The Vocabulary of False Choices

Now that the ideas of “election reform” and  even various shades of constitutional reform are circulating freely after years of being avoided in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), it has been interesting to see the initial wave of actions, reactions and gut level responses. This is evident in the Twittersphere, but also in conversations and in academic pontification, by scholars and pundits near and far.

One can almost begin to put together a sort of glossary:

  • Any suggestion about an updated and cogent western (EU+US+UK) strategy is immediately declared an intention to wantonly use the Bonn Powers, or to “bring back Paddy Ashdown.” (This has been disingenuously done in the past as well.) It seems there is little appreciation that there must be other strategic options on the spectrum other than a stale status quo and taking a time machine back to 2004.
  • Whenever suggesting that the state of BiH should be “functional,” one is accused of being “unitarist.” Similarly, suggesting that the country be organized in a more rational and cost effective way leads to accusations of “centralization.”
  • Use of the terms “civic” or “citizen” is brushed aside as either reflecting a shadow Bosniak nationalist or a naïve utopian agenda. (This has certainly been amplified by SDA’s superficial attempts to misappropriate the “civic” label, through only words, and not policy.) There is little awareness that there is a possibility for a more complex  and layered identity (in spite of a long history of such nuance).
  • Social democrats, and social democratic policies = Yugonostalgics/Communists/Sarajevans/Tuzlans; unless of course it’s SNSD and you’re in the RS
  • “Powersharing” is good when it is negotiated by the elites and political parties. It’s also good when applied to ethnic “collectivities;” but only if selected collectivities have long been “anchored” to a territory  (e.g.,: German, Italian and Ladino speakers in South Tyrol, or the Flemish, French and German speakers in Belgium). New collectivities (economic migrants, anyone else in Belgium) don’t get this special treatment.
  • “Federalism” is good, but in BiH can only apply to ethno-territorial federalism; basically trying to link “blood and soil.” Functional federalism based on geography, proximity, historical ties etc., is apparently not good (see “functional” or “powersharing” above)

This manipulation of language, meaning and possible interpretation seemed familiar, and I realized it reminds me of discussions in the US, where there has often been an interest to divide people into supporting either “big government” or “small government.” According to this trope, Americans either want sprawling governments, a lot of public services, high taxes, and extensive regulations; or they want no/low taxes, minimal public services, and few to no regulations.

This has been a consistent tension in US history, with some recent generational shifts nicely summarized in the book Evil Geniuses and elsewhere. If  you were in the big government camp you gravitated towards the Democrats; the small government campers gravitated towards the Republicans. Until of course they didn’t, as Trump identified the potential in campaigning on economic nationalism and populism (though of course this would have only applied to the people/states that supported him.)

While culture warriors will work to try to keep people polarized over the frivolous and intentionally  provocative, it would be useful to remember that the big government vs. small government duality in the US has always been a false choice.  A good mediator would be able to get all but the most intransigent parties to agree that what most people want is effective government.

In her presidential bid, Senator Elizabeth Warren made this point explicit, stating, “The key question isn’t big government versus small government — it’s who government works for.” As the US starts to turn the massive ship of government from one that gave substantial tax cuts to the rich in 2017, to one that is aiming to provide more relief to the people who have not prospered under the economic policies of the past generation, there will be a fascinating and consequential debate on who government works for in the US. There is no way that this discussion can avoid opening up more discussions on issues of race and structural privilege; such social cleavages could be either cathartic if used to develop more equitable policy, or polarizing if weaponized to promote us vs. them “inat politics.”

How can narratives be transformed in BiH?

Instead of trying to figure out all the ways BiH is like South Tyrol, or on how BiH can “import” from Belgium, Switzerland and the like models for the weakest judiciary, and the weakest tax authority, and the weakest social rights (to create as my colleague Kurt Bassuener has called it a “Frankenstein of worst practices”), why isn’t the first question similar to that asked by Warren in the US: For whom does the government work in BiH?”

The narratives expanding in recent weeks are aimed at making it easier to forget what government should do for people. It will limit the potential vision, options and discourse by framing everything in the legal language of political science in a way that will benefit the negotiators at the table while marginalizing or ignoring the lived experiences of people who have had to live with the consequences of the false choices presented to them over the last generation.