Vines and Fig Trees

Progressives have a compelling vision for the future. The other side doesn’t. It’s time to make that contrast clear.

Kids in Mae Sot / Aleksandar Popovski

George Washington loved a particular Bible verse so much so that he used it over 50 times in his writings. This verse was later popularized in Hamilton as:

Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree.
And no one shall make them afraid.
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made.

Whether Washington meant it or not, this verse captures the core mission of any government. At its very essence, a government’s role is to ensure the safety and security of its people. They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made.

And yet, looking at our government, all it wants to do is make people afraid.


The daily scare

There is no better example than this government’s handling of the pandemic. For the past year, it has ruled through fear, holding daily briefings designed to scare the public.

A daily COVID briefing / Prachatai

In a better country, the government would provide information and trust its people to act responsibly. And the people would, stepping up to play the role society requires of them.

Here, we see the opposite approach. Skeptical of its own people, the government decided to use continual fear mongering. In their eyes, Thais cannot be trusted to do the right thing. So instead, they must be constantly bullied and intimidated into a state of fear. Only then can they overcome their selfish nature and act in the public good.

Every day we see a lecture from a paternal figure behind a podium, naming and shaming its citizens. Instead of asking people to be better, it blames them for every infection.

In one of these lectures, the government announced that anyone infected and caught without the Mor Chana app on their phone could be imprisoned. While later retracted (“clarified”), this episode revealed all we need to know about the government’s mindset.


Anyone could die

Or for instance, consider Prayut’s death threat to protesters:

Don’t be careless because anyone could die today or tomorrow.
Don’t tempt the grim reaper.
Ministers chuckle as Prayut issues his death threat / Matichon

It’s hard to overstate how twisted this is. A leader, who claims to have been democratically elected, is threatening to kill his own people. People who, by the way, are just protesting peacefully. Of course, any person who knows they’ll be judged by voters one day would never do this, but Prayut knows otherwise, and he is able to act with impunity.

This mindset isn’t limited to Prayut, however, and again, we see how the government rules through fear. This is a government that has no respect for its citizens — all it has is contempt. As Prayut was issuing his death threat, other coalition partners were standing behind him, chuckling.

There is no pretense that the government should empower its people. Instead, all it aims to do is to control them, through fear, death threats, and whatever means necessary.

This is no way to govern. A government contemptuous of its own people cannot possibly lead it.


A contrast of visions

In the last issue, I discussed the Progressive Movement’s inability to win any PAO races:

When candidates can’t introduce themselves to voters and tell them what they stand for, they can’t inspire and excite them to turn out. And they can’t overcome the vast advantages of the incumbency.

The path forward for progressives isn’t easy. Many things are outside their control (rampant vote buying and voter suppression) but some things are. Progressives could focus less on in-person rallies and focus more on media appearances and creating their own media.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one of most effective tools in the toolkit, and the only one progressives have access to.

There is no level playing field and there will never be free and fair elections. But through media channels, progressives can communicate directly with voters and build a coalition big enough to overcome these rigged systems.

In the aftermath of the 2019 election, Fuadi Pitsuwan had an insightful observation. While Future Forward and Democrats’ New Dems were seen as different, the society they wanted to create is very much the same. They both wanted to see a version of Thailand where zip code doesn’t mean destiny, where people have equal access to education and opportunity, and where diversity is not just tolerated, but embraced.

This insight is game-changing. While politics can be divisive, a vision for a society that we want to live in can be unifying.

This also tracks with what we know about how voters experience policy. From Amy Lerman:

When people experience policy, they don’t necessarily experience it as partisans. They experience it as a parent sending their child to school or a patient visiting a doctor, not as a Democrat or Republican.

And because people are often thinking in nonpolitical terms during their day-to-day lives, they are much more open to having their views changed when they see the actual, tangible benefits of a policy in their lives. It’s a way of breaking through partisanship.

In the short term, progressives will never be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, let alone implement policy. However, the lesson still applies: people experience politics in nonpolitical terms in their daily lives. They can be persuaded if political choices are presented to them in ways they can relate to: this is how life as a parent with two kids going to school could be better.

Of course, policies are more tangible than visions, but it’s not nothing. It is still an effective way to reach apolitical people, as well as people who support the regime.

It’s also advantageous. Progressives have compelling visions for the future. But those in power have none. Instead, all they do is pretend to legislate while they enrich themselves and maintain the status-quo.

On the other hand, progressives acknowledge that the status-quo is rotten. Keeping things as is means there’s no path to opportunity for working people. Many parts of society needs fixing and they have the plans to fix it.

Here are some areas that should have a clear consensus:

Education

Most schools are bad. Schools outside Bangkok are even worse. It’s a tragedy that you can look at where someone went to school and predict how their next decades would unfold: whether they would get admitted into the “good” universities, what income bracket they graduate into, and whether they have a shot at social mobility.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The local school should be just as good as the expensive private school. The teachers should be well-trained, well-paid, and supportive. They should not act like entitled dictators, and kids should be empowered and nurtured in their education.

Healthcare

While Thailand does have universal healthcare, it is far from perfect. There is a reason millions of Thai choose to join the government bureaucracy. It’s not because they want to do meaningful work — inside the bureaucracy, they are either generating random paperwork or worse, doing nothing at all.

People join the bureaucracy because of the lucrative healthcare benefits, not only for themselves, but for their families.

Healthcare is a right. And good healthcare should be accessible to everyone, not just people in government.

The economy

Thailand, like other conservative countries such as Japan, actually has a good economy when you look strictly at the numbers. The fundamentals look good! The GDP is growing, there is low unemployment, and inflation is kept at an acceptable level.

This is in large part due to a very careful and conservative fiscal policy. It’s good when all you want to do is game the numbers and maintain the status-quo.

It’s not so good when you realize that these metrics don’t measure anything at all. The GDP, at this point, is just a measurement of the wealth created by Thailand’s monopolies divided by population.

So yes, the economy is good. The better question is, who does the economy work for?

Creating an economy that works for everyone is popular. Breaking up monopolies is popular! Even Kla and Thai Pakdi are campaigning on this. Although they don’t have the sincerity to fix it, they know it is a winning issue.

Normal people should have easy access to capital. Regulations should be written to maintain a level playing field, not to strengthen entrenched players.

An economy that works for everyone is possible, and more importantly, it is deeply popular!


What does all this mean?

The status-quo is indefensible. And those that defend it will inevitably lose.

The contrast has never been clearer. Progressives should make a case for the society that want to create. And when people can see that contrast in visions, they will make the right decision.

While voters who support the regime may be conditioned to loathe those who fight for change, deep down, I believe they have the same dreams.

They too, want a country they can be proud of. They too, want to send their kids to good schools, have good healthcare, and have an economy that works for everyone — not just the ultra rich.

It would be delusional to assume all of these people can be persuaded. Most won’t. They will be too blinded by their hatred and they will cling to their old habits.

But some won’t, and that’s how things start changing.