In defense of politics

By Matthew Flinders


From Canada to Australia — and all points in between — something has gone wrong. A gap has emerged between the governors and the governed. A large dose of scepticism about the promises and motives of politicians is an important and healthy part of any democracy, but it would appear that healthy pessimism has mutated into a more pathological form of corrosive cynicism.

P.J. O’Rourke’s Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards (2010) and Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying (2005) are very different books. The former focuses on American politics and adopts a gutter-speak tone and style, while the latter examines British politics in order to make the argument that all politicians are generally self-interested, corrupt and mendacious. Both books therefore offer a rather shallow polemic; a thin and woefully immature version of the ‘bad faith model of politics’. This view of politics resonates with public attitudes and is reflected in a great body of research and data on falling levels of public trust in politics, politicians, and political institutions. O’Rourke and Oborne are not alone in being ‘disaffected democrats’.

To those who are willing to promote or believe the ‘bad faith model of politics’ let me dare to suggest that you are wrong! Let me dare to suggest that democratic politics delivers far more than most people realise and that no politics can ever satisfy a world of ever-increasing public demands and expectations. Let me go further and suggest that most politicians, particularly in those more economically developed parts of the world where trust in politicians is so low, are actually fairly normal people like you and me. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’; just like there are no simple solutions to complex social problems. Across the world millions of people reap the benefits of fundamentally honest political systems and it is possible that those who remember the pain, death, and devastation of the two world wars that shaped the twentieth century might have a slightly more personal understanding of why democratic politics matters and what it delivers.

As Bernard Crick famously argued exactly fifty years ago in his In Defence of Politics democratic politics revolves around conciliation, compromise, and squeezing collective decisions out of a vast range of conflicting demands. It is therefore inevitably messy, often slow, and nearly always cumbersome; but it is also a civilising and quite beautiful activity for the simple reason that it allows people to live together without resorting to violence. In the current context of political disengagement and distrust, Crick’s argument is more important and valid today than when it was first made half a century ago. Let me push this argument just a little further, for those who really want to understand why politics matters and what it delivers they might read Tim Butcher’s book Blood River and the raw violence, corruption and fear that he sees as he journey across Africa. Politics therefore matters because it allows fear societies to become free societies. It is for exactly this reason that people across North Africa and the Middle East are currently dying in the name of securing open democratic politics.

Let me be very clear about my argument. I am not saying that democratic politics is perfect or that all politicians are angels, but I am arguing that politics delivers far more than most people appear to realise. A braver man than me might even suggest that the younger generations have become ‘democratically decadent’ in the sense that many of them appear to take so much for granted, while at the same time wallowing in a politics of pessimism that views acknowledging the positive contribution of political processes, political institutions, or politicians to their lives as almost heretical. In a sense then, I want to replace the politics of pessimism with a new politics of optimism that is sceptical but not cynical, engaged but not naïve, and which accepts that it is far too easy to heckle from the sidelines and blame others for the social challenges we all face. There is — I repeat — no ‘them’ and ‘us’; we are the demos and to some extent we get the politicians we deserve. The great joy of democratic politics, however, is that we can ‘throw the rascals out’ and rejuvenate from within rather than completely destroying a system of rule that has — on even the most cautious accounts — served us incredibly well during the last century.

Replacing ‘disaffected democrats’ with ‘contented citizens’ will not, however, be easy due to the manner in which so many people and industries make money from peddling the ‘bad faith model of politics’. The political economy of the media seems to believe that ‘only bad news sells’ and as the competition for a share of a dwindling market increases so does the focus on sensationalism, sleaze and corruption. Uncovering political sleaze and corruption is what makes journalism such a vital element of any society, but the modern media has arguably lost its heart and its traditional emphasis on ‘civic journalism’ to the extent that it has become part of the problem rather than the cure. The ‘new’ media offers little hope for those that seek a more balanced and informative brand of reporting. The dreams of ‘digital democracy’ that accompanied the growth of the Internet have quickly been dashed as websites tend to spawn an ever-increasingly loud and aggressive brand of anti-politics. From newspapers to the internet, and from comedy to children’s books, the overwhelming message is simply that politicians are not to be trusted. The ‘bad faith model of politics’ is the dominant social position.

So let me leave you with one thought and one challenge. Take a look at a painting called ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ by Rembrandt and think of yourself at the centre of a political storm with the media outside your home, opposition parties demanding your scalp, interest groups making more and more demands, pressures on you to cut spending rather than increase it, etc. Welcome to the reality of modern politics at the sharp end!

Politics has always been a brutal affair. It has never been a profession for the faint-hearted, but we are in danger of making the context of politics so aggressive, so unrealistic, so unforgiving, the storm so intense that ‘normal’ people (by which I mean individuals with other interests they want to maintain, children they want to protect, or personal skeletons in the cupboard that they would rather not become the focus of a media-feeding frenzy) simply walk away. Let’s be honest, most politicians will never become famous or rich and for most political life is a fairly high-cost low-gain affair. We need to be careful to at least acknowledge some thanks to those people who are willing to step into the arena. This brings me to my challenge. On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech that offers a very powerful connection to the book that crick would write fifty years later and that I would write over a century later.

“It is not the critic who counts,” Roosevelt argued, “nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

My challenge is therefore simple. We have critics aplenty but do you dare to swim against the tide of popular opinion and promote a politics of optimism; do you dare, in short, to step into the arena where even if you fail you will have at least stood forward and dared to try and make a difference?

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield and author of Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century. His book Delegated Governance and the British State was awarded the W.J.M. Mackenzie Prize in 2009 for the best book in political science. He is also the author of Democratic Drift and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Politics.

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