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Personality v. Policy

posted Aug 20, 2010, 11:35 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Aug 27, 2010, 8:30 AM ]
By The Tibetan Political Review Editorial Board

[Tibetan translation available here]

Of all the potential Kalon Tripa and Chitue candidates, little is yet known about what they actually stand for.  That is because, so far, the statements by and about the candidates have been largely about the candidates themselves, rather than what policies they would implement if elected.  This is a problem that Tibetan democracy must address if it is to mature.  
To put this situation into a purposefully provocative analogy: it is the difference between grade-school children electing their most popular member as class president, and a mature and forward-thinking society debating its future direction. 
The Tibetan exile polity is not the first society to have faced such growing pains, and there are numerous lessons to be drawn from other nations.  As one of the TPR editors recently wrote, one philosopher that Tibetans should look to is the great German sociologist Max Weber.
ber wrote that there are three types of political authority: charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal.  Maturing societies tend to move along a continuum, away from charismatic and traditional authority, toward rational-legal authority.
  • Charismatic authority is that of an exceptional religious or heroic leader. 
  • Traditional authority is based on the concept that things have always been done a certain way.
  • Rational-legal authority is based on institutions rather than personalities, and promotes bureaucracies defined by rationality and legal legitimacy.
In a society based on charismatic authority (assuming it is a democracy), candidates tend to play up personal qualities like “honesty,” “sincerity,” or “patriotism,” divorced from the larger political issues facing the polity.  Similarly, in a system based on traditional authority, candidates allege their fidelity to an established system.  

Obviously, it is not wrong per se for a candidate to be heroic or traditional.  In the United States, the war hero George Washington proved to be an excellent president, even while the war hero Zachary Taylor proved an ineffectual one.  The problem with focusing on these factors is that they detract from focusing on the big picture: stripping away the personality, what is the policy?

is is where rational-legal authority comes in.  The foundation of the modern state, rational-legal authority rests on principles like the rule of law, described by John Adams as the idea of “a government of laws and not men.”  It embraces the idea that the state is bigger than any man or woman; the opposite of Louis XIV’s probably apocryphal statement, L'État, c'est moi” (“I am the State”).  

In this view, the fate of the government does not depend on the exceptionalism of the leader, but rather on the policies and institutions that the leader can help shape but are ultimately bigger than him or her.  

The current Tibetan election, by contrast, sees almost all the discussion about which candidate would be “best” based on his or her personal qualities.  Among these qualities:  “an insider,” “an outsider,” “experienced,” “educated,” “young,” “a woman,” “dedicated,” and “from this or that region or sect.”  Indeed, it is doubtful if the supporters of any particular candidate can clearly articulate what their favored candidate actually stands for.  

This is not necessarily the fault of the supporters.  While some policy proposals have leaked out in drips during the recent Kalon Tripa debates, the candidates have largely been silent on substance.  For example, in the recent Portland debate between Phurbu Dorjee, Lobsang Sangay, and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, when specifically asked by a member of the audience (in a two-part question) for their concrete policy positions, all three candidates avoided responding.  

Similarly, the NDPT recently endorsed Ven. Thubten Wangchen as one of two European Chitue members, but was entirely silent on kusho-la's views, or how he might represent European Tibetans in the Tibetan Parliament.  The voters deserve more.  For example, the NDPT should have mentioned kusho-la’s participation in the ground-breaking Spanish genocide lawsuit against several Chinese officials, and the candidate’s resulting view on the best approach towards the Chinese government.  

These are just a few examples of the unfortunate tendency to play up a candidate’s personal qualities rather than policy positions, as if the 2011 Tibetan election were simply a popularity contest.  The real loser is Tibetan society as a whole, which is deprived of a much-needed mature debate over the future of the nation.  Moreover, Tibetans in exile surely want to send a more inspirational message to our brethren inside Tibet about the ability of the Tibetan people to flourish in democracy and freedom.

What does this mean for the Tibetan voters?  By all means, it is appropriate to look at the candidates’ biographies; we should examine their past for clues about their experience, education, dedication, trustworthiness, and vision.  But this is not enough.  The voters should also demand that the candidates get serious and enunciate their policies and electoral platforms.  Indeed, the voters should make clear that this enunciation is a condition precedent for electoral support.  As the voters consider the next leader to steer the “ship of state” in Dharamsala, remember: what use is a good captain if he will not take you where you want to go?

Note: TPR has posted a list of questions for the Kalon Tripa candidates.  So far at least two candidates have committed to responding.  All responses received by the September 2 deadline will be posted on the TPR website.