Several years ago I was in a meeting between senior commercial and research staff in a multinational pharmaceutical company. Discussing various research projects, one commercial person declared with obvious exasperation “Don’t forget that we’re here to make money not to indulge in fancy research projects.” The President of R&D, a Scotsman, looked him in the eyes and responded “Laddie, you’re wrong. We’re here to make medicines that make people better. And if we can do that, then we’ll make money as a result.”
This episode illustrates what has happened to business over the last several decades. It has lost its sense of purpose. There was a time when business used to focus on making products that made people’s lives better. If they could do that at a cost that was below what they could sell their products for, they made a profit and prospered. All of that is gone in far too many businesses. Now the primary goal is “shareholder value” – code for short term profit maximization – irrespective of whether social good is created or destroyed.
The same loss of purpose now besets political parties. There was a time when political parties were focused on delivering widespread social good. Their leaders were statement with broad visions about how society should best function. One either agreed with their vision or one did not but they had a sense of purpose. This has now vanished. Political parties have turned themselves into election winning machines – in the same way as corporations have turned themselves into mere profit maximizing entities. Parties are structured to win elections. Their main focus is campaigning and winning votes and many more resources are devoted to these activities than to developing ideas and policies that benefit society. Knocking on doors, digital targeting and getting out the vote are seen as more important core competencies than developing new ways to create prosperity and social cohesion. To win elections they indulge in all sorts of gerrymandering and other vote catching tactics. As one senior political put it “Winning elections is about mobilizing your base not about creating broad appeal.” As a result policy becomes focused on appealing to parties’ narrow base rather than on the creation of a cohesive, well functioning society. The results are there for all to see: large swathes of the population ignored because they do not routinely vote or do not vote for the party that happens to be in power; policies that favour party’s voter and donor base rather than the wider society; handouts to friendly vested interests; cynicism and alienation of large numbers of people from political engagement; citizenship with an sense of powerlessness that transforms to anger; and a door that is left wide open for demagogues and populists.
All of this will continue to get worse. It will continue to fracture our societies until political parties regain their sense of purpose. Their purpose should be to aim to govern as reasonably as possible in the interests of the nation and all its citizens. Winning elections should be the result of these higher purpose activities not the result of eking out some temporary electoral advantage. Otherwise politics becomes nothing more than one big sales exercise – it doesn’t;t matter how poor your product is as long as you have enough salespeople on the road to shove it down people’s throats.
Persistence of that sort of attitude will continue to undermine our societies.