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Should we spend less time on politicians’ media-encouraged lack of charm?

It is funny, really, if one thinks about it, that everyone seems to be subtly political (that is, ‘apolitical’) or strongly opinionated. Citizens that are not politicians judge politician performance whereas philosophers, economists, mathematicians are immune. You would not get common complaints that a philosopher, economist, or mathematician is doing their job wrong — because after all the common complainer is not qualified to complain about them. But people that have not been a politician nor worked in civil service become heated that a politician they have not met is an idiot. An idiot ‘who doesn’t know what they’re bloody doing!’. Imagine the backlash if they said that about an architect or a psychiatrist, but for a politician they get applause. Often denouncing a belief as plainly wrong without providing a better alternative — so not plainly at all. Impassioned as they may be they contribute nothing but noise. Voters often vote without reading even a single political book, without looking at actual policies, or simply by following the fashion of their peers, media bubble, last-time-tradition; some of them even vote for the prettier face.

Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion and sharing that opinion but that does not make that opinion correct: either a fact or a probable opinion. If they question their assumptions they may find that they are based on emotion and biases that are borrowed from friends, or have been inherited from their parents, rather than their own rational judgement. County of residence can tell you who someone will probably vote for; if it was their individual autonomous choice deciding the overall good, and not their circumstance, their group, how could that be the case?

Really, what passes for ‘talking politics’ is little different from gossip; is valued for its drama and ability to rouse. It is gossip that is too often riddled by taking pleasure in others suffering, in hating, and in chauvinism and hyperbolic language. Irrationality over logic. Despite the compromises and organisation of widely-representational democracy being a height of civilisation it routinely espouses our more tribal — and disturbingly warlike — nature.

Nowhere is this more prescient than in some voters voting for a leader rather than the party and policies that cause actual change. The leader is viewed in a very primate way — as like a silver-back gorilla, demigod, or parent (matriarch, patriarch) among children. “Imagine her standing next to Putin! Ridiculous!”. In short, the leader is given too much credit for what they do. Imagine if the performance of a football club was evaluated almost solely by the manager’s media charisma (if not the owner) instead of team victories, team support, or the players that are the club. That would be ridiculous. Yet ask British people about, especially, American politics that they have strong views on and rarely will they know behind the figureheads of Trump, Clinton, Bernie nor know how American elections work. Yet they feel they have a valid, if not the correct, opinion about who should win– silly as it is, it is not the Republicans vs Democrats but Trump vs Clinton. There is more clarity of course in British politics but that does not mean there is an absence of confusion and chatter where there should be arguments.

Another element of the schadenfreude is that politicians are torn down for errors in a way that is frankly inhuman. They cannot win because, the reality is, a politician has to make compromises that upset a lot of people while convincing a workable majority of people to vote for them. Thus a politician will claim to stand for whatever value to sway whoever holds that value dear–the most laughable example is Bullingdon Club politicians (like ex Prime Minister David Cameron) calling themselves middle class. Lying is part of the vocation. The rich voters have to be swayed just like the poor ones so a politician presents as many faces as there are demographics (this only more obvious now because of the side effect record/surveillance of online web technology). That they avoid direct answers and are inconsistent is part of the job; when their job is making compromises that others are incapable of making and trading off one option for another — gaining the money from patrons to run a successful election campaign, for instance, might require the sacrifice of taxes on the rich because they are the patrons. To gain support to get in a party might require media decoys and encourage voting solidarity by demonising outsiders. To gain the money that gives more voters requires sacrificing the poorer voters; that likely would not vote for policy but (correct or incorrect) reputation. And overwhelmingly out of sentiment, hearsay, habit — instead of policies.

The sway of sentiment and commonality over sense explains the man-at-the-pub branding of vulgar politicians like Nigel Farage that, because they show an image of being like an averaged ‘us’, are more liked and falsely believed to be like us, and have our ‘thoroughly British’ interests at heart. (A striking thought is whether without Farage the impetus for Brexit would have happened.)

