On political analysis

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Political analysis is a critical part of any healthy democracy. But understanding political decisions, as well as those things that motivate them, requires a certain amount of discretion: to be able to discern an honest motivation from a dishonest one. Too often, however, all political motivation is disregarded entirely as ill-concieved.

On political analysis

By: Gareth van Onselen

21 August 2012

Central to understanding any decision – and thus, being able to determine its strength or weakness – is an understanding of the motivation underpinning it.

Why a particular choice is made tells you as much about its purpose as does its nature.

The former – one’s motivation – especially in politics, is often difficult to discern, as it is sometimes hidden, sometimes obscured and sometimes poorly communicated. The latter – the choice itself – is much more easily dissected; for it is presented to the public and its objective parameters well defined.

Obviously, a good politician will be able both to make good choices and to articulate in convincing fashion their true purpose; a bad politician – bad choices and a dishonest explanation for them, if one at all.

Because motivation is so contested and politics so much about managing compromise, politicians spend much time and effort trying to explain exactly why it is they have undertaken a particular action. Often, however, to no avail.

Despite what they say, a lack of trust (often of their own making) results in many not believing and rather ascribing to their actions an ulterior motive; usually one based on some personal projection or prejudice; unusually, the result of meaningful insight.

But that is a game with its own inherent danger.

If it becomes common cause that the reasoning offered up by any politician is not to be taken as truthful from first principles, then everything is misrepresented by those who make it their business to interpret such things, truthful or otherwise. And that only damages trust further, a viscous circle that does no one any good.

Skepticism is important but easily confused with distrust. The one requires you to test ideas the other to disregard them outright.

Politicians have a duty to be honest and forthright; political analysis, in turn, to be critical of what is said, and not what is imagined.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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