FRIDAY’S WORDS OF WISDOM: DEFENDING POLITICS BY MATTHEW FLINDERS

Writing in defence of politics and, indeed, politicians is always a potentially risky pastime. The overwhelming public perception of politics is so cynically negative that anyone who speaks out in favour of those who take on public office is immediately the subject to suspicion (mostly of “being ambitious” or, more kindly, of “being niave”). And, often enough, politicians let you down and do stupid or venal things. There have been strange moments of cognitive estrangement this week reading Matthew Flinders’ Defending Politics (Oxford University Press, 2012) and agreeing with most (though not quite all) of what he writes while another Tory minister is revealed to have behaved like (at best) an idiot.

And yet, even as Jeremy Hunt’s foolishness or corruption deals another blow to the public image of politics, this week has also contained clear indications of the far higher price that accompanies the absence or abandonment of politics. In The Hague, the way in which Charles Taylor manipulated the bloody anarchy in Sierra Leone has been revealed. In Norway, Anders Breivik’s belief in the unassailable moral superiority of his opinions and the demonization of politicians led him to murder 77 people whose primary “crime” was a desire to make their community better. And, on a smaller scale, in Northern Ireland the absence of a trusted legal framework caused a mother to take her drug addict son to an alleyway and watch him get shot twice in the legs by vigilantes take the policing of a community into their own hands.

Flinders is right when he repeats, frequently, that democratic politics is messy, hard and often frustrating game but he is also right when he makes the unpopular but necessary case that it is a system worth fighting for because it offers positive advantages as well as being superior to the alternatives. In the forward to Defending Politics, he sets out clearly and with a stridency that is a trademark of his book, his position:

Let me stand up and argue against the current anti-political settlement and state in no uncertain terms that the vast majority of politicians are over-worked and under-paid, that public servants generally do a fantastic job in the face of huge pressures, and that, most broadly, democratic politics delivers far more than most people acknowledge or understand. Across the developed world we reap the fruits of fundamentally honest political systems and the time has come to stand up and fight back in the name of democracy. We must not allow our political systems to become synonymous with failure because public apathy and distrust places a mighty weight on those who have stepped forward on behalf of society in order to attempt to deal with wave after wave of crises (social, economic, environmental, etc.) that crash upon the shores of politics with ever increasing frequency. (vii)

Flinders doesn’t argue that our politics is perfect, and he doesn’t deny that politicians sometimes fail and that they are sometimes corrupt, but he argues that we should not “let the behaviour of the few destroy the achievements of the many.” However, while conceding the imperfection of politics his central point is that much of the time the supposed “failures” of politics are not due to the shortcomings of democratic structures or the peccadilloes of individual politicians.

Firstly, if politics is failing, its failings are undoubtedly systemic in nature. Have you ever wondered if it is just a little too easy to blame politicians? If politics is viewed as failing the challenge lies in promoting understanding, education and communication. It also lies in turning passive consumers into active citizens and in understanding that democratic politics is not a spectator sport. Secondly, with this in mind, beware of anyone or any party that tries to sell you a perfect formula for all the world’s ills – there isn’t one. Democratic politics is messy, cumbersome and at times frustrating because life and the world are themselves generally messy, cumbersome, and at times frustrating. There is no simple solution to the challenges we face but there is a great reason to cherish and celebrate our democratic achievements and democratic potential. (xv)

Flinders starts with the obvious, but often denied, statement that while some politicians are awful, greedy and corrupt, the vast majority enter the profession altruistically, driven by the belief that they can do something to make life better for the communities they serve. Most people involved in politics give up their time without financial reward and even for those politicians that do the job full-time the rewards remain relatively modest given the responsibilities and pressures of the job and the uncertainties of the profession and the general brevity of the career – MPs, on average, last just 13 years in Parliament. The dominant cynicism about politics and politicians makes it seem almost perverse to suggest that those who stand for office might be ordinary people driven by generally well-meaning intentions and this, in turn, reflects the extent to which the “bad-faith view of politics” has created a “politics of pessimism”.

The core of our problem lies not only with the structures or individuals in politics but more generally throughout society.

