One of the conclusions in my previous post here is that political activism is a waste of time. It’s counter-productive. It is a tacit agreement to fight a battle on turf that no-one can win on, unless they are a member of a small, wealthy purposeful group. It’s like playing against twelve men, on an away ground knowing that the referee has been bribed and that your opponent’s squad cost £billions to assemble.
What follows are relatively new arguments. They wouldn’t have made sense ten years ago (though some of us were warning about all of this).
I can give you four reasons why engagement in political activity is always going to result in failure:
1) Money will always trump political activity
Where a decision for a government to do something, or to write a law, is the product of competing political energies, any small purposeful group that has the money to do it will always be able to substitute political activism with lobbyists. While we are outside the room waggling placards, they will be inside, supervising things when the crossing of Ts and dotting ayes is being done (see what I did there?). This is truer now than ever before for the next three reasons.
2) Representative Democracy has been supplanted by Delegate Democracy
The combination of Representative Democracy and liberal institutions has plenty of safeguards designed to reduce this problem. The greatest single political defeat that ordinary citizens have suffered in the last decade has been the struggle (by politically resourceful groups) to increase the self-image of politicians as delegates instead of taking pride in their role as representatives. We have never been in a situation where politicians expect to be micromanaged by active minorities as much as they do today.
Most MPs in Westminster (even many who are not EU enthusiasts) believe that Brexit is an unacceptable leap in the dark. Most Westminster commentators expect a majority of MPs to vote to trigger Article 50. QED.
This expectation of political micromanagement is, I believe, the single most important defining problem of our age. It’s a problem that wasn’t anything like as big when Bernard Crick wrote his ‘In Defence of Politics’ and its one that writers like Gerry Stoker and Matthew Flinders had hoped would go away. As I said before, this really is here to stay — and it will get worse.
As a side-note, the transparency movement has connived in this, and proved to be the most useful of idiots in this defeat (I’ll post more on this shortly).
3) Voters are easier to manipulate than representatives
Democracy has walked many miles from the ideal of a group of people saying what they think, offering evidence and persuading each other prior to a vote. As long as politicians are delegates who are frightened of the reflexes of voters, a wealthy and purposeful political group will be able to buy the services of the persuasion industry to control the management of the state. Because the persuasion industry has never been better at predicting what we want / like / think / do, this can be done more effectively than ever. I’ve argued that Putin’s alleged ‘hack’ of DNC emails was a minor detail in comparison to the damage that anyone (including a foreign power) can do to a political party using information that is sold openly by Google and Facebook.
4) We will never match the nationalist right’s emotional appeal
In an age when we’ve been urged to accept that democratic and political success is based on appeals to various emotional loyalties, or to instinctive anxieties, we have been urged to stick with politics and to try winning with a more pragmatic strategy than relying on what Drew Westen called an “irrational commitment to rationality.”
Westen’s book, The Political Brain, is an attempt to read the writing on the wall to American left-leaning liberals. It dissects the successes of the Republican right and calls for a matching politics based upon a familiarity with human reflexes. It argues that evidence-based campaigning is often doomed to failure. His conclusion is that, as long as US Democrats understand that they have to appeal to these irrational reflexes, democracy can survive because of its proven ability to correct itself.
Once again, the response to the charge that politics isn’t working is a call for a better, more sophisticated and bewildering variety of politics. The political centre and the left have spent most of the last couple of years wondering why they’ve lost the votes of people who aren’t very politically engaged.
The answer is that, in their sophistication, they stopped looking like a democratic force that was protecting everyone’s interests (even when they were actually doing it quite well).
I would hope that two words — President Trump — tell us everything we need to know about this idea that we can out-compete nationalists and demagogues on their own turf. With its irrational commitment to rationality, democrats (small ‘d’) have found out what happens when you go along with ransom demands.
Westen’s argument was always that we should engage in a game that the demagogic nationalist right can naturally excel at.
So that’s it? Just give up?
No. I’m arguing that an engagement in politics is futile. An engagement in democracy, on the other hand, is not.
Democracy can defeat politics, and it can do so decisively if it puts its mind to it.
I’ll be posting more on this in due course.