Idealism vs Realism

So our politics is still largely a propaganda driven one. Rather than political parties differentiate themselves based on ideology, their campaign rhetoric is very much based on the familiar Nigerian refrain “i-better-pass-my-neighbour”. Campaign spiel during the last general election was much more about why my guy isn’t as bad as the other guy and quite light on policies. The campaign was so light on policies that a month into the new dispensation, the ruling party is still unclear on its policy direction. This lack of a clear ideology, in my opinion, is contributory to the “slow-going” of the President Buhari administration, where personal interest and position jostling is causing a distraction for elected officials and a friction between party and members. Clearly this is an unacceptable situation to put the new President and the country in.

In my previous article, I reiterated that we need our parties to develop ideologies so that it’ll be easier for the public to have a reasonable expectation of policy direction. A political ideology encompasses every strata of society from taxation to economic structure, defence spending or foreign relations to health infrastructure, welfarism to citizenship/ownership rights.

So what is an ideology? An ideology is a set of ideas, principles or beliefs that those who hold it true use as the bedrock of how a system should run. A political ideology concerns itself with how a society should work, institutions should function, the role of government, the extent or allocation of power to government and the related power-play between the government and the governed.

The most common way of describing ideologies is broadly dependent on their positioning on the political spectrum, that is, left or left-wing and right or right-wing. There are a lot more sub-groups of political ideologies beyond the two mentioned above but these are the oldest of the political spectrum and a good place to start my discourse on political ideology.

Left-wing ideology – this ideology is broadly socialist and aims to reduce class inequality or improve social equality. For example, communism (China) and socialism (Greece – Syriza) are forms of government widely accepted as being on the left axis of the political spectrum. An example of how this ideology can impact policy is this: on taxation, a leftist political party will most likely (and have been known to) push for tax policies that will be hierarchical or tiered, that is, effective tax rates on income will be linked to how much a citizen earns. For example, someone that earns N1.5m per annum may pay 20% in income tax whilst someone that earns N20m per annum may pay 35% in income tax. The aim of this structure being that those that earn more or deemed wealthier should contribute more to government coffers and society. More often than not, a left-wing government will raise taxes rather than reduce it to source funding for its social policies.

Another example of how a left-wing ideology can drive a party or government policy relates to welfarism or the part of society deemed disadvantaged. A left leaning government is more likely to be generous with policies on benefits to those unemployed, spend more on making sure the disadvantaged (lower class) aren’t left behind by those deemed better off (middle or higher class) and is more likely to run a big welfare program in its budget. Such a government will want to spend on education or public schools to ensure the quality is comparable to private schools with the assumption being that children of lower class citizens are more likely to attend free or low fee paying public schools – basically ‘equalising’ exposure to quality education irrespective of social class.

On economy, a left leaning government is more likely to be interventionist in nature seeking to interfere in markets where it feels it has a social responsibility to do so in order to reduce perceived exploitation of citizens by businesses, with lower class citizens the most vulnerable. This often leads to central planning, a dominant federal government, trade unions, labour strikes, high red tape or bureaucracy and increased cost of doing business.

A left leaning government also tends to be big in terms of size (employees) or budget relative to the economy which right-wingers criticise as they believe it leads to corruption and inefficiency whilst left-wingers argue against small government because they believe it leads to nepotism – “increasing the chances that the rich will get richer” and social inequality.

Right-wing ideology – this ideology is broadly conservative and believes that social inequality is normal, natural or inevitable. This belief is often defended with natural laws such as the “survival of the fittest”, that is, it is natural that the strong will dominate the weak. A right-wing party is more likely to believe in free markets or capitalism, be traditional in its views e.g. pro-life and anti-abortion and be hierarchical in its view of societal class. Back to taxation, a right-wing party or government is more likely to push for policies that reduce the effective rate of taxes. An extreme right-wing tax policy could be a flat personal income tax rate, say 20%, for all citizens irrespective of social class. The argument here is that the impact of the flat rate is the same on everyone, salary or wealth size notwithstanding and presumes this should result in equal indignation on the impact of taxes.

A right leaning party or government also tends to have a reduced welfare budget in comparison to a leftist party or government. Whilst a left-wing government may be generous with unemployment benefits, a right-wing party will be very reluctant to pay benefit to anyone not demonstrably seen to be doing everything they can to become employed. Right wing governments believe in rewarding hard work and that workers should get and are entitled to more relief from the state than non-workers.