…if we face a problem of political disconnection, we need to rebuild a set of authentic political relationships that focus not just on the responsibilities and behaviour of politicians but also involve expectations of all social actors including the public. At the heart of this authentic relationship must also be a large dose of realism about the limits of democratic politics: limits in the sense of what we can expect politics to deliver; limits in the sense of acknowledging that democracy involves both costs and benefits; limits in the sense of giving as well as taking; and limits in the sense of how our popular culture reinforces the idea that politics is disreputable when in fact we should celebrate ‘mere politics’ at every opportunity because the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. (3)

Flinders views democratic politics as a form of social engagement. It is a “moral activity” that provides us with the means of taking control of our lives by “cultivating mutual understanding, engineering collective endeavours, and taking collective decisions about the allocation of scarce resources” and, as such, it acts as a balance to the forces of fate and the isolated, competitive drive created by the market. “Laws and regulation are needed to restrain the predatory and protect the weak.” (5) Given the limited resources available within communities (and indeed, on our planet) some form of rationing is necessary. Internalized rationing leaves the decisions to the individual, externalized rationing is done collectively.

Although any system of externalized rationing can at times appear overly centralized, controlling and even unfair, its position of the core of democratic politics occurred not by accident but by design… democratic politics is founded on the basis of collective endeavour. It seeks to avoid a violent and arbitrary state of nature in which the politics of fear rules and instead attempts to construct a shared public sphere in which everyone enjoys rights and responsibilities. (6)

From here Flinders introduced three central elements to the “moral and noble activity” of politics.

  • First, shared resource planning. At times some form of externalized rationing is necessary to prevent the over-exploitation of certain shared resources.
  • Second, delivering positive social outcomes. Freedom and constraint are not opposites. The imposition of restraints (laws, tax policies, limits, regulations etc.) avoids inferior outcomes and therefore protects certain individual and collective freedoms.
  • Third, protecting the vulnerable. Politics reflects shared social values about the need to protect sections of society from the vagaries of a pure market economy

This rich form of political morality is not, however, about creating utopias but a “more basic and grubbier of form of governing” that is stable and broadly acceptable to all citizens. There will always be winners and losers, but politics aims to foster some degree of mutual respect and humility.

Is it possible that we ‘hate’ politics because we have forgotten its specific and limited nature, its overwhelming value, and also its innate fragility? Could it be that our expectations are so high that politics appears almost destined to disappoint? Democratic politics cannot make ‘every sad heart glad’… nor did it ever promise to do so. But not always getting what you want, an awareness that public governance is often slow and bureaucratic, a frustration that some decisions are hard to understand or have to be made in secret, disbelief and anger at the self-interested behaviour of a small number of politicians and an acceptance that some people will always take out more from the system than they put in – these are the prices you pay for living in a democracy. And remember it is a democracy that on the whole does deliver, does protect the vulnerable, does deliver a range of public goods, does save lives, does allow citizens to speak out, does respond to public opinion and does manage the peaceful transition of power at elections. (7)

Two and a half billion people (35% of humanity) live in unreconstructed authoritarian regimes and democracy (with open political competition, civil liberties, rule of law and an independent media) remains the exception rather than the rule. For all its shortcomings, democratic politics is a success because it “generally ensures stability and order. It avoids anarchy or arbitrary rule.” Regimes based on brute force remain common and too often leave ordinary people “trapped between civil war, social unrest and the politics of the belly”. That is why, even as “disaffected democrats” grumble while enjoying their “unimaginable good fortune”, people from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South-East Asia and Africa risk everything to get to Western Europe, America and Australia or fight to the death to create governments that respond to their demands.

But that is not to argue that democratic politics is easy or, once established, that its benefits are guaranteed.

