Winter 2018

Society and Culture

Hope Without Change

The Empty Promises of Politics

Donald Winchester

The tendency to hope for a better future through politics and politicians is nothing new. Promises of change abound, yet little seems to actually change. What’s the problem?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same. The saying, from the writings of French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, has been applied to many things, but it’s perhaps most relevant to politics. In every election, in every change of leadership, the word change is not far away. It not only conveys the promise of a better future and the removal of the faulty past; it appeals to the desire for something new.

It doesn’t take long, however, for the promise of political change to seem less an assurance than a trusty tactic. Challengers to a political incumbent are often called “the change candidate” by default. It begs the question: If a government could truly deliver a better future, then why is there a need to yearn for change at every election?

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States after a campaign of change. He wrote a book to coincide with the campaign, using the same title as one of his main slogans: Change We Can Believe In. His bid to become the first African-American president was the most obvious signifier of this, marking a break from the country’s conflicted racial history. But he represented change in other ways too. As a comparative newcomer to the Senate, he was seen as “a relative outsider” in the White House political world, “untrammelled by the baggage that inevitably accompanies those with long histories in Washington politics.” His election was a sign that the American public hoped for something different.

Eight years later, Obama’s successor played on a similar theme. Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics—to cleanse US politics of alleged ingrained corruption—was designed to distinguish him from his opponent and again to breed hope in the idea of change. Trump also branded himself a relative outsider. He, like his predecessor, assumed the appeal of change to win an election.

Hope in political change, of course, is by no means particular to the United States. It has become a default in many democracies across the world; every new candidate represents a break from past mistakes and hope for the future. Nor does it apply only to democracies.

But can such hope ever be fulfilled? Or is it merely part of a cycle, a cynical exploitation of short voter memories and political partisanship? Can a human government ever deliver a better future?

The recent example of a little-reported country in eastern Europe casts some interesting light on the question.

A New Dawn

In 1968 Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu was the Western world’s new darling. It was a time dominated by nuclear threat, civil rights outrages, and wars both cold (West vs communism) and hot (Middle East and Vietnam). Romania had fallen under Soviet influence behind the Iron Curtain, and like the majority of Eastern Europe functioned essentially as a puppet state. It was a situation that seemed to hold little hope; yet in the late ’60s its new head of state, Ceauşescu, appeared to offer just that.

In the years following World War II, Romanians endured a torrid time. The wealth and stability the nation had enjoyed in the early part of the 20th century—its capital, Bucharest, was commonly known as Paris of the East, while those outside the city were comfortably settled in centuries-established peasant life—had been comprehensively destroyed, though it was still a fresh memory. Romania suffered radical cultural upheaval, brutal persecution by secret police, and the humiliation of being under the Soviet thumb. The desire for new hope was extreme, and for both the Romanian people and the Western world, Ceauşescu was an unexpected harbinger of that.

Ceauşescu was named leader of the nation’s Communist Party in 1965, and at first the Soviet status quo went unchallenged. That this was no ordinary communist leader, though, at least in terms of foreign affairs, became clear at a huge public rally following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Rather than toe the Soviet line, he called the invasion “a great mistake and a grave danger to peace in Europe, to the fate of socialism in the world” and “a shameful moment in the history of the revolutionary movement.” It was an astonishing defiance of one of the world’s superpowers.

In his early years as leader, Ceauşescu went further, breaking from Soviet directives by becoming the first Warsaw Pact nation to recognize West Germany diplomatically, and the only one not to sever relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. Here, at last, was someone the West could work with—someone whom Romanians could trust to act in their own, rather than Soviet, interests. As journalist Edward Behr wrote, here was a leader “determined to make his own mark and go his own way.”

Behr, reporting for Newsweek, noted that for the Romanian people Ceauşescu was “the man of the hour.” An Orthodox priest told him that the president was “a very good man. . . . He will keep the Soviets away.” An oil worker added, “We have a very good life now, and things are getting slowly better.” Ceauşescu, as a new leader, had brought hope.

But within a few years that hope was brutally disappointed. Romania certainly experienced change, but it was not the sort for which anyone would wish.

