Tuesday, August 3

Angela Merkel: Why politicians never apologize | Ideas

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Bundestag on March 24.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Bundestag on March 24.Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg

The strategy that is practiced today in politics is so competitive, so tied to the appearance of certainties and the blame of the opposite that the forgiveness Angela Merkel has asked for her mistakes has become news. The Excuse me (I’m sorry) pronounced on March 24 by the German Chancellor to the press, reversing a new extreme confinement that generated great resistance, has resonated with force in a context complicated by the pandemic and the crisis, but, above all all for a political culture that does not contemplate asking for forgiveness.

In the seventies and eighties, an adaptation of military strategy to electoral campaigns made its way from the United States that implied a spirit of open warfare, of not giving the rival even water and of defending every inch of land gained without acknowledging mistakes, he says. María José Canel, Professor of Political Communication at the Complutense University. This extended to the communication of the governments and gave way to this time in which the fact that a head of the Government apologizes constitutes an inconceivable example of vulnerability. As we will see, this may change. “In the law of politics, which rewards the strongest, asking for forgiveness can be interpreted as a weakness and therefore as a way to exclude oneself from a tennis match in which the key is to win the last point,” says Javier Gomá, author of the Tetralogy of exemplarity. What is a sign of human strength can be interpreted as political fragility.

Apologizing was not only Merkel’s option at her press conference last month, but Hillary Clinton’s choice after losing the US presidential elections in 2016; from the main minister of the autonomous government of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, for an erroneous examination of students last year, or from the British Theresa May, in 2017, for her management of the Conservative Party. In Spain there are few precedents, but one of them has been the minister Salvador Illa, the most voted in the February elections in Catalonia at the head of the PSC. Not only apologized for attending a party, but rather recognized errors in the management of the pandemic and —the end of the current anti-politics – he dared to point out the virtues of his adversaries. “The basis of politics is credibility and to maintain it, if you are aware that you have made a mistake, you must recognize the error,” he analyzes now. “I suppose that it is not practiced anymore because it seems that you facilitate criticism to the contrary, but there is already a very adult citizenry in political terms. I was clear from the first moment that the requirement for the management of the pandemic to work well was not to profit from it ”.

Leadership manuals advise to be confident, not to miss any opportunity to denigrate the adversary and to cooperate only when it is impossible to compete, without acknowledging mistakes or never apologizing, maintains philosopher Daniel Innerarity. It would only make sense to ask for forgiveness when there are second chances. “And one of the current problems with fast-paced politics is that it hardly gives second chances,” he says. “It generates anxious politicians.” For the communication advisor Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, a strategy of survival and political belligerence prevails that leaves no room for nuances. “Spain is in a competitive phase of dramatic overtones”, he points out.

Faced with the risks of recognizing mistakes, politicians opt for the old manual of: 1) denying crises, 2) recognizing them only if there is no other remedy but without attributing responsibility, and 3) blaming a third party. It is the strategy that has led to extreme polarization in Madrid in a way that, according to Verónica Fumanal, president of the Political Communication Association, there is no going back. “Ayuso has chosen to blame the Government as a political strategy. If he now assumed another discourse and spoke of management, he would collapse, because he has made his strategy of that blaming others and now he cannot change it ”. For her, Pedro Sánchez would also have to have assumed that he rushed to consider the virus defeated. “It should have recognized before society that this pandemic has a contingent issue that is beyond our control. We are not omnipotent ”.

The need for leaders to be infallible, to always have answers and instill confidence, is exacerbated by the pandemic, argues political scientist Cristina Monge. “We look at them like stewardesses on a turbulent flight; if they are nervous, a bad sign. When there is turbulence in society, we look to politicians. And asking for forgiveness means they don’t have those answers. ” In some Nordic countries there is a provisional trial-and-error format of legislation (sunset law) that allows rulers to test formulas and quickly correct them if they do not yield results. In Spain, Monge believes, it would be unthinkable to recognize that there is no absolute truth.

The apology and forgiveness belong to a field of conscience deeply rooted in European religious culture and with very different nuances depending on the Lutheran or Catholic origin. The quintessential example in Spain was that “I’m sorry, I’ve made a mistake, it won’t happen again” that King Juan Carlos intoned in 2012 after his fall on a safari in Africa while the country was plunged into a deep recession. “It was soothing because of the divine halo of the Monarchy, and the execution was good: in the corridor, with a crutch, a fragile person who seemed an equal, someone who could make mistakes like anyone else,” says the communicator Fumanal. But it was not accompanied by something essential, he points out: the purpose of amendment. Catholics, after all, were always able to obtain forgiveness through bulls, without the need for rectification or contrition, analyzes the communication advisor Gutiérrez-Rubí.

It is easier to apologize in the final stretch of a term, as Merkel has done, when you no longer stake your votes. But while they are fighting, self-defense and blaming the enemy prevail. Illa knows it well: “In Catalonia the victimization of the independentists and the blaming of the other for not providing resources or powers, what I call political table tennis, has been common, but it is increasingly a bad strategy.” That “more and more” brings together the hopes of those consulted. Tired of polarization, of confrontations, some find in society an appetite for trust and honesty that can help change the paradigm: “Sincerity, responsibility and authenticity can be very valuable to change dynamics,” says Marta Rebolledo, professor of Political Communication. “Asking for forgiveness gives the opportunity to reconnect with citizens and differentiate yourself from rivals who are not capable of doing so,” adds Gutiérrez-Rubí. Today society is more enlightened and demanding: it is asking for morality, exemplarity beyond compliance with the rules, says the philosopher Javier Gomá. The pending moral task is no longer to be free, but to be free together, he affirms, and this consists, among other things, in feeling “disgust” at certain behaviors that overwhelm dignity. “We have conquered most of the rights in modern times because of the disgust that their abuse caused us,” he emphasizes. This evolution towards a more demanding society is key in these moments of uncertainty, says Professor Canel: “The most authentic communication is the only one that can succeed. A style is emerging in which you are more trustworthy if you recognize what you have done wrong than if you do not. And far away is that strategy of war that was applied since the seventies. ” Time will tell.


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