Politics as blah-blah

by Terence MacNamee

Recently a veteran German politician said in an interview: “formerly, parties wanted people who were fighters. Now they are looking for flexible people, who can build consensus and who understand what the voters want.” He then added: “that is why politics has become so boring.”

In France a few years ago, Max Gallo likened the modern political class to corks bobbing on the surface of society. In other words, they have no ideas of their own, no vision, no leadership to offer; they just reflect the trends in society, whatever these may be. They get to the front of the parade, wherever it happens to be going.

The immediacy of journalistic reportage and in particular the rise of opinion polling mean that politicians cannot afford to say what they really think in their speeches and sound-bites, but must reflect whatever seems to be the major trend in opinion out there among the electorate.

Politicians seem to be the helpless victims of the democratic process. As Chinese commentator Eric X. Li put it a few years ago in a criticism of Western democracy, “elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election.” The process becomes more important to them than the result. This means that they can never tell the truth. They can only tell the voters what the voters are willing to hear.

Part of the problem is an unholy alliance between journalists and politicians. They feed off one another. Complex social problems are boiled down into “issues” simple enough for politicians and journalists to understand. Political leaders go through the media landscape like sleep-walkers, dropping the clichés into their slots to produce meaningless slogans which they repeat like a mantra. It is all just blah-blah. You could watch it with the sound off and not miss much.

This is why shoot-from-the-lip right-wing populists can hold the political establishment to ransom every so often. Because they appeal to negative emotions among the voters – like resentment – and offer simplistic solutions. But they are no alternative to the professional politicians either.

Meanwhile voter turnout in elections is low and getting lower just about everywhere. So-called voter apathy is where voters make a judgement that the outcome will not improve their lot in any real way, and so stay away in a kind of mute protest.

This does not mean, of course, that there is any point in overthrowing our political system in a bloody revolution. It would only result in something a lot worse. The democratic system of competing parties is at least benign. It is a show that goes on while the real changes are happening behind the scenes and elsewhere. Around 1950, Karl Popper observed that in politics, instead of asking “who should rule?” we should ask “how can we ensure that we have rulers that do the least damage?” This sounds to me like the realistic approach we need today.

Where, then, are ideas going to come from that will improve society and save us from the real ills that threaten to engulf the world? From movements outside the conventional party-political process.

The moral of the story is: if you want to change society, don’t become a politician. Work for your vision some other way. If you are successful and get to implement your program, eventually the politicians may catch up, scrambling to get to the front of your parade.