Others go to Asia and come back with ideas about trade and electronics. Ceausescu came back with the personality cult of Mao and Kim il Sung.”

Romanian translator to Robert D. Kaplan, quoted in Balkan Ghosts

Fascinated by the personality cults of Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-sung, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena created their own. They came to be one of the world’s worst examples of dictatorial excess and abusive governance. Historian Dennis Deletant notes that the pair became “tyrannical and insensitive to the needs of the population. . . . It not only humiliated the Romanians, but robbed them of their dignity in their everyday lives and reduced them in the 1980s to an animal state, concerned only with the problems of day to day survival.”

The list of the pair’s crimes of governance is extensive. In a bid to eliminate national debt ahead of schedule, Ceauşescu radically increased exports, including food and energy. Romanians grew used to waiting for hours in all weathers in the hope of purchasing produce that was not good enough to export. He used the nation’s wealth to plan an opulent government building that included a private residence for his family; only partially completed, it would become an enormous and expensive hulk, the world’s largest civilian administrative building.

Using the Stalinist argument that more people equates to economic growth, he aimed to increase the Romanian population to the arbitrary figure of 25 million by 1990. To achieve this, he enforced a monthly tax on all childless persons. Women were examined regularly for signs of pregnancy; if those displaying fertile symptoms did not subsequently give birth, they could be prosecuted. Energy was in short supply. Street lamps were switched off; doctors had to operate by daylight. The race to industrialize and collectivize meant that centuries-old infrastructures collapsed, with thousands starving, orphanages burgeoning, and abandoned pets roaming the streets breeding and spreading disease.

The West remained largely blind to this, in some cases willfully so. During his presidency, Ceauşescu frequently hosted or was hosted by American, British, French, West German and other leaders. The United States named Romania one of its Most Favored Nation trading partners. As journalist Robert Kaplan explains, “Ceauşescu, in the State Department’s view, had a ‘maverick’ foreign policy that did not completely toe the Soviet line.” Canceling the trading status because of known human rights violations would, in their view, “only remove what little influence Washington had over Ceauşescu, leading to an even worse human rights situation.” This, as then-US Ambassador to Romania David Funderburk noted, was nonsensical. It could hardly get any worse.

Funderburk . . . publicly referred to Ceausescu as a ‘schmecher,’ a Romanian slang term for a ‘con artist,’ who was successfully ‘conning’ the State Department with a foreign policy that was less independent than it seemed.”

Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts

It was hardly the change that people wanted or anticipated. But while Romanians’ expectations for something different were understandable and relatively short-lived, internationally the delusion continued for years. The West clearly wanted to believe, against all evidence, that Ceauşescu could be a conduit to better relations with the Soviets. He was even granted an honorary knighthood by the United Kingdom in 1978 (it was rescinded hours before he died). As late as 1983, future US president George Bush called Ceauşescu “the good Communist,” when his place as the most totalitarian leader in Eastern Europe was well established.

A New Dawn, Part II

Ceauşescu’s reign came to an abrupt halt in 1989, that year of revolution. He and his wife were arrested and executed by their own people on December 25. It brought a sigh of relief from many and exultation from others. On the day of his execution, Romanian poet Mircea Dinescu announced on national radio, “We are free!”

Their death coincided with a time of enormous hope worldwide. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the USSR had collapsed, and some proclaimed “the end of history,” a time of global democratic capitalist consensus. As journalist Wendell Steavenson writes, “revolutions had recently swept the communists from eastern Europe, the world was new and everything was possible.” Change had come, and with change came renewed hope.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, November 9, 1989. The text on the sign, “Achtung! Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin” (“Notice! You are now leaving West Berlin”), has been modified with the question “Wie denn?” (“How?”). 

History shows, however, that that hope was quickly disappointed. Again Romania is a choice example. The removal of the Ceauşescus merely created a vacuum into which other former communists stepped, most notably his erstwhile colleague Ion Iliescu, who was later prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Kaplan explains that, after 1989, Romania “did not so much become a capitalist state as a liberal Gorbachevian Communist state.” It was a world in which indeed everything was possible, though that “everything” often included multiple kinds of corruption and illegal activity. It is difficult in hindsight to see what else could be done; as one Romanian told Kaplan shortly afterward, “There is no alternative. . . . The only qualified people are former Communists.”

