Its election time, and an alien life form is once more among us, seeking our allegiance
by Gordon Campbell
People dislike and distrust politicians – that’s a given. Last year, a US study found that members of Congress were perceived less favourably than head lice, cockroaches, colonoscopies, root canals, brussel sprouts, traffic jams ….and were disliked even more than Nickelback. It wasn’t all bad. To be fair, Congress did have a more favourable rating than gonorrhea, the Kardashians, the Ebola virus, meth labs and North Korea. In Australia, it is much the same story and so too apparently, in New Zealand. On the 2013 index of our 50 most trusted professions politicians came in 46th, behind real estate and insurance salesmen, journalists, airport baggage handlers, CEOs and the clergy – all of whom were widely distrusted. (Bus drivers on the other hand, were rated pretty highly, up at 15th.) Paramedics, nurses, firefighters, rescue volunteers and pilots topped the list.
None of these surveys of the low esteem in which politicians are held ask the basic question – why exactly, do we feel this way ? Last year, in an article for the October/December edition of the UK Political Quarterly, Tony Wright summarised the two main sources of dissatisfaction that emerge from such surveys:
The first is that politicians are perceived as being engaged in a kind of game, the rules of which enable questions not to be answered, truths not to be told, facts to be distorted, complexities ignored and opponents traduced, all in pursuit of political advantage. The second is that politicians are perceived as living in a closed political world, without experience or knowledge of real life, which makes them un-representative and out of touch.
The first source of the disdain for politicians is about conduct, Wright says, while the second is about character. Yet he adds, the two are related : “Because it is easier to regard politics as a game if it has become disconnected from everything else.” What politicians say has less and less credibility, since it is seen to be mainly about the games going on inside the Parliamentary bubble, and not about real life. As a result, the public gets fed up with (a) with the endless point scoring (b) the artificial narratives that compete for supremacy and (c) the glee with which the politicians pursue advantage. Its a death spiral. That’s because the reward system within the Beltway inflates the reputations of those most skilled at the very forms of behaviour the public claim to find the most repellent. As Wright says, what seems clever and necessary to politicians and their advisers, diminishes politics in the eyes of everyone else.
Obviously, all this is pretty corrosive to democracy. Voting rates are in decline all over the developed world.
Why vote, if you’re only enabling politicians – who construe themselves to be a separate class – to replicate ? Unfortunately, deterring people from voting can be a deliberate part of the game. It is no accident that the global decline in voter participation began with the Reagan /Thatcher era. If you want to shrink the role of government, the next best thing – for ideologues in favour of Small Government – is to erode any lingering public faith in Parliament as a positive tool for social change. If more and more people think politics sucks, that becomes a win by default for the status quo.
In New Zealand, the disjunct between political gamesmanship and real life is not as ingrained as in the US or the UK, but we’re getting there. One of Wright’s points – that our political representatives are more and more the vat-grown products of a closed political culture – is also becoming the case here too, as politics becomes a career option like any other. Routinely, aspiring politicians now serve their apprenticeships not in the outside world, but in parliamentary offices – as researchers, or advisers – before shifting sideways and upwards, into political life. Or they work as lobbyists to government, before becoming the lobbied.
Here’s an example, from this year’s election campaign. In the Clutha / Southland seat, Labour’s candidate is Dr. Liz Craig, a doctor with 25 years experience in patient care. Craig has also been a public health researcher and advocate in New Zealand and Australia, with a special interest in the health effects of child poverty. In stark contrast, National’s candidate is 23 year old Todd Barclay, whose work experience since graduation has been spent almost entirely in parliamentary offices, or in lobbying Parliament on behalf of the Philip Morris tobacco company. As a blogger at The Standard pointed out in April:
…What matters is the ability to access Cabinet ministers and make sure policies don’t affect your corporate’s bottom line. At 23, Todd is already a mid-career insider in this game, personally well connected, increasingly versed in the arts of influence, and, no doubt, of corporate campaign contributions. As he himself put it yesterday, Todd “took the [Philip Morris lobbyist] job to give me the experience I needed to enter politics.”
In other words, instead of being tainted by his past efforts in corporate lobbying, Barclay’s insularity has worked in his favour, at least when it came to candidate selection. Needless to say, it is Barclay who appears certain to be elected in September, given National’s 16,000 vote majority in this seat. At 23, he has the closest thing to a job for life, and it may a working life spent entirely within the parliamentary bubble.