…democratic politics can be a messy and frustrating business, for all concerned, because it is about producing collective decisions from multiple and competing arguments and opinions. When the public demands that politicians ‘listen to the people’ they need to understand that the public rarely, if ever, share the same demands, desires or interests. Understanding what the public want and what will best serve the ‘public interest’ is therefore more difficult than is commonly understood which in turn leads us into a discussion of the politics of public expectations. (11)

The democratic paradox is the recognition that even as we live in a time when democracies are delivering more than ever (education, welfare, benefits, health, housing, safety, stability, security etc.) public levels of confidence in democratic institutions, political process and their trust in politicians is falling. There remains a high attachment to the idea of democracy but the public appears to be losing faith in the practical applications of those principles.

Flinders identifies three themes:

  • The perception gap. When people speak generally about politics they tend to respond negatively, but when they reflect on their personal experience, they tend to be more positive. “Over and over again the data reveals that the public believe that politicians and public servants are corrupt when in fact their personal experience of interacting with politicians and bureaucrats provides very little basis for this viewpoint.” (14)
  • The demand gap. The public frequently demand one thing then react against it when politicians fulfil those demands. “…if politicians are frequently duplicitous (and they frequently are), this may well stem from the public’s own duplicity… The public demand better services but are not willing to pay higher taxes. The public want to address climate change but they don’t want to give up their energy-intensive lifestyles. They want to eat cake but not get fat.” (15)
  • The social gap. The public want politicians to be more normal, more like them, but then they burden them with demands and expectations that cannot be fulfilled. “We slate politicians who appear unkempt or exhausted but equally condemn them for being on holiday if a crisis erupts. We want our politicians to be strong and determined yet passionate and flexible; a statesman while also relaxed; authoritative but not condescending; word perfect but not scripted; self-confident but not smug; confident but not arrogant; intelligent but not nerdy; handsome but not vain; family friendly but not work-shy.” (16)

This leads Flinders to identify the impossible demands that too many citizens place on their elected representatives and their failure to understand what it is that makes up the day-to-day work of politics.

Let me tell you in no uncertain terms that most politicians are normal human beings like you and me. They laugh and they cry; they worry and they make mistakes; they will fail in some aspects of their work but succeed in others; they forgo personal gain in the name of public service; and they possess all the human frailties and weaknesses of any other person. It’s hard to lie as a politician because everything you say is subject to enormous scrutiny. Even if they wanted to lie in the first place they would soon get found out. The life of a politician is rarely a glamorous one. Politics as a profession can undoubtedly be rewarding but rarely in financial terms. For most politicians, whether they hold office at the local, regional, or national level, their role revolves around the minutiae of day-to-day politics in the sense of dealing with damp social housing, dog dirt in parks, pubic petitions, missing benefit payments, and those who want just one thing (and those who want another). Notwithstanding all that, what unites those who hold political office is a willingness to step into the arena in order to try and make a positive difference to society and to people’s lives. So when all is said and done, politics does make a positive difference to people’s lives. It provides healthcare, education, and social protection; it protects basic human rights and freedoms; it provides clean water, electricity and sanitation; it allows us to talk and to challenge and to protest, and most of all it provides a way of negotiating between our different viewpoints and demands without resorting to violence and fear. (17)

Politics is not a spectator sport and too many of its benefits are taken for granted by those who only carp from the sidelines rather than getting involved in the messy and difficult business of making things better. It has become easy, indeed it has become normal, for citizens to sit back and blame politicians “for failing to deliver painless solutions to painful questions”. Healthy scepticism has “mutated into a corrosive cynicism” as the gap between citizens and the actual practice of politics widens.

The great danger of the rise of anti-political sentiment is that it may generate a shift away from collective action and externalized rationing… towards a more individualized structure that is simply ill-equipped to deal with the major social, economic and environmental challenges that will shape the twenty-first century – less equipped in the sense that we will have lost those levers of social trust and social engagement, direction, and mutual support that politics delivers. Democratic politics is the politics of life chances, of opportunity, and constant renewal. ‘Life politics’, by contrast, revolves around individualized responses to social problems that can only ever fail. The ‘bad faith model of politics’ is therefore not only wrong but it also belittles our collective achievements and potential. It glamorizes those who heckle from the sidelines and encourages us to despise the very people we vote for. (19)

The world is changing. Flinders identifies a number of trends that present challenges to the conduct and stability of democratic politics: the decline of deference; the growing range of issues we expect government to act on; our demands that government does more with fewer resources; the impact of globalization; new technologies; the rise of the “monitory society” that places public decisions under ever greater scrutiny; the blurring of ideological divisions; and the “flight from reality” amongst intellectuals who abandon the public sphere to concentrate on more esoteric “academic” topics. The combination of these trends has been to contribute to the creation of a society whose politics is marked by aggression, distance and fluidity.

Aggression is meant in the sense that political competition is increasingly interpreted as little more than a form of warfare in which the role of political actors is to attack those who disagree with them… a view of politics that defines any willingness to engage in serious debate, offer to negotiate, or change your mind as evidence of weakness. It is bitter, short tempered, and its ambition is to sneer and jibe mercilessly.
Distance in the sense that arguing that a gap has emerged between the governors and the governed veils the fact that, in many ways, the traditional distance between politicians and the public has all but disappeared… One of the defining features of modern politics is that the idea of a politician enjoying a ‘private life’ appears almost laughable…
Fluidity is mean in the simple sense that many of the social anchor points that gave meaning and direction to political life have become less tangible, less clear. The old debates about ‘left or right’ or ‘big state versus small state’ appear increasingly meaningless in a world driven by interdependency and the emergence of ‘new’ risks. (30-31)

There is no reason to assume that the kind of people who enter politics are less committed, less concerned or less able than they were in the past – or if they are it is because we have created a situation where “only the manically ambitious dare stand for office as ‘normal’ people refuse to submit to the abuse, pressure, hounding and misrepresentation that becoming a politician generally involves.” (31) But what has changed is the complexity of the challenges we face, the hysteria that surrounds attempts to discuss serious issues, the shrillness of opposition (there is always opposition to any measure) and the tendency to make every issue a crisis. The people are the same, but the political environment has been transformed.

Consciously echoing Bernard Crick’s In Defense of Politics (1962), Flinders sets out to offer a series of defences of politics against various threats.

In defending politics against itself (chapter 2) he argues that the success of politics has made us dissolute: “Political cynicism, disengagement, democratic decadence – call it what you will – is too often an excuse for physical and intellectual laziness…  we (individuals, pressure groups, academics, journalists, politicians, political parties, etc.) all need to grow up and a adopt a far more honest account of politics.” (39) We have to give up behaving like political infants constantly making demands and throwing tantrums when they are not met, and start behaving like political adults and accept that the price we pay for the benefits of living in a democratic polity (safety, freedom, security, relative wealth, protection) mean that we can’t always (or even ever) get things exactly as we would wish.

In defending politics against the market (chapter 3) Flinders argues that the shift from understanding politics as a collective endeavour aimed at a shared understanding to an individualised notion of citizenship that is about receiving services has damaged democracy. An “emphasis on individual consumption and material wealth risks fuelling social fragmentation… consumer capitalism contains an internal dynamic that chips away at and erodes the collective foundation of democratic life.” (67) The commodification of public goods and the dominance of neo-liberal ideas have reduced our faith in our collective ability to respond to crises and warped our understanding of what we should expect from our democratic politics.

Defending politics against denial (chapter 4), Flinders notes that the hollowing out of the political sphere – the transferring of powers away from politicians to unelected experts in QUANGOS and NGOs and central banks and a host of other (at best partially democratic) institutions, has created a depoliticization of key areas of our society. This “rarely brings power closer to the general public and is more accurately viewed as the transfer of power between political elites… [it] represents the denial of democratic capacity and the narrowing or infolding of the public sphere.” (90) This process also, falsely, assumes that the moral questions facing a democratic society are subject to technical solutions.

