That Frustrating Survey: Best News I've Seen in a Long Time
So, now some politicians are shocked and horrified that a third of the citizens of the Czech Republic consider the days before 1989 to be better than today. Well, start talking to some people, my politician friends, and you might learn the cause of the complaint.
Some politicians, of course, have consistently refused to talk to the elected representatives of those most disenchanted with the new system, and the two most anti-establishment parties alone represent most of those discontent souls surveyed. How can politicians expect to learn the nature of their discontent, if they do not talk to people who represent them?
With the Republicans' and the Communists' supporters accounted for, however, one finds that the issue goes deeper. What about the others expressing disenchantment in the survey?
The largest group of respondents said "about half and half" when asked which era they liked best. Again, this brought waves of grief among former dissidents and other out-of-touch types.
Here I bring you another, less quantifiable survey. As I lived in the country for several years and maintain there many friends from many locations and of all political colours (though I admit I never met a dissident), I think that I must have discussed this particular issue on a great number of occasions with quite a wide variety of people. My informal "results" match the "half and half" findings completely.
Most people I talked to over the years see some things being better za totality, but they state that most things were worse. People will point to job security and the simple rules for "muddling through" as the greatest values of the old system. People seem to feel today that za totality they knew what to do to get ahead or at least stay in one place. The future was clear if not bright.
Uncertainty and corruption are the worst aspects of the new era for most people I talked to. Before, one felt he knew, for example, how to get his child into medical school: it was a combination of connections and good marks in the appropriate books. Today, no one is sure what it takes: connections to be sure and lots of money certainly, but the old clarity is gone. After the roller-coaster of eight years of rapid social, economic and political transformation, is it any wonder people long for a little stability?
Most importantly, however, the question the survey asks is wrong. It's too simple, and respondents know it. The question asks people to order the world into clear black and white, good and evil. That is not really the way the world works, and sensible people will normally choose grey when given such an absurd choice. The people who answered "half and half" were selecting what they felt to be the best option of the choices offered, not necessarily the term that best reflected their views. Aside from Mr. Ruml, few people see life in the black-and-white terms posed by the question.
Actually, the critical "half-and-half" answer is a positive sign of the spread of democratic thinking in the Czech Republic. People rejected the simple solution; they turned down the "all-or-nothing" option that might form the basis of an undemocratic radicalism. A critical outlook in general is to be admired, especially when exhibited in a wider population, and I'd say a critical approach is essential to a democracy, because it shows a willingness to doubt the words of the politicians who say that either A or B is complete paradise. It is not that people are unsure whether to choose A or B, it is that they don't like either option 100%.
The critical outlook in today's Czech Republic is even more sensible when one considers the incredible scandals of the past few democratic years. Few governments in the democratic West would have remained standing if huge numbers of citizens saw their savings disappear into unidentified crooks' pockets, so it's fair that people show their exasperation with the crimes of the new regime. Culik's right to say that Ruml's shock is misplaced as the public's current dissatisfaction is in large part precisely due to the policies of the government in which Ruml was a member.
If the Communist era taught people not to trust Communist politicians, and the democratic era has already taught people not to trust democratic politicians too readily, then I say this is all to the good. Healthy public scepticism is only beneficial for democracy.
Public scepticism certainly does not mean that large numbers of people want to vote for Stepan or Grebenicek and relive happy days under Husak. Even the thought is absurd, and almost no citizen of the Czech Republic that I have ever met would want that.
The survey question is indeed wrong. The real question should be "would you go back - exchange everything now for everything then". I've asked people this hundreds of times, and I can tell you their answer is almost without exception a quick and resounding no. Criticism of the current era and a positive thought or two of the Communist era do not add up to a totalitarian counter-revolution. Almost no one wants to go back even if it were possible.
And, of course, it isn't possible. It's a completely hypothetical question to ask "Would you go back?" because the key to the whole system has disappeared. Whether he wanted to or not, Gorbachev did that much without a doubt. It is not possible to go back to Husak, and the citizens of the Czech Republic know that very well. They know very well what kept the old system in place, and they also know that it is gone.
Acknowledging public awareness of the impossibility of political relapse, we must recognise these survey results as a signal of current discontent, not of any longing to return to the past. No matter how much Ruml (and Stepan!) might think it possible, no totalitarian counter-revolution is brewing.
Ruml's incomprehension at citizens' preferences shows two things. First, he demonstrates that he is still wedded to the black-and-white view of the world which Communism and the Cold War forced on us all but which much of Czech society is now approaching critically. Second, his shock and amazement show that he may just be too out-of-touch to be a successful party leader in today's Czech Republic.