Indeed, that a politician be conniving is part of the job because the in-house bickering entails that a leader and their support be sometimes brutal otherwise risk losing to other politicians that are willing to be brutal. Hence the apparent — though darkly comedic — reality behind chief whip and director of communications oriented shows House of Cards and The Thick of It and their North American imitations. The inspiration for BBC House of Cards, not incidentally, was a novel: a novel inspired by brutal and honest Medici-era Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince which espouses the imperative of ‘criminal virtue’ in a politician. That is: doing bad for the greater (perceived) good of the state. One of the failings that has resulted in Corbyn being railed — and challenged by coup — is that he is too idealistic, too nice and not willing to make compromises. At least, until as recently as this June 2017, when he aligned with a Brexit Britain — because, after all, enough voters voted for— so they must be tricked into believing he is on their side. Perhaps there is some hope for him after all. Especially as he was shrewd and daring enough to call out Theresa May for avoiding public debate by phoning in on a June 2017 radio programme.

We actually need more empathy with the politicians, who while wrong about so much will believe or rationalise their beliefs; they are more misunderstood and misunderstanding than malice ridden or malicious. We also need humility when talking about politics — because after all we are not politicians but citizens that try to vote best with a, by nature, narrow knowledge of how politics works. We need political, and arguably inextricable philosophy and economics, education by curricula. We need to accept the fallibility and sacrifice necessary to any realistic idea of politics apparatus and the nature of bureaucratic slow change. We need to vote for policy and party rather than misrendered or incomplete representations of figureheads. We need to treat politics like politics.

Hating on politicians for them being arrogant, fallible, ruthless and patronising is hypocritical. Of course, politicians need to treat politics more as reasonable argumentation rather than efficacious non-arguments — that is, rhetoric or evading questions. But democratic politics is more about what works than moral goodness.

That is, the world as it is rather than as it ought to be. For instance, May avoiding debate works, is the better choice, for the Tories because May is not a good debater and there is insufficient validity in the arguments for privatisation. Saying the same mottos ‘Strong and Stable, Strong and Stable’ works because of the cognitive biases of the exposure effect and the availability heuristic on the audience: what is familiar we grow to like, what is a mental shortcut we tend to take. ‘Strong and Stable’ also works because fear works. The middle-class majority are kept in line because of the prestige and aura of ‘The Economy’. They put their evaluation and vote into super rich and Tory economic models and mottoes because they mistakenly believe (are mistakenly led to believe) the economy is a simple very tangible national and single ‘the’ entity rather than a constant interrelated and changeable process; one without the objectivity of science despite its social science accreditation.

The ‘ought’ is vital for our decisions if we are to have any progress we have to admit it exists: ‘ought’ decides aims and motivations. Citizens should understand politicians have rationalisations, even wrong ones; are mistaken more than malicious, and the answers and implementation are far the more difficult task than crossing boxes. The Tories have reasons: namely neoliberalism, neoclassicism, shrewdness of acquiring as merit, and the Adam Smith line that the taxed rich will leave taking money and jobs elsewhere. Arguably, for an old industrialised nation to avoid ossification requires Keynesian-style spending and state funding for the country to modernise and compete; large tax is not bad overall because bedrock institutions have to be invested in, not sold to those valuing the profit motive before (sometimes more than) civil welfare. Trickle down does not work, and most importantly a country needs to work at its infrastructural base for it to function at the finance top. (That the UK depends too much on Financial Products over manufacturing is part of the problem, according to economist Ha Joon-Chang, a World Bank adviser and lecturer at Cambridge University).The only bad thing about high taxation other than some work opportunities leaving and some outsourcing is not the tax itself, which is said to discourage business by rich business owners, but that the rich are notoriously cunning and selfish tax evaders.

Politicians should work reasonably instead of following the efficacy of persuasive rhetoric, shady, illicit, backtracking manifestos, lying and ruthless strategies. Citizens ought to know that complete moral goodness and honesty are antithetical to the political apparatus, especially what is accepted as current economics standards; that lying and trickery and error alteration are part of the process. Yet citizens ought to know this reality and think critically to avoid being blinded by tautological ‘the economy’, ‘strong and stable’ politicians and the oversimplifications of vested interested media and often muddled, invalid, incoherent, combative or simply false arguments — whether in the pub or social media. And politicians should do the same in Parliament — but mostly won’t because cheating, well, can win the voting game.