Flinders defence of politics against crises (chapter 5) notes that attempting to manage a society in a constant state of hysteria has serious consequences. “It is as if we have become cowed and scared of living and this is reflected in regular moral panics and bouts of hysteria as risks become over-inflated, misconstrued, and most of all deliberately exaggerated by those who have something to gain from the politics of fear. In reality the world has never been a safer place.” (111) While minor threats are exaggerated, the genuine long-term threats to democratic governance –  like climate change or population growth – are ignored or sidelined. Fear sells: “there is a political economy of fear that allows ambient insecurities concerning the changing nature of society and the availability of more (but not necessarily accurate) information to be manipulated for self-serving means.” (111)

For Flinders perhaps the most crucial defence of politics is against the media (chapter 6) which, he believes, “has become increasingly cynical, mercenary, and demagogic to the point at which it no longer supports democratic politics but actively undermines it.” (143) He is critical of the way the media has moved from providing information to providing entertainment, which in turn has required it to paint politics and politicians as a black and white game without subtleties and shades of grey. With higher stakes at every turn and every error or straying from the party line is presented as a crisis or a drama: “the media is providing a daily diet of lies, exaggeration, and misrepresentation about politics in order to further the interests of journalists, editors, and share holders rather than the public interests… [A] cynical and sleaze-driven media that is focused on selling newspapers or advertising space above all else can be as, if not more, destructive to democratic politics than the suppression of the media would be.” (144) The image of journalists as the heroic upholders of the public interest has little, if any, relationship to the grubby truth of an industry obsessed with muck-raking and that glorifies the ‘politics of fear’. Outside mainstream journalism more and more people are relying on talk shows and satire for their political information, but these too are heavily cynical and overwhelmingly destructive – seeking only to pull down, never to build anything in society. Nor has the much vaunted “new media” delivered on its promise of a more engaged citizenry – research suggests than rather than enabling wider involvement the internet has simply divided up those already interested in politics into self-reinforcing and increasingly extreme enclaves who never encounter alternative views and whose political involvement is reduced to button-clicking and abuse throwing.

In drawing together the themes involved in these various defences (In Praise of Politics, chapter 7), Flinders argues that:

“what we obtain too cheaply we tend to esteem too lightly and my concern is that too many disaffected democrats take what politics delivers for granted. Politics is not some strange activity conducted by ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. The fruits of democracy are best seen through the lens of ‘everyday politics’; in the schools and the hospitals, in the roads and the trains, in the courts and the shops, in community groups and social protests, in bars and sports clubs, in work and play, and most of all in the freedom to question and challenge. From the nursery to the nursery home ‘everyday’ politics improves people’s lives.” (171-172)

Those who have lived in societies that are stable and free and do not remember the price paid in the construction and defence of democratic rights, who have not experience life in a society without democratic politics and the rule of law, who have never been subject to brutal oppression or civil war, must watch carefully those who tempt them with easy solutions to complex problems.

“Beware of those who promise you a pain-free future or the elimination of risk, and take a breath before you pour scorn on those who have at least dared to step into the arena. Politics is, at base, a moral activity and therefore a lack of trust in the capacity of political institutions, political processes and politicians reflects a much deeper lack of faith in ourselves and each other. This is because the nature of politics defines the nature of any society. Democratic politics therefore matters because it underpins free societies and not fear societies. (172)

If there is a crises in democracy it stems not from politicians but from our collective loss of moral nerve and self-belief in our ability to tackle problems. The irony is that, to create our current freedoms, we have tackled and mastered many much bigger and more pressing crises than those that seem to frequently threaten the stability of our societies today. “The crisis of politics is therefore, at root, a crisis of confidence.” (172)

We have allowed politics to be redefined and narrowed. We have stopped seeing it as a collective endeavour to improve society and have come to see it as the freedom of individuals to pursue self interests and decide their own actions. We have come to blame the system and politicians for our personal failings and for misfortune.

No politician has the magic to satisfy a world of greater expectations, and the world does not have the resources to satisfy those expectations. Demonizing politicians might contribute to the myth of collective innocence but at the end of the day we are all complicit… We are all part of the problem and the cure, and our future will be defined by whether we reconnect to the power of genuine democratic politics in order to manage the transition of from an Age of Abundance to an Age of Austerity or whether we continue as political infancies until the challenges on the horizon are directly upon us… We are not, therefore, in ‘end times’ but we are in a time when we need fewer people carping and heckling from the sidelines and more people debating, learning, engaging, voting and standing for office. (173)

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