Professional politicians

Today, I shall write about the importance of a country having professional and experienced politicians, who have knowledge, values and ideologies that can serve the people. Often, we criticise politicians, for good and for bad. But we should also realize that in our time and age, politicians must learn their profession with its many and complicated facets. To become a good and well-qualified top politician takes more than good ideas and good intentions; it takes a few decades of hard work and commitment to causes and people. It is a long learning process to become a professional politician. In theory, politicians should be laypeople, not career politicians in full-time political jobs. But in practice, professional politicians are better than semi-professional and amateurish ones.

We also know that the loudest, populist politicians are rarely the best, the most thoughtful and reflected. ‘Quiet water may have the deepest bottom’, we used to be told when I was a child. It reminded us not only to talk, but also to listen and seek opinions of others. We learned that sometimes, the quiet ones might have better ideas than those who trumpet opinions from mountaintops. Populists are often good in style but less so in content. They are not (yet) professional politicians.

Donald Trump, the American presidential hopeful for the conservative Republican Party, is indeed trumpeting all kinds of opinions from wherever he finds a mountaintop, read, a TV station. He may perhaps be named the loudest mouth in the land, yes, perhaps in the loudest land. On the other hand, a politician must voice his or her opinions and say what he or she thinks. Politicians must speak about issues, explain values and ideology, present data and facts, suggest alternative choices and solutions, ask for voters’ opinions, and much more. And they must do that with knowledge and experience, not just trusting own intuition and talent.

Often, I appreciate listening to politicians like Barack Obama. He is a less loud American politician than the average. He shows us that simple solutions are rare and that there are numerous aspects to consider.

European politicians are generally better than American politicians in thinking, well, in presenting what they think, because we don’t really know what politicians might think unless they say it. Asian politicians may be good in explaining issues, but sometimes they are very wordy and lack logical thought and practicality.

This week, I was particularly glad to listen to several statements given by the German leader Angela Merkel about refugees and other forced and voluntary migration issues. I congratulate Germany for having such a great leader! She shows that even a conservative politician can be passionate in immigration issues – as was also the former conservative Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who in 2014 went to election (and lost) after he gave his legendary speech asking the Swedes to open their hearts (in Swedish, ‘öpna era hjärtan’) for expected influx of refugee in the coming years. The current social democratic government followed suit. Sweden and Germany are examples of how Europe should treat immigrants. This week, Reinfeldt’s memoir book, Halvvägs (in English, ‘Half Way’) was released, just as he turned 50.

Let this be examples of how experienced politicians reason, seek conclusions and lead. Without subject-matter knowledge, experience, compassion and leadership qualities, it is unlikely that they would have been able to reach balanced conclusions – which may not be the best as seen from a popularity standpoint or from a populist perspective. They are the opposite of being reckless and careless, like the uninformed and simplistic ideas from populist newcomer politicians like Donald Trump and others.

No one is born a ‘prêt-à-porter’ version of a politician. All must learn the trick of the trade and more. That is not only how to present a seamless speech, have all the rehearsed answers up the sleeves, and so on. It is not to be a bureaucratic and administrative leader, although to some extent that is also needed. However, an experienced, reflective and thinking leader is someone who has lived with and for the causes and people he or she stands up for; someone who is able to put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes.

Merkel and Reinfeldt must have lived through soul-searching and difficult times before reaching their conclusions. They would have done studies, read, debated, listened and learnt. They would have heard the concerns of the democratic organisations; interest and civil society organisations, unions, political parties, local government councils, provincial and central government parliaments, standing committees, international organisations, experts, counter-experts, and more.

But how do ordinary laypeople become professional politicians, because they must all start from somewhere?

I have mentioned some key aspects and given some examples. I would underline the importance of learning from the bottom; from the lower levels to the higher levels in society, notably from home, school, village, town, office or other workplace, and so on. In my home country Norway, some half of the members of parliament has earlier been members of the local councils, and they have often come of age in the local political party they belong to. That means many years of ‘political apprenticeship’ before they in their late-30s or 40s get into senior positions.

It should also be added that in our time, politicians are often younger than before, which again means that they usually would have been politicians most of their lives. True, ‘broilers’ can be dangerous, especially if they have only lived and worked inside a little bubble and think too highly of themselves. Hence, we also need politicians who come from other backgrounds, such as the private sector. Yet, I don’t believe that a top CEO necessarily makes a good, broad politician. He or she may be a good sector politician, or a special adviser, not necessarily a president or prime minister.

Finally, all politicians must talk with each other and learn from each other. In Norway, we have local and regional council elections in less than two weeks, on 14 September. I have followed the election campaign, and it strikes me how much respect they generally have for politicians from other parties (well, with exceptions in specific areas). In my hometown Bergen, everyone showed sympathy for the sitting mayor when the police decided to reactivate an investigation of her since she had received favours from a ship owner. She promptly took unpaid leave and put the election campaign aside. Corruption questions are indeed embarrassing

In my other favourite west coast city, Haugesund, I enjoyed watching some long TV debates with the three experienced frontrunners for mayor. They were all jovial and friendly towards each other and the audience. Yes, it had a small town feel to it, but it was also about solving important local and regional issues in a wealthy city with some economic constraints, as there is everywhere in our world today.
I believe that all top politicians can learn from local politicians. I also believe that the politicians must have long experience, deep knowledge, and even deeper compassion for the people they serve. Mostly, they will be full-time politicians, but it wouldn’t harm if they have another career, too, before and after holding public office. There isn’t much room for populism in my political world, at least not for politicians in power – not for those making decisions about refugees, migrants, employment, economic issues, education, health – or anything else.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt