The political question that matters

Politics, at its best, is the real-time experiment to find out how that promise is most practically and effectively fulfilled in different places and times. 

Ints Kalnins/Reuters
PEOPLE ENJOY A PARK NEXT TO A GOVERNMENT OFFICE IN HELSINKI, FINLAND.

What does a country look like when government works? What qualities does a country need to embody for progress – to improve health, wealth, and happiness?

When you strip away the theatrics of politics, this is what matters. Government is about creating conditions for its citizens to thrive and advance. And politics, at its best, is the real-time experiment to find out how that promise is most practically and effectively fulfilled in different places and times. 

So where is it working? Seeking an answer, The Guardian newspaper in Britain offered a profile of a country where there has been miraculous improvement by almost every measure – education, equality, economic opportunity, safety, and good governance – during the past century. 

Interestingly, the article says little about programs or policies. Instead, it charts the nation’s mental landscape. The paper essentially asks: What is the mind-set that underlies progress? Here’s their list:

Self-confidence. “Every person has to work hard for themselves,” one person said. There is a word in the native language that speaks to a core national trait: “a kind of dogged, courageous persistence regardless of consequence.” 

Cooperation. This independence is not in conflict with a broader sense of social welfare, but amplifies it. Another poignant word in the local language talks of “working together, collectively, for a specific good.... Getting the harvest in, stocking wood, raising money. It’s about cooperating.” The result is a society where people are “self-reliant, private, but also dependent on a highly cooperative society, where rules matter.”

Equality. Billionaires get no deference. “You don’t look up at people, and you don’t look down. You look level.” Women’s rights are seen as men’s rights. “Women ... took their rights seriously, and men accepted it.” 

Trust. The country had to choose common sense and unity over division and ideology. Leaders “thought about the good of the country; took big, sensible decisions. And the consensus backed them, because everyone knew we were fighting for our existence.”

Does it matter that the country is Finland? Yes, in that what works in Finland might not work in the United States or Uganda. But no, in that none of these qualities demand a specific policy prescription. They’re about the ideals behind the policies. 

This kind of journalism should, one hopes, feel familiar to Monitor readers. The Guardian has started a project called the Upside, which looks at where things are going right. (One of the journalists driving the “good news” effort there used to write for the Monitor, too.) Other such projects are popping up elsewhere. (Check out our “Points of Progress” feature on page 14, for instance.) 

The “magic sauce” in Finland, The Guardian concluded, is an expression of “basic values” that, rolled together, embody the country’s sense of love. Yet, in a way, The Guardian also identified the “magic sauce” that makes journalism work in ways beyond analysis or a retelling of facts. It went in search of the ideals that lift us all to higher motives. 

For the Monitor, that is a project 110 years in the making.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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