As previously mentioned, governments based on right-wing ideologies tend to favour capitalism and would normally promote policies that frees up the market, stay out of the way of businesses by reducing bureaucratic regulations and red tape. The belief here is that, and this is linked to tax policy, citizens should be left with as much disposable income as possible and that this should lead to increased spending (consumption in GDP equation) which should be supportive of economic activity and growth. This is similar to the argument those against left policies often use that government doesn’t know best and that increased GDP or economic activity shouldn’t mainly be as a result of government spending i.e. G in the GDP equation where GDP=C+I+G+(Export-Import).

There is another ideology that is equally as relevant to this discourse other than the two mentioned above called Centrism. The centrist political stance is more of a pragmatic or balanced outlook on ideologies than being an ideology itself. However, in my opinion, a true centrist stance of perfect equal balance between left and right ideologies does not exist, and that one is more likely to be centre-left or centre-right.

What does this all mean for Nigeria? Looking at the two main parties, one cannot place them categorically in either political spectrum. Further, both parties can hardly be referred to as centrists either. Let’s consider APC, the ruling party at the centre. On the one hand at the federal level, the party has left leaning policies such as the manifesto promise of a social welfare program that pays at least N5,000 per month to the poorest family potentially adding an annualised N1.5tn recurrent expenditure to the national budget, embark on an agricultural reform to support farming (interventionist), provide allowances to discharged unemployed youth corps members or at the state level, several APC states want to run similar free student meal programs to Osun, implement free education policy whilst on the other hand, at the federal level manifesto promises on PPP led infrastructure, Oil & Gas technology support policies seems to suggest the party will need to come up with capitalist-type policies that’ll lean it right-wing.

However having policies that lean heavily to both ideological spectrum does not make the APC a centrist party. To be centrist, its policies need to be closer to the centre i.e. support both social equality and hierarchy simultaneously rather than policies at both ends of the spectrum that seemingly balances the societal lever on a fulcrum. The PDP isn’t dissimilar to the APC in this regard. Some of its economic policies can be deemed left leaning e.g. SURE-P, YOUWIN or the discrete automotive policy that attempts to be capitalist.

To be fair, we are new to this democracy thing and years of military rule has deprived us the opportunity to properly evaluate the various ideologies in the world and ultimately group ourselves along ideological lines as strongly as we identify with our ethnic heritage. If the belief in ideologies and the resultant groupings is strong, it could form the basis of strong inter-ethnic linkages and aid unity. This is why I believe our political parties need to come up with what they believe is ideologically the right way for our society to be structured or governed. Clarifying this will give the parties an enduring compass that will guide generations to come.

President Buhari, per his speech at Chatham House on 26 Feb 2015, became a converted democrat in 1991 following the peaceful dissolution of the USSR. It’s been 24 years since and in that time the President has run for the highest office in Nigeria thrice. It has to be said that it is disappointing that in all of that time and given his experience and resources, the President still seems to be unclear on his political ideology, the very thing that should be guiding him now.  A lot of the rhetoric coming out from various APC intelligentsias suggests that they are more concerned about running an efficient government rather than an effective one. I like the way Chuba Ezekwesili describes it “effectiveness is picking a direction and efficiency is running really fast in that direction”. A current issue of discussion is the need for the government to increase IGR, tantamount to improving tax collection. This will make government more efficient, obviously a good thing, but hardly effective as policy direction remains vague. The key question is, with ideology unknown, how can we trust the government to spend increased IGR in a manner that is strategic and improves the general standard of living of Nigerians?

There are so many issues we need top-down direction on, issues that the presence of ideologies will help shape the narrative for their discussion. For example, we need to decide whether we are a multi-ethnic society seeking seamless integration or we are a society of several ethnicities seeking peaceful coexistence. We need to decide the role of religion in the affairs of state and if we are going to run a truly secular state. We need to decide if our current political and governance structure is sustainable given our challenges. We need to decide if want to devolve power and resource control away from the centre.

We are too realistic in our approach to solving our numerous problems. We need a good measure of idealism. Idealism is what fuels vision and creates aspiration whilst realism can lead one to be too short-termist in outlook. We need a roadmap, an all encompassing and strategic one for where we’re headed as a nation. If our politics is going to be aspirational, then it needs to be built on clear ideals.

Idealism vs Realism