"Anti-politics and the left: setting the problem
There is nothing particularly new about people hating politicians. Aristophanes was no doubt channelling a significant element of Athenian public opinion when he attacked the demagogue Cleon in The Knights in 424 BC, accusing him of 'lining his pockets in troublesome times'. Politics has long been a dirty word, and no amount of civic education or grassroots political activism is likely to change that. In fact, a healthy scepticism regarding those who govern us is a vital part of a functioning democracy. As Pippa Norris warns, it is easy to overplay the dangers of cynicism and low voter turnout, and to overlook the value of 'critical citizens' to modern democracies (Norris, 2011).
Nevertheless, anti-politics--taken here to mean a deep-seated distrust of mainstream politicians, and a lack of faith in the institutions of representative democracy--is enjoying such a boom as to become cause for serious concern. The gap between the governors and the governed is growing ever wider, threatening to engulf many cherished elements of our democratic culture. Anti-politics used to be merely a slow-burn issue reflected in gradually falling voter turnout in many developed democracies. But a combination of real and perceived political failures in recent years has had a potent effect, undermining the foundations of representative democracy. With support for anti-political parties and technocratic solutions on the rise across Europe, and trust in mainstream democratic politics plummeting, anti-politics has become an urgent political issue.
Anti-politics is more of a problem for parties of the centre-left than the centre-right. It has become a commonplace in the literature on political disengagement that distrust of politicians and abstention from voting is strongly correlated with low socioeconomic status and low levels of education. Recent British research confirms this: Policy Exchange have found that those who believe 'politicians do not understand the real world' are more likely to vote Labour (if they vote at all), to live in social housing, and to be in the lower socioeconomic groups (O'Brien and Wells, 2012). This year's Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement found that, while three-fifths of Conservative voters express at least a fair amount of interest in politics, this falls to just over half of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters (Hansard Society, 2012).
Anti-politics is also an affront to the democratic heritage of the left. The fight for universal suffrage is in the bloodstream of social democratic parties across Europe. Many of these parties have fought for democracy on two fronts over the course of the twentieth century, taking on not only entrenched anti-democratic forces on the right but also the more militant fringes of the left. The bloody genesis of Social Democratic rule in Germany after the First World War is a case in point.
Today, the threat of anti-politics to social democratic parties plays out most clearly on the electoral level. George Galloway's own-brand populism won him a by-election this year, to Labour's detriment--but he at least is a relatively contained phenomenon. In Italy, the stridently anti-political Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, has performed astonishingly well in local elections and has shot ahead in the national polls. Last year, widespread anti-political sentiment in Spain allowed a right-wing party to win a crushing majority despite only receiving a fraction more votes than in the previous election, which it had lost. The Indignados movement with its anti-political slogans ('The politicians don't represent us'; 'They call it democracy, but it's not that') indirectly encouraged left-leaning citizens to opt out of the election. Indignados themselves were much less likely than others to vote, and those that did were more likely to spoil their ballots (Blitzer, 2011).
Whatever benefits such protest movements may provide in fostering new forms of political activity, they almost invariably undermine the electoral position of centre-left parties. At the root of this electoral challenge is an ideological one. Nye Bevan, perhaps Britain's most eloquent defender of politics, once said that 'the language of priorities is the religion of socialism' (Bevan, 1949). The anti-political appeal, on the other hand, sees the ordering of priorities and the negotiation of compromises--essential components of real democratic politics--as symptoms of corruption. The requirement to allocate scarce resources among competing interest groups ensures that democratic leadership will never please everyone. There will always be winners and losers. Yet anti-political forces remain deaf to this case, instead castigating politicians for selling out and compromising on their principles. Bevan scorned those who would rather remain 'pure but impotent' than engage in the messy business of politics, and he was right to do so. This is one part of the social-democratic defence of politics--as the gradualist means towards socialist ends.
