Friday, 1 May 2015

Vox Populi

In 1959 the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht published one of his most famous poems, Die Lösung (The Solution), which contained these lines:
…. the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
It was a biting satire of the Communist repression of the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Germany and indeed was written at that time, and only published later, and then in West Germany, so subversive was it seen to be by the communist regime in the east. Since then, it has been taken up as an anti-elitist text, expressing how the political class see those who they represent as a problem.
I have been thinking about this because it seems to chime with much political sentiment in Britain at the moment. Last night the leaders of the ‘main parties’ (increasingly, a misnomer) were questioned by an audience of the electorate and the general verdict was that the audience ‘won’ by savaging the politicians. Here, supposedly, were the salt-of-the-earth ordinary folk sticking it to an out of touch elite.
My own view is completely different. It seemed to me that the audience engaged in the laziest and easiest kind of debate. Every politician is a liar and not to be trusted – but no one questions the audience as to what they want, other than a representative democracy. Any fact or figure can be thrown in by the audience, no matter how incorrect – and it is ‘elitist’ to challenge it. People who would rip into politicians for ‘gaffes’ complain when the politicians offer carefully calibrated answers to avoid gaffes. For the audience, every issue is easy, but they would not last five minutes if they themselves had to navigate the complexity of almost every issue. If the politicians talk about general principles, the audience denounce them as being fact-free; if they talk about facts the audience denounce them as lacking principles.
I had a similar reaction when I watched a Channel 4 debate between young voters and politicians this week. At one point, one of the audience got huge cheers for saying that she and her generation had no idea what the different parties stood for. But every day the media reports on the parties and their policies, and politicians bend over backwards to find new ways of engaging with people. Doesn’t she have some responsibility to engage in turn?
Heaven forbid that we should return to the political deference of bygone eras, when politicians were not challenged and the assumption was that the great and the good knew what was right for the rest of us. But now that situation has been inverted, and any ignorance, any cynicism, any sneer against politicians is taken as reasonable. The easiest and cheapest applause comes to the person who says that ‘they are all the same’.
But in most constituencies there are candidates ranging from Greens to UKIP, and in many constituencies candidates from the harder left to the harder right. They are not all the same, they stand for different things. It’s true that the electoral system in Britain makes it hard for smaller parties to gain representation, but even then the share of the vote matters in giving parties a legitimate voice. For example, for years the Liberal Party (as was) secured only a handful of seats but it had a certain legitimacy because of its vote share. Voting always makes a difference because legitimacy comes from the franchise, not the turn out, and abstaining has exactly as much effect as voting. But I think this is anyway just a sideshow – people point to the idea that their vote doesn’t count as an excuse for opting out of serious political engagement.
The lazy, easy sneer at politicians is meat and blood to more populist, supposedly anti-politics, parties such as, in the UK, UKIP. Yet as soon as politicians from such parties are elected, the contradictions are made clear. For example, UKIP MEPs take massive salaries and expenses from the EU even as they denounce it, and rarely turn up to vote. It’s actually the ultimate example of self-serving politicians but is greeted as if it were the opposite. Relatedly, on my local council, the UKIP councillors elected found it impossible to actually do their job because they couldn’t understand the procedures and legal framework of the council’s business. Caught up in slogans about ‘LibLieCon’ and the ‘Liberal Elite’, when it came to the actual business of governing and making practical choices – moving, so to speak, from being audience to being players – they just couldn’t cope. Within six months of being elected they had resigned. That isn’t an anti-UKIP point, by the way, just an illustration of the disconnect between anti-politics sentiment, of whatever persuasion, and politics itself.
I’ll finish with a telling quote, also usually attributed to Bertolt Brecht, although the attribution is not clear:
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

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