The media has played its part in the systematic alienation of the public from the democratic process. Polls can be deceptive in that respect. As Justin Lewis pointed out in his documentary film Constructing Public Opinion, the original idea was that polls would make elites more responsive to the concerns of ordinary people. Instead, Lewis concludes, polls are now used mainly as market research – not to make politicians and the media more responsive to the public interest, but to help make elite interests more palatable to the public.
In other words, polls are not passive recording instruments, and it would be a mistake to assume politicians are driven by them. How can this be the case, Lewis argues, when the same opinion polls consistently show that the public is far more liberal on most social issues than the major political parties that claim to represent them ? As Lewis maintains :
• The mainstream media don’t cover public opinion so much as they construct their own narratives about public opinion.
• When the media cover polls, they tell a story about what public opinion is, shaping the very way we understand it in their choice of questions, what they exclude, their decisions about follow-up and corroboration, and their reliance on mainstream political stereotypes and labels to tell what is ultimately, a story that is acceptable on their terms.
• Media reports on public opinion largely exclude the possibility of left-wing approaches to economic issues, making the public appear more conservative than it actually is. A detailed look at public opinion reveals broad support for increased government spending on inner cities, the environment, education, health care, and minimum wage increases, and for more effective taxation of capital.
• The reasons for these exclusions, distortions and misrepresentations are systemic, caught up with the elite-oriented nature of reporting.
The media’s problems in financing its own operations – now that their advertising sources of revenue revenues have dried up – have rendered the media’s aversion to alternative economic narratives even more acute. More than ever, journalists are dependent on their political and corporate sources and the quality of coverage has suffered accordingly. As Dean Starkman noted ( in his recent book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark) the Global Financial Crisis was preceded by a decline in the standard of business journalism. Since the GFC, that decline has accelerated : there is more coverage of earnings and of colourful business personalities, less analysis of the sources of those earnings and the social impact of the enterprises in question. This is what Starkman calls the victory of “access journalism” over “accountability journalism.”
As a result, the political debate on the economy has little or no ditrect relevance with the beliefs and desires of the majority. How could it be otherwise – when the two major political parties are in basic agreement about what constitutes the only credible framework for economic debate, with only a few variations to squabble about when it comes to the appropriate management of the social outcomes. No wonder there is a widespread sense of voter alienation. Politicians and media alike have only a passing acquaintance with the world beyond the Beltway, and they visit it only when they must. The electorate is something of a foreign country. Quaint to meet, exciting to visit but…. ew, would anyone really want to live there?
All of which could explain why journalists were ranked at 43rd in the trusted professions list in New Zealand last year, below people who work as call centre operators.
Finally, the tendency for politics to become a closed, unrepresentative system is a toxic side effect of the rise of the meritocracy, and its use of educational credentials to perpetuate itself. This tendency was eloquently condemned in 2001 by Michael Young, the man who first invented the term “meritocracy. ” AS Young says, it makes sense to appoint people based on merit : but the opposite occurs, in his view, when those adjudged at an early age to have merit harden into a social class with no room in it for others.
Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education. A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values. With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.
The social impact of using a narrow, credentialed form of education as the main sifting tool, condemns the majority to the very fate from which “education” was supposed to liberate them :
The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself…. I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment. They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves….
Young’s point was that the beneficiary poor and the low-paid working class are no longer represented in Parliament by the kind of leaders who used to rise from their own ranks, to protect their interests :
[The poor] have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came. [In the past] their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and the powerful in the never-ending competition in Parliament and industry, between the haves and the have-nots.
With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.
Previously, many people chose to enter politics to change the conditions they had experienced out in the world, so that others would no longer have to experience what they had gone through. Today’s politicians are not blind to this “authenticity deficit” on their C.V.s. “Authenticity” itself has become a political calculation.
As a result, emotional responses are crafted into political briefings and message lines – and if the worst comes to the worst, there is mileage in running against Parliament itself, as a straight-talking ‘outsider’ politician. Only last week, Ed Milliband, the leader of the British Labour Party tried to renounce his cyborg past and make a virtue from the fact that these days, he isn’t your usual seamless retail politician. Here’s the Guardian‘s brave attempt to portray the one- time Millibot as you know, a real synthetic person :
[Milliband] was in essence asking people to rethink what they want from their leaders in the modern age. If it is image, a glib patter on local radio, or chameleon bandwagon politics, and a certain complacency about the condition of Britain, the other guy is your man. If leadership involves big ideas, emotional intelligence, decency, a willingness to stand up against the powerful or an ability to create a consensus, Milliband might be a better leader for our flatter, less hierarchical age.
That sounds familiar. Glib patter. Bandwagon politics. A certain complacency about the condition of the country. Is this what we like – or what we hate the most – in our political leaders ?