Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part column on political culture influencing economic development.

Political and economic development are intertwined. In the Virgin Islands, both political and economic development have stagnated due to several reasons — mediocre leadership, structural economic weaknesses, increasing vulnerability to external shocks, but most importantly a passive political culture that values reciprocity more than accountability and performance.

Political culture is defined as the composite of basic values, feelings and knowledge about the political process and the beliefs that citizens hold toward, not necessarily individual politicians, but their form of government. Using the conceptualizations of political scientists Almond and Verba, the Virgin Islands seems to have a subject political culture as opposed to a parochial or participant culture.

In a “subject” political culture, citizens see themselves as impotent subjects of the government. In a “participant” culture, citizens believe that they can influence and affect political outcomes. People believe they have agency. In a parochial culture, citizens feel distant and are largely unaware of central government.

Virgin Islanders don’t demand accountability and good performance. They are fatalistic, they are willing to accept, “that is how it is.” Virgin Islanders are more interested in keeping a job and maintaining good relations with family, friends, school mates, neighbors and fellow church goers. Because we are highly vulnerable but interconnected, small community, reciprocity trumps accountability.

No one wants to take anyone else to task because you never know when you are going to need them. You don’t want to talk bad about anyone because who you are talking to might be related to the subject of your scorn. This attitude explains high crime rates where no one sees anything, to poor customer service, to accepting poor political governance.

In the Virgin Islands residents, are not “parochial” in their political culture; Virgin Islanders grouse and complain endlessly in private and on numerous talk radio shows about the current state of affairs and are generally informed about political and economic developments.

But they really do not believe change will come. They complain but do not organize, they do not act, they do not demand. They are hesitant to engage in street protests, march, sign petitions or hold letter-running campaigns, let alone mount a general strike. They do not attend public regulatory or zoning meetings in large numbers. Citizens repeatedly vote for the same political party and select politicians more based on familiarity, personal ties, and their ability to emote rather than technical qualifications, experience, and detailed policy stances.

Election cycles come and go, different faces may get elected, but substantive change and reform continues to be elusive. Effective coalitions for change cannot seem to be built and sustained. Mothers marched about gun violence. Twenty years on, the homicide rate remains high and the level of gun violence scary. For decades the V.I. Water and Power Authority has underperformed. Petitions with over 5,000 signatures a couple years ago achieved nothing. Now petitions calling for change against WAPA garner less than 1,500.

No one marches on WAPA. The political leadership remains unmoved and just pleads patience with WAPA. Rarely is an individual or a group of persons held accountable for glaring misdeeds and irregularities while in public service.

Since the 1960s, a system of one-party dominance and associated patron-clientelism has emerged. Politics in the Virgin Islands evolved from the bedrock of the Paiewonsky-Ottley machine system of the 1960s to a now highly personalistic one, with a marked absence of coherent policy or ideological stances, just a focus on vague promises to do better than other candidates in addressing a perennial list of problems. The focus is obtaining access to federal monies to address the myriad problems without acknowledging that weak procurement and absorptive issues are part of the problem. The focus is on keeping public sector employment high and government contracting spending high because government employers and contractors arethe biggest bloc of voters. The focus is trying to please developers and favored connected businesses because they are principal sources of political campaign contributions.

Since 1970, the advent of the era of locally elected governors, the V.I. Democratic Party has controlled the governorship more times and accounted for more total time served than any other party. Of the nine locally elected governors, four have been Democrats, two affiliated with the Independent Citizen Movement or ICM, two Independents, and one Republican. Democratic governors have served a total of 30.6 years out of 51 years or approximately 60% of the time. Most Democratic governors have served two terms whereas only one Independent governor has served more than one term.

Concomitantly, a majority of the 15 seats in the V.I. Legislature throughout the period have been held by Democrats. In addition, the office of the nonvoting V.I. Delegate to Congress likewise has been held by a Democrats 44 years out of the last 48 years.

In the 1970s the Democratic Party was challenged for a brief time by the ICM Party and Republican Party. However, since the 1980s these latter two parties have fallen on hard times. In recent years the Republican Party has not even fielded a slate of candidates. In the most recent gubernatorial in 2020 the ICM Party filed papers on at the 11th hour on the filing deadline day. In the 34th Legislature of the Virgin Islands, there are no Republicans and no ICMers.

What political contestability exists only in the Democratic Party, not between parties. Various factions vie for leadership control of the party and aspirants for public office either not successful in the Democratic internal competition or disillusioned with the workings of the Democratic Party, tend to run as Independents.

The only Republican governor was the first elected one, Dr. Melvin H. Evans. The only ICM governor was Cyril E. King, the second governor. Because he died in office, his successor, Juan F. Luis, finished his term and then successfully ran and won on his own merit, but as an Independent, not an ICMer. Since 1982, only two Independent candidates have succeeded in becoming the chief executive.

— Mark Wenner, St. Thomas