The Mainstream and Groupthink
In the world of domestic politics, two words – both of them compound nouns describing a collective experience – have stood out for me in the past few weeks.
The first was the word ‘mainstream’. Michael Noonan used it in the course of his contribution to the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. Essentially he was saying that ‘mainstream’ Ireland supported the thrust of the key decisions taken by the Fine Gael/Labour coaliton in government.
The second appeared in The Irish Times this morning, in our article on the contents of the report on RTE’s Primetime Investigates programme, ‘A Mission to Prey’. The BAI-appointed investigator used the word ‘groupthink’ to describe the inability of the programme-makers and their editors to rigorously scrutinise the soundness of their own theories.
I don’t intend to dwell on the Primetime programme, rather the use of the word. The last time I remember it being used in the political context was in the Nyberg report on the banking collapse, published in April last year.
I’d contend that both are a little inter-related; in that both implicitly reject the concept of original and challenging thought, or any startling alternatives.
What the Government has done, essentially, is continue the policies of the last administration, with a couple of minor adjustments, “just to show that we are different from the last shower”. To use an analogy pulled from the favourite sport of this newspaper (but not mine – I’m GAA to the core of my being), the change of Government is like replacing Johnny Sexton with Ronan O’Gara in the second half. The new outhalf brings a slightly different approach and gives a bit of fresh impetus but the overall game plan remains unchanged.
So the Government which campaigned in poetry is now governing in prose (and small-print prose at that!). All those problems about confronting the big bad wolf of the ECB have more or less come to nought. There was a lucky break on interest rates taht came on the back of the the second Greek bail-out. And there’s been a small concession on one instalment of the promissory note but no real progress on the overall deal.
Noonan was saying that the mainstream will support the Government no matter what. In other times and in other debates that group has been called the Silent Majority and the PPI (plain people of Ireland). And he is right. There is growing opposition to the Government and its policies but it’s still a relatively small minority. Irish governments reflect the mindset of its population and that mindset is a conservative and cautious one, resistant to any radical change. Most people have reluctantly bought into the austerity programme, albeit reluctantly. And when the Government is forced to go back on its promises and raise taxes and lower social welfare rates either later this year or next year, they will accept that too.
Nyberg use the term ‘groupthink’ to describe the mindset that prevailed during the boom years, when banks lent out money indiscriminately. His criticism was not confined to the banks, but to other groups, including the ‘mainstream’, who bought into into the bubble mentality. Nyberg argued that the population was not wholly passive or ‘victims’ of a swindle played by bankers and developers on them. He said that everybody got caught up in the madness. And that included most political parties including Labour, all of which started parroting the low tax mantra.
It’s not a popular argument to make. Brian Lenihan was pulverised for making the rather silly remark that “we all partied”. More recently Enda Kenny’s attempt to say that all the Irish people went mad with money during the property boom ran into a huge barrage of publicity. They are partly right. Any political party which might have suggested raising taxes and taking the heat out of the property boom pre-2007 would have been rejected at the polls. The concept of property equalling wealth had seeped deeply into the Irish psyche.
The argument is partly correct.
And the simple ascribing of blame to one party, to bankers and to developers doesn’t tell the whole story. But few are brave enought to challenge that new consensus, or groupthink.
And a new dispensation – or if you like groupthink – has taken over about how to deal with the crisis. It’s the one handed down by the Troika to which the three biggest party have all bought into – and by extension, they claim, so have the mainstream.
There is a groupthink mentality within that cohort that does not rigorously challenge if everythign that’s being proposed is right. I’m not an economist and am not qualified to say if the Keynesian alternative of borrowing and spending during the recession – as advocated by Paul Krugman – is a better solution. To me, it sounds moot, as it would be impossible for Ireland to get the funding from the markets or from the ECB to even begin testing the theory.
But there’s another example of groupthink that has remained unscrutinised. That’s the arguments that have been put up by Sinn Fein and by the smaller socialist parties. They have been successful in harnessing public anger and disillusionment. But it seems to me that their alternative ideas, derivative of Marxist theory, are older and more worn-out than those being promoted by the ‘mainstream’. And so the only real alternative to the prevailing ‘groupthink’ is another form of ‘groupthink’, equally susceptible to weaknesses and flaws.
* If there are glaring typos in this blog post, apologies. The excuse is that it was written on an iphone by a person in denial about his need to wear reading glasses.