Highly popular...

Highly popular...

OK, then

Canute
Thompson

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

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Opinion polls continue to show Andrew Holness as a popular political figure. In the business of politics being liked or likeable and being popular are distinct assets to the extent that voters' decisions are informed by how much they like. So, where the popularity contest is concerned, Holness is by far a winner. But is there more to politics and leadership than being popular?

As an aside, I must declare my curiosity about Holness's popularity, and let me say why before I seek to examine some clues about “like”and what there is beyond popularity that we should consider and why.

Performance versus popularity

Judging by the metrics Holness outlined in the 2015-16 election campaign and in his swearing-in speech, there can be no doubt that he has failed. Let's focus on the top three key performance indicators (KPIs) which Holness set himself:

(1) Growing the economy by five per cent each year for four years — FAILED.

In fact, the economy would have grown by less than five per cent cumulatively over four years. In 2017 and 2018 growth by an average of one per cent was fuelled by infrastructure projects. And, in 2019, when those projects began to close, the economy went into decline in every quarter and was at a standstill in the last quarter and saw negative growth of -1.7 per cent in the January to March quarter of 2020, pre-COVID.

(2) Bringing crime under control — FAILED.

Despite a dozen states of emergency (SOEs) for two and a half consecutive years, murders and other crimes remain high.

(3) Not tolerating corruption — FAILED.

In almost every ministry there has been palpable corruption and, although two ministers were removed from Cabinet — Andrew Wheatley and Ruel Reid — their pre- and post-removal relationship with Holness and what he may have known about their activities remain things to be probed.

I have listed no less than 20 discrete areas of performance in my Twitter feed showing that the Holness Administration has underperformed.

So, given these facts, and the further fact that many people continue to live in abject poverty, what accounts for Holness's high popularity? More importantly, what's next?

Clues about “like”

What makes people like other people? Social psychologists are agreed that this is just difficult to determine, as often the very thing one person may like about us, another person hates. And, each of us is loved and hated.

Business writer Shana Lebowitz, in a September 26, 2017 article in The Independent newspaper, discusses '16 psychological tricks to make people like us immediately'. The first and the last on this list are copy the people you are with and act like you like them.

Psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman, in a December 18, 2018 article in the journal Psychology Today, advances an argument which is in line with the two items mentioned from Lebowitz's list. Seidman, whose article is titled 'Why do we like people who are similar to us', references a large body of research which shows that likeability is a function of perception that the other person is like us. Seidman cautions, however, that the research shows that there is a difference between actually having a lot in common with someone and believing that we have a lot in common with them. Thus, in the context of politics, there is a difference between causing people to believe we have a lot in common with them and actually having a lot in common.

One of the big features of election campaigning is for a politician to not only convey to potential voters that they are like voters, but that they understand their reality and feel their pain. Donald Trump was able to convince many mid-westerners and rural folk that he had their back and was going to restore the America they had lost. Joe Biden is more liked than Trump because he comes across as a genuine Uncle Joe who is from among them and like them.

If I were to apply the insights of Lebowitz and Seidman, as well as that of others who have written about the psychosocial dimensions of “like” and the issue of likeability in politics I would conclude that Holness has succeeded in conveying to people that he understands their struggles, that he is like them, and that he cares for them. Whether that is true is for another discussion, but what is clear is that many people appear to believe he does or like him for some other reason. The big question which remains is: For what great purpose will Holness deploy this asset of his likeability?

Service above self

In a devotional book I received from my mother there is a prayer at the end of one of the readings which says simply: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.” Bob Marley captures this sentiment in one of his interviews in which he said words to the effect: If I an' I life is just fi I an' I it can tan, mi no want it.”

In a similar vein, Norman Manley, in his famous farewell speech, said that the accomplished mission of his generation was to secure political independence, and that of the generation which succeeded him was to secure economic independence. Our lives must serve a cause. Scripture teaches that if we seek to secure what we possess we will lose it, but if we use our possessions for a greater cause then we will save them.

So, at least for now, Holness possesses an abundance of goodwill with his high levels of popularity. What should he do with it? I suggest five things that the prime minister can do with his popularity in furtherance of the bigger cause, and I make these suggestions partly because, up to this point, coming to the end of the 2016 mandate he has not shown that he is prepared to use that popularity for a cause bigger than self.

Enact legislation to:

(1) make it mandatory that the integrity declarations of all legislators are made public;

(2) make corruption by elected officials a criminal offence punishable by recovery of funds misused or stolen plus mandatory prison time of no less than six months at genuinely “hard labour”;

(3) institute a mandatory tertiary education savings programme for each child within a year of birth, seeded by a $10,000 grant by the Government with the requirement that the parent lodges a minimum amount each month — with the Government providing the monthly amount for Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) families — for eighteen years and that this fund be made available to support access to tertiary education or entrepreneurship;

(4) institute provisions in the public service regulations which will impose a fine/provisions for recovery of funds against civil servants whose actions, if unlawful and which they knew or ought to have known is unlawful, cost the taxpayer; and

(5) constitutionally fix the date for holding general and local government elections.

Do big things beyond self-interest, Sir, these are just my suggestions.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as a senior lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of six books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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