Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.
The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.
This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.
Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.
The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.
Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.
It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.
At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.