Why Politics Matters 2: electric boogaloo
One of UK comedian Bob Monkhouse’s better jokes goes something like this: ‘People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they are not laughing now’. When I published the first edition of Why Politics Matters in 2006- which looked at rising negativity towards democratic politics- there was polite interest at presentations made to politicians and journalists but a sense that my concerns were not exactly the pressing issue of the day. As I publish the second edition for 2017 negativity about the practice of politics is a major news item and anti-politics and post truth politics are terms that have entered everyday debate.
Some politicians are taking advantage of the mood of anti-politics by offering populist stances on issues and by distancing themselves very clearly from something called the ‘political establishment’. The top nominations for 2016 might well have been Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, leading the Leave campaign in the EU membership referendum. Australia even offered a blast from the past in the person of Pauline Hanson. Her One Nation party was founded in 1997 railing generally against the perceived ‘political correctness’ of the Australian political establishment and in 2016 she won a seat in the Federal Senate along with three candidates, although one as subsequently left the party.
Other politicians, in contrast, offer convoluted apologies to public audiences for being a politician. Isobel Harding, a journalist at a meeting I was chairing in 2016, argued that she would throw up if she heard another politician explain how they only took up the job ‘by accident’. They were an engineer or doctor – or some other occupation deemed socially acceptable – turned up at some political event and then, seemingly through forces outside their control, found themselves as a candidate for election and then eventually an elected representative.
If politicians fear they are social pariahs as a group, then most citizens would not try to persuade them that the situation is otherwise. In a previous blog we argued that in recent decades where the Australian economy has experienced sustained growth- a remarkable performance in comparison with other OECD countries over the period- we have also witnessed a decade of democratic decline. Only 42% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy works, 60% of citizens describe the standards of honesty and integrity in Australia as low and trust in politics is at all-time low. We know too that millions of other citizens around the world like the idea of democratic governance in the abstract but struggle to be convinced by the politics essential to its delivery. Why Politics Matters tries to understand this contradiction and, because politics matters, it asks what, if anything, we could do to make it work better.
While the problems and solutions to the current malaise of democratic politics will vary from country to country, I believe that my focus on common features and key comparisons provides a good starting point for discussion of where we are, and what needs to be done. The negative response to politics that many of us share is, I think, a very human reaction to the way politics works. As an intricate mechanism in our multifaceted and complex societies, politics exists because we do not agree with one another. Politics is about choosing between competing interests and views often demanding incompatible allocations of limited resources. Crucially, because it is a collective form of decision making, once a choice has been made then that choice has to be imposed on us all. In the context of greater individualism and a determination to make your own choices the mechanics and institutions of politics can appear out of touch. Yet although social media may be changing the technological expression of politics but it does not mean the fundamental nature of politics has changed. It’s still about making and then imposing collective decisions.
Perhaps there is something in addition about the way that politics is done today that moves citizens from being slightly irked by politics to outright annoyed. People don’t like to be taken for a sucker or treated like an idiot. Politics as experienced daily often seems calculated to do exactly that. When politicians debate issues in simplistic terms, when they imply that we can have it all at no cost and appear to manufacture arguments they think will play well to different groups, it is hardly surprising that we think they are taking us for a ride. Nor is it odd that cynicism becomes a common coping response. My book does not berate citizens for not engaging in politics but tries to understand why they often don’t but also how they might be persuaded to do so more. You can’t have democracy without politics. In this light, it’s clear that we need to change some of the practices of politics.
The Second Edition brings into play new research conducted with colleagues over the last decade. It offers a more comprehensive portrait of rise of political disenchantment in different countries. It provides a fuller and better organised account of many of the competing explanations of that rise in anti-politics. It is updated to deal with the rise of social media, changes in party politics and the rise of populism. Finally, it offers a more extensive discussion of some of the democratic innovations that are being trialled to bring new life to politics.
In truth, the book ends on a slightly more pessimistic note than the First Edition. The Trump campaign and the EU referendum in 2016 seems to have established a new low in politics which is pulling many other actors towards it in a cycle of misinformation, dishonesty, and fear mongering. However, a favourite saying is: ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Perhaps if I ever get round to a third edition I will have something more positive to report. There are many people out there who care about creating a better politics. If my book gives them any ammunition in their battles I will be a happy author.
Gerry Stoker Why Politics Matters Second Edition is available from Palgrave: https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/Why-Politics-Matters/?K=9780230360662