Dr Keith Rowley’s bigger problem is not the UNC but the culture of the PNM of which he is so deeply a part.
Honed and hammered by the 30 unbroken years in government from 1956 to 1986, the culture has shaped not only the PNM but the entire political system in which opposition is a reflection in mirror image, identical but reversed.
In this way, the PNM and the UNC—successor to the DLP and ULF—are the ying and yang of T&T politics, contrary yet complementary and working in tandem, each depending on the other for survival.
After 30 years of trading places since 1986, we have ridden the culture to a political dead-end where we’ve been passing time and entertaining ourselves by exchanging one for the other. This is a truth we have known for at least 25 years.
Whatever the shenanigans for which we punish governments at the polls, it is to the political culture that we should look for the root of the problems in which we are stuck.
This is easier said than done given that our own personal politics is as much a creation of the culture as that of our political parties.
These days, the culture is on rabid display as Dr Rowley and his government seek their footing on old familiar places that have long ago ceased to exist.
The legacy party has become a victim of its own legacy.
There is a reason why PNM governments are notoriously bad at communications, and it doesn’t all have to do with Maxie Cuffie. The reason lies in the party’s culture as expressed through its communications.
The PNM is, after all, Dr Williams’ party in which, when the leader speaks, “not a damn dog bark.”
Operational changes introduced in the 36 years since Williams have hardly touched the fundamental top-down nature of the party’s culture, which is at sharp odds with today’s flattened, inter-connected, multi-directional world of constant communication.
Sub-consciously, even generations who never laid eyes on him are probably still waiting for Dr Williams to speak first in order to know what to say.
This same political culture explains the high priority placed on image-making and reality creation by the parties that have emerged out of the opposition to the PNM’s 30 years of unbroken dominance.
In the hard, dry world of prolonged opposition, where shifting alliances and fracturing are routine occupational hazards, there’s a high premium on invented images of unity, harmony and strength.
It is no co-incidence that the governments of the NAR, UNC and PP made such extraordinary investments in image-making and reality-creation and alteration. The downside, of course, was the risk of self-delusion.
The founding culture of our politics survives, not only in the way our political parties engage the public but in the perspectives from which they govern.
As the party that inherited and managed the colonial administrative and institutional structure for 30 straight years, the PNM is conditioned to operate within the status quo.
In contrast, the opposition sees the status quo as a bulwark of PNM power to be subverted, thwarted and out-smarted.
This difference in perspective may well have been at the heart of the early break-up of the NAR when the wings of the party with PNM antecedents came into explosive conflict with the ULF.
In its modern expression, the political culture serves neither the PNM nor the UNC.
Faced with the challenge of transformation, Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s PP government opted to side-step it with a guerrilla approach to government which set her team on a collision course with almost every institution with damaging effect.
In his turn, Dr Rowley, like Patrick Manning before him, fed off UNC disruptiveness by promising a return to order and process.
By now, he has probably discovered that there is no order to which to return. The clock cannot be reset to 2010.
Frustration is the only guaranteed outcome from a system that has collapsed but which remains resistant to change.
The historic challenge before us now is to break through the dead-end by reconfiguring the elements of the old to create something new.
There is nothing new in saying that we need new politics. But to change the politics, we must first change the political culture of this place, beginning with a willingness to question our own instincts and beliefs.
We need deep reflection on the political system in order to understand how it is working to undermine our aspirations and paralyse our potential for change. Although not impossible, it is unlikely that such introspection will come from the parties which are already hard at it, fighting the next general election.
The loud political noise blasting through the atmosphere is really the sound of anxiety rushing to mask the very real political vacuum that now exists. It is here that our most fertile opportunity for transformational politics lies.
Given the well-toned survival instincts of the political culture, it will not be easy.
But we can make a start by resisting the call to divide ourselves and join a herd while embracing our responsibility for independent thought and for engaging each other, across our differences and in our common interest.