Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Are people really turned off by partisan politics?

Too much of what passes for debate and argument in today's politics is driven by division and personal destruction and before people accuse me of hypocrisy, yes, I personally have been guilty of such things in times past. The American columnist, EJ Dionne in his book 'Why Americans Hate Politics' argues that one of the main reasons for people being turned off politics is because it (political debate) seems irrelevant to them, they feel that they are being manipulated because they are always being asked to make false choices: you're either staunchly religious or vehemently secular, pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, a progressive or a dinosaur.

The truth is, of course, that most people don't think like this, most people don't live their lives in this way, and most people long for a politics where we have genuine arguments, vigorous disagreements, where we don't claim to have a monopoly on what is right or wrong, where we don't demonise our political opponents. Most people want their politicians to engage in what Barack Obama has described a "fair-minded" approach to politics; politics that understands that truth and certainty are not the same thing. Being "fair-minded" is, it could be argued, a philosophical approach to politics. It is a philosophical approach that ultimately has as its goal the pursuit of the common good. Common good politics is primarily about empowerment; it is the politics that espouses cooperation not competition, the hand up and not just the hand out. The uncomfortable truth is however, that rather than some broad common good philosophy it has been what might be called an "uncommon-good", a rigid ideological approach to politics that has dominated the political landscape in the US and Europe over the past fifty years. Ideologues like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher believed that nations were best served by ensuring that the maximum concentration of wealth and power was in the hands of the right people. Whilst those that argued for the common good promoted the need for mutual responsibility, they were opposed by those that believed that in large measure people made their own luck, that there was no such thing as society. The belief that collective endeavour is both a strength and a virtue, that a problem shared is a problem partly solved was countered by often unilateral and isolationist policies - particularly in terms of trade and immigration. In contrast hose that adopt the "fair-minded" and common good approach to politics tend to believe that debate should be dominated by evidence and argument; that it is political philosophers that we need to embrace and political ideologues that we need to be wary of.

In a speech at Washington's Georgetown University, Bill Clinton said, "if you have a philosophy, it generally pushes you in a certain direction or another, but like all philosophers, you want to engage in discussion and argument. You are open to evidence, to new learning, and you are certainly open to debate the practical applications of your philosophy. Therefore, you might end up making a principled agreement with someone with a different philosophy."

However, Clinton went on to argue, if you have adapted a particular ideology then you already have your mind made up. You know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to resort to assertions and and personal attacks. What we need are politicians who will devise policies that promote equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive communities.

In increasingly multi-cultural, multi-faith societies we need an approach to politics that both celebrates partisan differences whilst being humble enough to recognise that adherence to a particular ideology can be both debilitating and divisive. Impossible? No. A challenge? Most certainly.


Julian said...

I am not a politician or a supporter of any party and I agree that party politics can be very offputting. However, party politicians, it seems, just cannot help themselves. You yourself have done in this article the very thing you are complaining about. You say "Margaret Thatcher believed that nations were best served by ensuring that the maximum concentration of wealth and power was in the hands of the right people". That is a partisan view from the left. I know many ordinary (i.e. not wealthy or powerful) people who believe Margaret Thatcher saved the country from the tyranny of the unions and gave ordinary people like them more control over their lives (e.g. by buying their council homes).

The thing that puts me off politics is when party politicians caricature the aims and motives of their opponents. Whether it's that the Tories just want to make they friends richer or Labour just want to have everyone's lives controlled by the state. I don't know which is worse - when the politicians believe their own propaganda or when they make these statements cynically to influence voters.

Mike Ion said...

Julian - I used Margaret Thatcher as she is the best example of an ideologue in power in Britain in the past 50 years.