campaign’s manifesto (he didn’t have much input on what is actually written on the manifesto, it was written by his campaign team), so it’s not particularly difficult to connect the dots here. Besides the implication that the local council or the university administration are in some way equivalent or at least comparable to an oppressive regime, which I’m not very comfortable with, this way of thinking about enacting political change is wrong.

Firstly, while a massive protest could pose serious problems for the viability of a regime, angry students in Scotland’s most privileged university demanding a rail station because they don’t like a twelve-minute bus journey to Leuchars doesn’t really play the sympathy card that well. I would sure love it if the train station hadn’t been closed down in the ‘60s, but a train line to Leuchars that would cost millions, possibly never turning a profit, only to cut down the time it takes to get to Edinburgh by a handful of minutes is never going to be built. What’s worse is all this exciting talk of a rail link distracts from what is within reach and would actually make a difference to us students. Imagine if we petitioned for ScotRail to issue electronic tickets so we wouldn’t have to worry about the queue at the ticket machine at Leuchars, forcing us to take an earlier bus and therefore spend more time to travel.

When it comes to student politics, this tendency to stand on the side of radical change that never comes is more or less inconsequential. However, it is unfortunately very much not unique to it. People who believed that this sort of radical change can happen are the people who voted for Trump and Brexit. When a complex phenomenon, like deindustrialisation in the American Rust Belt or in the English North, which has complex root causes such as the ever-increasing automation which is becoming more and more economically advantageous over human unskilled labour and the shift from coal mining to renewable resources, is reduced to pointing the finger and blaming immigrants and past governments, we are unable to see the larger intricate picture that is reality. That is why populism, both on the left and the right, will never achieve any significant long-lasting improvement for its voter base, perpetually pushing it towards more radical populism.

We all have opinions on how things should be run. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. But we can’t hide our head in the sand. Just because one would like a more egalitarian American society, one is not justified in excusing Bernie Sanders’ complete lack of realistic policies branded as another ‘political revolution’, or refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a ‘compromise’. What’s worse, is that we tend to stick to our own media bubbles, reaffirming again and again our beliefs. I am not suggesting we abandon our opinions altogether, but we should all bear in mind that, even if in spirit or in principle, we are right about our ideal of how things should be run, we are most likely wrong about how to get there. So, before we take any promises at face value, let’s first scrutinise them, and ask ourselves if they are in fact feasible or just empty rhetoric.


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