Good Politics = Boring Politics
24 Jun 2020
Good Politics = Boring Politics
For a while now I’ve been plagued by concerns about gruesome, bitter, toxic politics - fuelled by petty insults, shifting the blame and blatant intellectual dishonesty. Politics have become not so much about informed discussions on the merits of ideas, but instead scoring points in a popularity contest and feeding into the confirmation biases of the existing bases of support. Now, this is not news to anybody. I want to reiterate the importance of integrity and honesty in the serious matter that everything political is. Further, I want to highlight particular habits modern-day politicos practice, why they are harmful and how they can be avoided. And lastly, issue a cautious message of hope about a better potential future where politics can indeed be good.
So, back to the basics: ask anyone in your friendship circle or strangers online what politics means to them, and hardly anyone will say that it’s a good thing which is working as intended - being a facilitator for the interests of the real people to be heard and their needs to be met. What you will hear more often are comparisons to the theatre, to a private school debating club - that’s about the big boys and girls over in Westminster. But the other, arguably more worrying side, is that grassroots activists, community organisers, “the little people” in politics aren’t spared the negative attitudes either. In short, the public was alienated; the public is rightly reluctant; the public is frustrated.
Now, this is where some may disagree with me. I do not believe we should (as politically engaged people) look down upon those who aren’t politically engaged. Privately there have been too many instances of that kind of feeling of superiority in the various political circles I frequent. What we should instead be doing is asking our friends, families, strangers on the internet why they are not engaged in politics and politely attempt to persuade them to do so. There are too many reasons to be listed even if some overlap to an extent. I am instead making a case for a universal remedy - being honest, being serious and leading by example.
There are several habits, exercised by political people all across the political spectrum which are harmful to the image and the principle of politics, yet can be fixed quite easily. Case study - Twitter politics. The limited number of characters is not always a good thing: the points are oversimplified, exaggerated, tailored to the audience on one side of the political debate. A good example is Bernie Sanders’ reply to a The Week tweet - “The world’s first trillionaire would be caused to celebrate” - is a simple “No”. I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly, and I think it is powerful. But put yourself in the shoes of anyone who believes in trickle-down economics or isn’t fully informed around the debate and wants to learn more. The tweet will come across as dismissive, uniformed, and as some kind of a platitude. Again, you may disagree, but I think a much better phrasing could have been something along the lines of: “I do not think so because this is a manifestation of growing inequality under the capitalist system wherein around 100 individuals accumulate wealth enough to sustain millions dying in poverty for life. This is an opportunity to revitalise the debate on the fairer distribution of wealth.” Two hundred eighty characters of respectfully disagreeing with the opinion, summarising your own, providing alternative discussion points. Of course, this may never be as “iconic” or as exciting as the original tweet, but it doesn’t need to. Clearer communication leaves less room for misunderstanding and personal attacks - utterly irrelevant to the serious question of inequality. The threads of argument around whether Bernie Sanders is an uneducated lunatic are far longer than ones with meaningful discussions and sharing helpful learning resources.
It is also undeniably a problem when good arguments start or end with accusations of stupidity or assuming others’ intentions. It completely discredits the argument to the point where it may as well have not been written in the first place. For example, when someone talks about how stupid Biden supporters are of accusing Trump being a racist when Biden said racist things himself. It is intellectually dishonest to subscribe to the idea that only two men have used racist language and supported racist policies. But it doesn’t warrant personal accusations - especially if the goal is to persuade of a more intellectually honest line: that both of the men can be racist at the same time. All people say things that are untrue from time to time. But with the way we acquire our information - tailored newsfeeds, media with political agendas trusted (albeit incorrect) sources and such - it is near impossible to trace any given person’s epistemology so being wrong does not necessarily make the person stupid. Whilst I acknowledge that it is important for that person to be informed themselves. You may argue that it is foolish of them not to, I think that calling them stupid is not going to help them be open to investigating why your point of view and your logic and your argument is worthy of their attention and may put them off politics entirely.
And this is precisely where the problem lies. Political performance preoccupies the imaginations of political and apolitical people alike. It is always tempting to speak poetically and in metaphors like “eat the rich” until you spend hours unironically explaining the meaning and symbolism behind condemning the real culture of exploitation (the first sentence always being: just to be clear, cannibalism is bad) to nearly every other person - a voter, a citizen, holder of fundamental rights to be part of the political process. Some of the reasons why the performance is the more prominent part of the culture stem from the foundations of democracy - the art of speaking. Somehow those who have good points (in UoB too, whether in the seminars or at student-led political events) are too afraid to speak up even though their points stand up to scrutiny much better and often have the amazing authentic quality to them. I think this culture of inauthenticity and an emphasis on image over substance are all perpetuated by the political parties. Instead of teaching the rank-and-file to repeat party cues, teach them the philosophy behind a policy and allow them the freedom to articulate it on their own. Whilst it is important to maintain the image of unity and to energise the party base, I think it is far better to be (not just seem) closer to reality and have the base which supports you because they know and believe in your policy rather than simply excited over a soundbite.
Lastly, here’s why the political community should drive the change. In short - the performance politics formula has failed. The UK has seen increased rates of voter dealignment, apathy and a disdain outlined in countless studies beginning in the 1980s. I am aware that I am asking to actively make politics boring. But I think politics shouldn’t be seen as a source of entertainment in the first place. If we take politics seriously, then we should invest a lot more energy in getting people to recognise just how serious it is. I am not saying write essays or don’t argue emotively, just saying be respectful, be aware of your personal biases, be exhaustive even if the person you’re arguing isn’t. The majority of political and apolitical people alike will appreciate you and respect you for that. We know the current politics is bad. So why not try to make it good?