We frequently hear the expression “political culture”, referring to the collective beliefs, attitudes and behavior in matters of politics. In fact, an entire battle has been waged around what’s called “traditional political culture”, versus the supposed “new ways of conducting politics.”
There are those who dispute the validity of the term “culture” in these expressions. They say that, in Nicaragua, instead of speaking about political culture, we should use the expression “political un-culture”. This is because our political behaviors are infused more with vices than with values. Others allege that the phrase “political idiosyncrasy” would be the best. I won’t get into that discussion. Each one can use the expression they prefer, as long as we’re talking about the same thing. That is, political beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
Obviously, political culture isn’t the exclusive domain of politicians. It involves society as a whole, since we all have visions and behaviors of a political nature. Even those who assert that it doesn’t matter to them, or that they don’t get involved in politics. That’s precisely, one form of political behavior.
Political culture is constructed over time. It manifests itself in different spaces: the family, the street, the neighborhood, the bus stop, work. It also shows up at the hour of voting or the hour of protest, or the hour to keep silent.
As in all processes of social construction, the economic, political, religious, cultural or social power elites influence its makeup. The educational system, the media, the political, labor and social organizations also influence it, as well as the practices of people. For that reason, such social standards don’t change from one day to the next, not by decree and not by magic.
A portrait from 150 years ago
This long introduction is meant to form the backdrop to my commentary on an interesting piece of writing. A journalist from Granada named Carlos Selva published it under the title, “The political way of being in Nicaragua”. The most thought-provoking aspect of this essay is the fact that it was released in 1874, when Nicaragua had barely been independent for 50 years.
I’m going to excerpt some paragraphs from this portrait done a century and a half ago. I want to contrast it with our recent history, with the aim of establishing just how much our “political culture” may have changed.
Here’s the first quote: “During the half century we’ve had of living the life of a free and independent people, constant and generous efforts have been made by patriots to consolidate the democratic institutions and guide our incipient nation along the road of progress, following in the footprints of the most learned peoples.(…) However, the ignorance of some and the immoral passions of others have spoiled this labor of patriotism, and on several occasions have carried the motherland to the edge of the abyss.”
“Different ways of seeing and appreciating things, contradictory interests, and rivalries and jealousies have divided Nicaraguans, forming bands that politicians put their names on. They’re thrown into the struggle for material goods, an impious and imprudent struggle that, in the final run, has brought us ignorance, poverty, isolation, and, in summary, an entire retinue of evils.”
No political parties
Like the present, 150 years ago don Carlos describes a reality where – strictly speaking – there are no political parties:
“In other countries, the political parties are really such: they have principles towards which they constantly gravitate. The struggles they maintain have a more honorable character. They take as their objective the realization of an ideal which they believe to be fecund in bringing wealth to the nation, and many times to humanity. (…) But our parties don’t have that character. To justify this truth, we don’t need to review the whole history of our political aberrations.”
“Here, there are no political parties, strictly speaking, but circles, more or less numerous groups of men who want to take part in public matters in order to crown their own ambitions, which they try to disguise under the mantle of politics.”
“The same political institutions, the same protectionist and monopolistic economic system, the same administrative system serves both parties. Neither of them is a supporter of religious freedom, because both are equally fanatical. Neither has worked for economic reform, because they profess the same economic principles, or, rather, have no principles.”
Today, like yesterday, the street is hard
Just as a shameless public functionary once decimated Nicaraguans with the above conclusive phrase that went down in history, Carlos Selva teaches us that such behavior has roots that go back more than 150 years:
“An inveterate habit of eating from the budget has now been formed. Even if they be just a bunch of simpletons, like many others, they believe they’ve been transformed into superior beings and reject the idea of returning to the places they came from. It no longer suits them to return to their habitual activities, to their tasks of other times to earn their keep. They like their meals. They’re now political beings. Political men.
“What would be said of them if they returned to their labors, if they abandoned their political or military career to become once more artisans, farmers or traders? For them, it’s essential to return to the budget, take power over that tyrant and devour its leavings, like Saturn devouring his children…”
“Personal interests are the most powerful ties that can link men. Such interests combat ideas, scorning the universal suffrage that forms the basis of the democratic republic, and appealing to force. This is the argument used by those who don’t have reason on their side to satisfy their ambitions. We call them bastards, because those who need the blood of the people, the blood of the poor, to satisfy themselves, can’t be considered legitimate.”
Don Carlos thought that the Nicaraguan people had already awakened, and that they wouldn’t let themselves be deceived anymore by political intrigues. He writes: “Few, very few, are those who can still be seduced by the tricks of clever politicians. By those who – in order to make an impression – seek, as on other occasions, to waken that brutal and ferocious localism that has led the people to spill so many tears and so much blood.”
“They are the ones responsible for so many calamities, so much disgrace, that has weighed upon the motherland. Instead of the award they’ve aimed to win with their political skill, they’ll obtain the curses of future generations and the execration and eternal reprobation of history.”
Unfortunately, history didn’t live up to don Carlos’ hopes. We spent the following 150 years in wars, scams, tyrannies, shady deals, deceits and confrontations. And here we are again bearing the cross on our backs.
Moral of the story
The politicians’ “way of being” neither falls from the sky nor appears by divine will. We shape it ourselves, day by day. And if we don’t get busy from now on, unearthing the shoddy dictators we harbor inside ourselves – opportunism, arrogance, one upmanship, unchecked ambitions, feeling ourselves to be the only keepers of truth – all the sacrifice will be for naught, just like the proclamations of new ways of conducting politics.
Let’s be clear. Neither youth, the poor nor women; neither old people, business owners, nor farmers; neither rich people, university students nor professionals, are immune from these evils. We have an obligation to vaccinate ourselves every day to combat that plague. Only in this way will we be able to build a better country.