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What People Get Wrong About ‘Political Will’

[governing.com – May 2018]

At a recent Governing roundtable, I heard once again that the failure to act on a serious public problem was due to a lack of “political will.” Hearing this from people who are wise and good public officials always leaves me a little annoyed. I agree with David Roberts of Vox, who wrote, “To me, it has always sounded like the political equivalent of the Force in the Star Wars movies. It explains everything and nothing.”

When you hear a public official or pundit say that the reason this or that desirable thing cannot be done is because of a lack of political will, what you are actually hearing is that person blaming other people’s moral failings. This is born of a lack of insight and analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines political will as “the firm intention or commitment of a government to carry through a policy, especially one that is not immediately successful or popular.” Political will is not some kind of immutable and innate personal quality. It is not the same as political courage or conviction. It is a deliberate social construct, and every positive advance of public policy rests upon its successful creation.

As the Oxford definition suggests, issues that require political will are ones that are not easily resolved. What is required for success is the creation of ever-broader coalitions. There will be opposition and conflict. The status quo is what it is because of powerful interests, and, as Frederick Douglass said, change always requires struggle because “power concedes nothing without a demand.” The best way to manage that conflict is, paradoxically, to stop fighting. That is, to stop responding to and vilifying the intransigents on the other side. Instead, build a narrative that embraces the values of the majority of folks who are not unalterably committed to either side. What is needed is not moderation or even necessarily compromise, but effective stories that appeal to widely held beliefs about ourselves. Despite the terrible rhetoric we hear all the time, we have far more in common than is widely believed.

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  1. Robert Curtis

    WE need to misfire against our targets/enemies in the right way. I was in the Navy as a Torpedoman technician. What a torpedoes does is to purposely miss their target and explode below the ship causing it to lift and break under it’s own weight. Direct assaults are expected from us by people like Ron Book and his daughter. The better question to ask is how and where can we strike by missing the enemy’s prepared defenses? How to do so in a better and more effective way? What is it to miss yet be effective in purpose? How to gain allies from your opponent’s pier group, associates, industry, family and friends. If not gaining them as allies at least planting seeds of reason in their minds via of questions to consider.. Always fight for the long term… Of course our greatest challenge is to better define for those on the registry and their family members that they are no longer civilians but soldiers. Do you think Ron Book see himself going after us as a civilian? No, he is a soldier! Meanwhile those on the registry are on the defensive. We need to DEFINE strongly that if you are on the registry your are a soldier and in a war!!!

    Robert Curtis
    (949) 872-8768

  2. Tim Moore

    Very eloquently stated, Robert. I really like that image of the torpedo just slightly off target. Smarts not just force. What I might add is that our friends are our worst enemies. They are the ones needing convincing. I don’t think anyone should change their political orientation in response to these sex offense laws, but try to align our arguments with those we agree with on other matters. A good example is Christians pointing out how the revenge basis of sex offense laws violates scripture of forgiveness; liberals convincing others liberals that the punitive response to offending conflicts with rehabilitation, education for prevention and other self proclaimed progressive goals; or fiscal conservatives addressing the vast waste of government resources spent on the ineffective registries. I don’t see our modern sex offense hysteria belonging to any one party or another — except to fascism, which we all as Americans should all be against anyway. It is more like a virus that has spread into every ideology in America. If only I could be a better “t” cell to fight the infection.

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