The Pit and the Pendulum. And the gothic horror of an issue out of control.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum”, three agonising tortures are inflicted on the narrator: a descending pendulum, a grotesque pit, and a dungeon with the walls closing in.

These horrors were brought to mind recently by a couple of incidents that, in different ways, shed some light into the policy dynamics that play out when NGOs campaign on issues where public opinion is broadly unsupportive.

First there was a (not all that) recent post by pollster and long-time political commentator Peter Kellner. The subject was the politics of immigration; but possibly the most interesting part, for me, was a tangential reference to stark evidence of negative public attitudes towards development aid spending.

Then over Christmas we got to hear David Cameron being interviewed by Melinda Gates for the Today Programme. The interview was about aid, but the main thing that struck me about this was again a peripheral moment, when (1.12 into the interview) Cameron hesitates, slightly but audibly, before mentioning ‘climate change’.

On aid, NGOs and others have over years made a strong case for government support to development and specifically the 0.7% target. And there have been impressive policy results. But Kellner identifies strong opposition to current aid spending plans.

And this points to a pendulum effect, where public resistance and opposition operates as a potential drag on policy. Negative opinion may eventually pull policy in the opposite direction to the one in which there has been political momentum, decapitating progress.

Cameron stood up for aid again in the interview, but the wider point is that any policy victory is vulnerable if policy makers find themselves ahead of, and out of sync with, public opinion on an issue.

On climate change, I may be imagining the reason for Cameron’s hesitation, but not that the government is comprehensively avoiding talking, or doing anything, about it. And his faltering in fact reminded me of how Labour politicians in recent times have done all they can to avoid even uttering the word ‘immigration’. The position pretty much (at least until recently) being, say nothing, hope nobody notices.

These are examples of issues that have sunk in political terms into a pit of paralysis. Given the (perceived/actual) lack of public receptivity – and the inevitable power of interest groups opposing a progressive approach – politicians try to steer clear of the issue, tiptoeing around it at best.

Such silence can be highly problematic but is many ways preferable to the noise associated with the vertiginous feeling of the walls closing in on an issue.

Government responses to refugees and people seeking asylum, for example, have operated in this panic of claustrophobic constraint. Attitudes can feed into policy which can then reinforce attitudes: amplifying effects feed back into the system, further exaggerating the concern.

In each of these three policy contexts – the pull of the pendulum, the paralysis of the pit and the runaway panic of collapsing space – a certain dominant system state establishes itself, and in each case the trick is to create a new trajectory for the issue in political, policy and public terms.

The pendulum dynamic exhibits negative feedback that pulls policy in a direction opposite to the one in which politicians would otherwise be prepared to go. In that situation, the best strategy is – as the development NGOs have been doing – to act as a counterweight to wider opinion, whilst looking for ways to frame the debate more positively, to better lock in support.

In the pit, efforts to climb out are often in vain given powerful counterforces. A dual track approach suggests itself here: painstaking advocacy can help secure growing leverage, but there may also be a need to get out the campaigning booster jets, to try to get off the ground more quickly, through direct action for example.

But it is when issues start to inescapably close in that represent the true gothic horror.

Such states are very difficult to navigate, very tough to disrupt. But it’s not impossible. The main point of Kellner’s article, for example, is that opinion and policy around immigration is maybe not as clear cut as it might seem.

This in the context that for politicians to take opinion at face value may not always be the most sensible approach politically, let alone in policy terms. The government’s net immigration target, for example, may have the advantages of simplicity, and is notionally in tune with opinion – but in policy terms there is a strong case that it is non-sensical and perverse, as well as being almost certainly ultimately self-defeating. 

Rebooting systems first requires demsytification.

System behaviours are driven by the ‘bounded rationalities’ of the different actors in the system, their take on what makes most sense from their (necessarily limited) perspective. So it’s important to be able to make sense of (a) the state of popular opinion on an issue, (b) the political and policy context, and in particular (c) the nature of the intersection between the two.

It also requires imagination.

The trick when faced with such situations is to take a step back, and hone in on the vulnerable points in the existing system. And to seek to anchor the debate differently, shift the dynamics.

This means focusing on the system not the symptoms, being in it for the long-term, rather than being driven by short-term events, or expecting short term results.

That’s nowhere near a guarantee of success but sometimes campaigning can be about holding your nerve. Never saying Nevermore.

And it’s about finding ways to make your own luck: as modeled by the narrator in Poe’s story, who entices rats to nibble on the ropes binding him, freeing him to fight another day.

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