People hate politics and politicians for good reason. This will not change any time soon.

December 28, 2013 by
Filed under: Adam Lent 

There’s been another bout of hand wringing over ‘political disengagement’ courtesy of a new poll which found that most people don’t vote out of anger rather than apathy.  “Big whoop” I say. The Power Inquiry, for which I was Research Director, found exactly the same back in 2006. That would be the 2006 that pre-dated all the things currently blamed for popular antipathy: MP’s expenses, Coalition politics, the 2008 Crash, the recession, Damian McBride etc. etc.

The truth is there are two very good, intimately linked reasons why people hate politics and politicians. Neither of them are easy for the political class to swallow.


Politics is hateful

The first is that politics is hated because it is a hateful profession. That doesn’t make it unusual – most professions are characterised by petty politicking, tedious tribalism, gossip and self-interest. The difference with politics is that, unlike other professions, all those frailties get constantly and very publicly dressed up, by politicians themselves, as humble public service. Such in your face hypocrisy is rarely good for anyone’s credibility.

Of course, that’s not to say a lot of MPs don’t work very hard for their constituents and even sometimes in the national interest but a lot of people work very hard for others or for the good of the country and never get a gratis peerage from a thankful nation at the end (or even in the middle) of their careers.


Parliamentary democracy is dying

The second is that parliamentary democracy itself is based on a conceptualisation of the relationship between ruler and ruled that is dead. In that conceptualisation, we the people accept being ruled by a tiny elite as long as we get to choose which tiny elite is doing the ruling. The problem is that the populations of the advanced economies increasingly don’t like the idea of being ruled by a tiny elite whether they have chosen them or not.

Again this is not just a matter for politics. The elitist institutions of authority and power that people are free to walk away from (the Church, the trade unions, the press) have been in decline for decades. Even the biggest, richest corporations have to fight a constant battle now to hold on to their customers’ trust and respect.

Politics is different, once again, because it can’t be walked away from. That’s a recipe for popular frustration.


A centuries old and profound trend

This is no recent trend but is, in my view, the outcome of many centuries of shift away from deference to collective authority towards the free choice of the individual. At one stage, parliamentary democracy was a major consequence of this shift as feudal elites in charge by virtue of force and divinity made way for democratic elites chosen by free voting individuals. Now this historic shift is swamping parliamentary democracy itself.

There are two key conclusions. Firstly, no tweaking of MP’s pay arrangements, the discovery of an inspirational new leader or even ‘radical’ change such as the introduction of proportional representation will resolve this deep systemic contradiction. In fact, anyone thinking of going into politics better accept that “I can’t seem to do anything right” sensation as a permanent occupational hazard.

Secondly, the problem will only go away when a new political system emerges that better reflects a world devoid of deference. What that looks like I am not sure. The Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, has had a shot with a strong emphasis on more direct democracy using internet technologies. I suspect it may be something much deeper than that based on widely distributed personal power rather than concentrated democratic power.

Whatever it is though it will be driven by the intensely strong desire of 21st century individuals to make their own decisions for themselves not by the nervous, self-doubt of the political class.


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  • Richard Merrick

    Well made points. I think the case is exacerbated by those with whom politicians are seen to collude, from the banks, utilities and the police-all entities where any form of collective influence is largely illusory. Also, when making a choice between parties is rather like choosing between alternative supermarket brand value beef burgers, getting any form of positive engagement is difficult. The system, will, of course over time resolve itself. Our concern and effort though needs to be addressing the nature of the transition.

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  • lws2012

    I disagree fundamentally. Politics is a noble and difficult rofession. Give it a try. Try to get elected. Go door to door asking for votes. See how easy it is. Then once elected try to keep the electorate relatively happy while you try to solve their problems where every mistake is on the front page and every success a forgotten whisper, unless you promote it tirelessly.
    second, people do not understand politics or politicians. They have a mediated experience distorted by intellectuals and the baleful influence of the media.
    Politic requires tradeoffs and hard choices like security versus privacy. I sure as hell do not want a techno-libertarian fetishist like Edward Snowden making that choice. He would be a lousy politician and would not know the second thing about being a representative of the people. He, like many technological libertarian fetishists, suffers from solipsistic syndrome where his own mind is the arbiter of what is right and wrong because they never seriously entertain opposing ideas except to dismiss them. Politicians have to compromise technologists have a disturbing habit of refusing to cooperate or compromise because coding does not allow for it. There is only one way. By contrast resolving the tension between the individual and the common good requires a myriad solutions.
    Parliamentarian democracy is not fading because of technology it is changing because the prime minister is becoming presidential rather than parliamentarian. Moreover, deference has not been an issue since at leazt before Thatcher. The problem is that politics has become professionalized to keep up with the demands of an administrative system that requires different skills than previously and because public are disengaged from these changes they misunderstand the changes and zee the politician as disengaged.

    Your last question is a recipe for anarchism, at best, and mob rule at its worst. Politics is not the xfactor or the voice or a reality show. We do not want direct democracy for a reason. It was tried and failed miserably as it descended into chaos followed by violent oppression. The libertarian technological fantasy is that the state can be ordered to indulge every individual as individual. Technology will never replace politics for if it did we would cease to be human. But become Heidegger’s standing reserve. Even three dimension printing will not mean the state can provide for every individual as individual. Moreover most individuals do not have the time or the expertise to make decisions individually that will determine the collective good. Do we really want health and safety legislation decided by a crowd? Clay Shirky’s boom Here comes Everybody is not a political manifesto, it was an observation of emerging issues but does not explain collective action see Mancur Olson for a better understanding and also why uploading photos to Flickr is not collective action. Most people voting on the internet never live with the consequences or have to enforce the decisions. Democracy is *not* as you suggested. It is ruling and being ruled in turn. This is not Machiavelli’s haves ruling the have nots. Labour now has to experience what Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had to previously. They adapt, change their leaders and policy and experience humility. They are accountable in a way x-factor voters are not accountable for their choices. People barely make the right choices in feeding themselves and you want them to be in charge of nutritional standards based on technological crowd sourcing? I would rather they had used technology to obtain an informed opinion rather than one that is popular.
    Politics will end when we have a world state. What most people do not realize, like Snowden and Schwarz who believe a better system is only needed and politics can be reduced to a code, is that tyranny is coeval with political life and the world state is not going to be wonderful utopia but a dreadful technological tyranny where man is determined by technology. Except neither Snowden nor Schwartz have read Heidegger or Strauss’s On Tyranny or Plato’s Republic so they had no idea why politics today is hardly broken as the alternatives, which we have seen are so bad. Thucydides would have told them these but neither have them considered people have thought deeply and passionately about these ideas and have killed and been killed to defend them because they are literally questions of life and death. In our technological bubble that is social media we have forgotten these hard truths although neither the Hutus or Tutsis did.

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