Professor Matthew Flinders from the Department of Politics at Sheffield University has written many books including Delegated Governance and the British State: Walking without Order, winner of the 2008 W.J. Mackenzie prize awarded by the Political Studies Association.
In his latest book Defending Politics he tackles what some may feel is an impossible task of creating a shift from a ‘politics of pessimism’ where the electorate are disengaged and sceptical to a ‘politics of optimism’ where we are enthused and energized about the democratic process. It is an extraordinary book, dripping in common sense and insight, and with an expected record-low turnout in the Local Elections today never more timely
Thank you Matthew for taking the time to write this exclusive piece for Broadconversation
Public opinion surveys suggest that large sections of the public are more distrustful, disengaged, sceptical and disillusioned with politics than ever before. ‘Politics’, for the many rather than just a few, has become a dirty word conjuring up notions of sleaze, corruption, greed and inefficiency. P J O’Rourke, the influential American satirist and journalists, sums up this sense of political despondency and frustration in the title of his book – Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards. And yet as I can’t help but wonder whether the public actually gets the politicians it deserves; could it actually be that in large parts of the world the public has become democratically decadent in the sense that they no longer understand just how much politics delivers and therefore why it matters? 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 the wave after wave of crises (social, economic, environmental) that crash upon the shore of politics with ever increasingly frequency.
Let me be even bolder. Democratic politics is not about ‘them’ and ‘us’; democratic politics is about squeezing collective decisions out of increasingly fragmented and complex societies. It is for exactly this reason that politics tends to be messy, cumbersome and is often hard to understand and yet it matters because it achieves far more than we generally give it credit for. I am not arguing that democratic politics as we know it is perfect, that reform of some form is not be necessary or that all politicians are angels. But I am willing to stick my head above the parapet and suggest that most politicians are generally over-worked and underpaid; that most politicians are just like you and me in the sense that they will sometimes fail and make mistakes; and – most importantly – I can tell you that no politician can ever succeed in a world of ever greater public expectations. And yet I am actually quite glad that Barack Obama turned out not to be Superman because too many people expect politicians to be able to deliver simple solutions to complex social problems. There are no simple answers to complex questions and the public should be wary of the man or women who suggests otherwise.
Politics is, however, an increasingly hard and brutal business. It is not for the faint-hearted and although this has always been the case there has been a step-change in recent years in relation to the intensity of the pressures, the brutality of the criticisms, the personalized nature of the attacks, and the arbitrary targeting by the media. The storm that to some extent inevitably encircles democratic politics has for a range of reasons become more intense and toxic. My concern is that we are hollowing out the incentives that need to exist to attract the best people from all walks of life to get involved and stand for office. A process of demonization has occurred that can only end in a situation where ‘normal’ people feel inclined to walk away, leaving only the manically ambitious, socially privileged, or simply weird in their stead. In a sense we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that politicians are ‘all the same’ exactly because of the climate we have created. This narrowing of the talent pool from which politicians are increasingly drawn is directly attributable to the sheer force of the storm that is constantly breaking upon the shores of politics. Politicians must operate with an almost perpetual swirl of scandal and intrigue breaking around their heads. Many good people currently brave the storm in the hope of making a positive difference to their community, city, or country but someone with a life, a family, interests beyond politics, the ability to do other things, can feel deeply inclined to stick to them and leave the political storm to itself.
I want to calm the storm. Democratic politics is without doubt a beautiful and civilising activity. It succeeds because it generally ensures stability and order: it avoids anarchy or arbitrary rule. It produces winners and losers but at least the losers live to fight another day. Almost half a century ago Bernard Crick wrote In Defence of Politics as a sharp and thoughtful rejoinder to those who would decry the achievements and principles of democratic politics. His argument is even more relevant today. It is simply too easy to carp from the sidelines and blames the woes of the world on those awful politicians. ‘It is not the critic who counts’ Theodore Roosevelt famously argued almost exactly a century ago ‘not the man who points out how the strong man [or woman] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit actually belongs to the man who is actually in the arena’. We need more men and women who are willing to stop bemoaning democratic politics – and therefore politicians – and to step into the political arena themselves. But most of all we need more people who are willing to swim against the tide and dare to sing out in praise of politics!
Defending Politics is published by Oxford University Press and is guaranteed to change the way you think about politics.