Politics, populism and people

There’s nothing like reading the newspapers at the weekend to put you off politics – not that weekday politics are much better. Even people like me who are positively interested in policies, albeit not party politics, sometimes despair about government by populist headline and short-term polling. Perhaps I should say ‘especially’ rather than ‘even’. The UK government is funding four evidence-based research centres, known as ‘what works’ centres. I find it hard to imagine how politicians will use the research if it happens not to fit in with the “narrative” of the day, shaped by prior beliefs or by prejudice and ideology. It isn’t just me. Polls, and turnout in elections, show that pretty much everybody is repulsed by the political system. For example, an Ipsos MORI poll from January 2013 found that fewer than one in five Britons trusts politicians, while net satisfaction with the way the UK (Westminster) parliament works has been trending broadly down since the 1990s, with more dissatisfied than satisfied.

Anthony Painter’s new book, , diagnoses this structural problem very astutely. He writes of politics ‘without humility’, “A spectacle of false partisan divides, dishonest posture, lessons missed and opportunities wasted. Is it any wonder that our politicians are held in such low regard?” If politicians insist on acting out stereotyped Punch and Judy roles, people will stop taking them seriously.

[amazon_image id=”1780766610″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Left Without a Future?: Social Justice in Anxious Times[/amazon_image]

The book, written under the auspices of the progressive think tank Policy Network, analyses the socio-economic reasons for the decline of the Labour Party alongside the role played by free market or ‘neo-liberal’ ideas. Why, Painter asks, has the crash not so thoroughly discredited this dominant ideology of the 1990s and 2000s that the organised left benefited politically? As he points out, it is hardly as if people are entirely uninterested in current issues. Still, “The mainstream left is in crisis.”

Part of his explanation is that the left has concentrated on staking a claim to the moral high ground in the realm of ideas, in a rather didactic manner, without bothering with the humble, practical politics of paying attention to people and organising around their concerns and needs. Indeed, he obviously finds the moralising pretty unappealing. “It is through forming inclusive institutions that the left will be in a position to advance social justice….. The market is not a force of nature; it operates in accordance with a deliberate institutional design. It is to thinking about the institutional design of the future that the left’s energy should now be directed.”

I’m a technocrat, not a party political person, and so am not the target audience of a book aimed at the organised left of politics. However, I couldn’t agree more with the general point Painter is making here. Many politicians, as others have pointed out, have spent their entire career doing politics, moving from student politics to think tanks and advisory or lobbying roles, into constituencies and on up the ladder. They think of politics only as a battle of policy ideas, or rather as a battle to announce such ideas and get media attention for them. I’m generalising of course, but this quite common career path makes for a political world that broadly speaking has little traction with people, until one of the policy ideas is implemented from above and causes (usually) all kinds of problems.

The book starts with an account of the decline of the left, much of which carries over to the decline of the standing of party politics in general. It traces the failure of parties to respond to the vast social and cultural changes of recent decades. It describes the euphoria on the left that generally greeted Barack Obama’s election, and the subsequent disenchantment: “It was not just a change of government these people were interested in – it was a change in the whole of politics. The general consensus was that an intolerable chasm had opened up between the people and their representatives.” There are echoes here of the sympathy Matt Taibbi expresses toward the Tea Party supporters in the US, in his terrific book ; why would people not distrust their government, Taibbi asks. Painter still has some faith in Obama, seeing him as a politician who is after long-term change, not day-to-day headline victories.

Left Without A Future? goes on to explore the way society has changed, with ‘bubbles’, ‘networks’ and ‘tribes’ replacing class identification. The left’s old ‘solidarity’ approach does not speak to people now. What’s more, the character of the economy has changed, but business and politics do not take account of how value is created in a services and intangibles economy, nor of the erosion – to the extent it ever existed – of a clear division between the market and the state. Cultural identities have changed as much as economic realities. There is a widespread sense of anomie. Meanwhile, “each party is holding together an unstable coalition of quite incompatible views.” One chapter looks specifically at Scottish nationalism, and – in one of the more optimistic passages – sees this debate as a potentially constructive one that could lead to a more balanced and culturally confident UK.