There is no doubt that life in Romania is better now than it was under Ceauşescu. Wages are increasing, though they remain low in comparison with western Europe, and the economy is growing at a faster rate than most in Europe. Tourism is also on the rise. Directives from the European Union (Romania became a member in 2007) produced significant legislative amendments, especially against corruption. But old habits die hard: the ruling party later attempted to reverse these in order to protect their leaders from prosecution, and to legalize the old practice of buying support from local politicians. The people reacted to this with the biggest protests since Ceauşescu’s day. The subsequent governmental retreat would have been unthinkable before 1989, which some take as a great positive. It remains worrying, however, that the same problems continue to recur decades later.

Politically it’s clear that the promise of 1989 has not been fulfilled. The hope that sprang from Ceauşescu’s removal was understandable, and there is little sense that anyone wants to return to his days. It is clear, however, that change did not produce the desired result. And yet the idea of change remains persuasive and pervasive; there are even some who now hope for a return to the pre–World War II monarchical system.

A Universal Problem

Romania, of course, is only one example among many. Nineteen eighty-nine did not produce an idyllic “end of history” anywhere in the world; in retrospect, it seems only another moment in the familiar and wearisome human cycle.

The Arab Spring is another salient instance. Through a wave of revolutions, it brought change to Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, as well as across much of the rest of North Africa and the Middle East. Both locally and internationally it was generally viewed with enormous optimism. Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif was but one of many: “These high spirits and this feeling of empowerment—we’ve not had this for a very long time. This is change.” It didn’t take long for that optimism to sour, though. What followed was not the democratic idyll many predicted, but rather a series of counterrevolutions, human abuses and civil war. Five years later the same writer said, “All this is now gone—as has so much else of January 2011: lives and livelihoods, ideas and energy and hope.”

The repercussions of the Arab Spring are yet to be fully realized. Yet it seems inarguable that—as in Romania, as in the United States, and as in many other places—it is yet another instance of political change that has failed to fulfill its promise.

Many hoped that this ‘Arab Spring’ would bring in new governments that would deliver political reform and social justice. But the reality is more war and violence.”

Amnesty International, “The Arab Spring: Five Years On”

This should not be surprising, given the historical record. Over three thousand years ago, the ancient Israelites sought hope in political change too. The prophet Samuel, whom God had appointed as His representative, had two sons who governed the people as judges. They, unlike their father, did not rule well: they were greedy, accepted bribes and acted corruptly (1 Samuel 8:3). Disillusioned by this, the Israelites demanded regime change, seeking hope in a king “like all the nations.” It was a momentous switch; by seeking a government of their own design (in place of the one that God had given them), they were rejecting their Creator. Like Adam and Eve before them, and as humanity has done repeatedly ever since, they preferred the rule of humans instead of God. The consequences of their decision, however, were predicted in a dramatic speech by Samuel, who described a multitude of governmental abuses and exploitations that seem all too familiar to us today. His words reverberate through the centuries:

[Your human ruler] will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and his servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves” (1 Samuel 8:11–18).

This prophecy has been fulfilled by many human governments ever since. Ceauşescu did it, not least by using his country’s wealth and labor to create a building so large that today it costs the nation $6 million annually in heating and lighting bills. Similar stories can be told across the world.

It is a discouraging picture, one that does not speak well of humanity in general. After all, Samuel’s warning was to Israel, but the tendency he described does not respect national borders: it is part of being human. What is required, then, is an intrinsic change, one in which government rejects greed and ego and instead aims to govern with care and kindness. It would be a change that is entirely unprecedented in human history.

And yet it is one prophesied by the same God that Israel rejected all those years ago. In the book of Isaiah, the world is promised an everlasting government led by a “Prince of Peace,” which will be established by “judgment and justice” (Isaiah 9:6–7). What is described here is a far cry from anything humanity has seen. Indeed, it is literally “not of this world” (John 18:36) but will be God-made rather than human-made. What’s more, it is a government that will have no need for political change, because there is none better, and it will be everlasting. It is change that cannot come soon enough.