What to do about the state of politics and the left? Painter writes: “Those who seek sustainable change through collective action need to understand the context in which they operate. They have to build enduring coalitions of support.” The coalition-building needs to recognise the changed economic, social and cultural identities of the day, rather than cleave to the class-interest identities of the 1960s and 70s. He rejects the various strands of political thinking he describes as ‘new moralism’, including thinkers on the right such as Jesse Norman and Philip Blond, as well as Maurice Glasman with his emphasis on community on the left.

Painter argues that although attractive, the practical impact of a discourse about re-moralising is likely to be limited. What’s more, he writes, “The moral conversation is a hubbub that is becoming deafening. Britain is socially divided; values are plural, needs diverse and attitudes varied. … The problem is not the absence of moral certainty; it is the presence of clashing moral certainties. … A top-down moral politics in a pluralistic nation is bound to result in anger and resentment.”

He is more attracted by the pragmatic justice of Amartya Sen. The book ends with an argument for the specificities of addressing and disrupting concentrations of overweening power, of seeking improvements in people’s lives from day to day, and above all of working to build new types of institution. Restructure education, look at the way business operates, concentrate on local institution-building. Painter citesĀ  approvingly Tamara Lothian and Roberto Unger in their Crisis, Slump, Superstition and Recovery, where they make the case for small-scale institutional experimentation. He calls for a combination of top-down leadership to give people a hopeful vision and bottom-up civic activism.

This could sound a bit underwhelming – certainly in the context of a political culture geared towards big policy announcements that are supposed to fix complicated and intractable problems. However, I found the emphasis here on humility and pragmatism refreshing, although needless to say not agreeing with all the specific suggestions the book makes. Although the book is billed as a contribution to rescuing the mainstream left from irrelevance, the points it makes about the said irrelevance apply to all the main parties. Pretty much every day I come across examples of people saying that politics is – well, irrelevant at best, and sometimes much stronger adjectives are used. They are not making a party political point, but a systemic one. Left Without A Future? speaks to that wider sentiment. And if our ‘actually existing’ politics does not give itself a future, a different kind of politics will fill the vacuum.

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The other squeezed middle

It’s been a busy week of dawn to dusk meetings, but I did manage to finish Jack Rakove’sĀ  on election night (before going to sleep, secure in my eldest son’s confidence in Nate Silver). For a British reader like me, this bit of history is unfamiliar – I can’t imagine why, but it tends to be glossed over in the curriculum in our schools. However, even for American readers, the approach is probably quite fresh – not strictly chronological but thematic essays, each of which uses some key characters as the narrative driver. And for anybody, of course, it’s interesting to consider the dysfunctionality of modern American politics in the light of this foundational period.

Consider, for example, this passage:

“To be a political moderate during this final crisis [1776] meant something more than holding a middle ground between radicals like the Adamses and future turncoats like Joseph Galloway [who he?]. Moderation did not mean keeping an open mind about rival claims or seeking to balance clashing points of view. Nor were moderates the 18th century version of undecided voters, unsure of their own views or trimming their sails to any passing political breeze. Moderation is better considered as a political position in its own right …. the moderate political leaders … did possess a distinct set of attitudes.”

Surely this is just as true of today’s ‘disenfranchised’ middle? Of course, the 18th century moderates got squeezed out by events that fed extreme views. That’s the trouble with turbulent times.

I was also very struck by the sections on George Washington and the advantage he gained from thinking strategically – that is, more than one move ahead – especially when pitted against wishful thinking on the other side. As noted in my recent post, (Strategic) thinking is hard to do, this is a vanishingly rare skill, so obviously something that our human nature doesn’t equip us for. In contrast to wishful thinking – for a prize example of which, see Jon Stewart on the Fox News coverage on Tuesday night.

[amazon_image id=”0099551861″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Revolutionaries: Inventing an American Nation[/amazon_image]

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