The other part is to defend democratic politics not only as a means towards an end, but as an end in and of itself. Bernard Crick's famous book In Defence of Politics does this best. Crick argues that 'politics', by which he broadly means representative democracy, is a necessary guarantor of freedom against a multitude of threats--totalitarianism, the tyranny of the majority, and the seductive charm of technocracy:
Politics may be a messy, mundane, inconclusive, tangled business, far removed from the passion for certainty and the fascination for world-shaking quests which afflict the totalitarian intellectual; but it does, at least, even in the worst of political circumstances, give a man some choice in what role to play, some variety of corporate experience and some ability to call his soul his own. (Crick, 1982, 54)
The alternatives to representative democracy should all be anathema to the social democrat. Politics, for all its disappointments, is worth defending. But how can this defence be made? What can social democrats do to stem the tide of anti-politics? A closer look at the phenomenon, particularly in its more recent manifestations, suggests some potential remedies.
The four sites of anti-politics
Anti-politics is produced, as it were, from four separate but inter-related sources: the media, pressure groups, political actors, and public opinion. The news media across Europe and beyond has been shown to have become increasingly negative in its descriptions of formal politics (Lengauer et al., 2012). This tendency within the media infects other areas of public life. For instance, pressure groups often seek to attract media attention by making impassioned and sustained attacks on any given government in the name of their single issue. Yet governments and political parties have to balance competing demands for public resources--they cannot support everything. Pressure groups are therefore liable to skew the public debate by portraying political elites in an unfairly negative light and making impossible demands on governments, with the result that 'a self-reinforcing cycle of disillusionment with the political process then sets in' (Grant, 2008, 222).
Political actors themselves are liable to join in with the politician-bashing, denigrating their opponents with ad hominem attacks, making promises they may not be able to keep, and using 'politics' as an entirely negative term denoting petty partisanship and self-interest above public interest. The Liberal Democrats' 2010 manifesto provides a neat distillation of this tendency. The party declared that 'the political system is rotten' and vowed to give people the power to sack 'corrupt' MPs. They employed classic populist devices--that power should be in the hands of the people and not politicians, for instance. And they campaigned on the slogan 'no more broken promises', while simultaneously making a promise to scrap tuition fees which they must have known would be undeliverable under any scenario in which they formed part of a government.
These sources of anti-politics all feed into--and are fed by--public opinion. Survey after survey in Britain and the rest of Europe demonstrates that people are increasingly cynical about the character of mainstream politicians and the efficacy of formal politics. But why?
The causes of anti-politics
The likely causes of this rise in anti-politics are diffuse. Over the long term, there has been a societal shift towards 'post-materialism', whereby people--as a result of increased affluence and education--place more value than they used to in their own autonomy and independence. This shift is thought to have created an ever-growing constituency of people who are unwilling to accept political control by others, undermining the appeal of representative democracy (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005). At a similarly long-range level, the increased prevalence of consumer-style living has arguably infected the political realm. Citizens, rather than engaging in the messy business of pluralist democracy, approach politics as they would the marketplace, seeking to choose precisely what they want out of their engagement and becoming disillusioned when the democratic process throws up a different result (Russell, 2005).
However, noting these long-term, deeply ingrained causal factors does not help much in offering a course of action for putting up a defence against antipolitics. Culture, after all, is hard to shift. Similarly, short-range causes of anti-political sentiment such as corruption scandals and (real or perceived) political failures do not suggest obvious antidotes for the anti-politics they foment. It is not enough simply to say: politicians must do better. Surveys show that while Britons are increasingly likely to believe politicians are corrupt, in fact corruption in public life has been travelling in the opposite direction (Transparency International UK, 2010). It is no solution simply to demand more and better performance from our politicians--indeed, such a demand is liable to have its own anti-political undertones.
Between these long-range and short-range causes lie a number of factors which offer more potential in the quest for a remedy to anti-politics. In the UK and elsewhere, depoliticisation and privatisation have been conscious policy choices made by successive governments.
Depoliticisation (i.e. the transferral of responsibility for public affairs from government to arms-length organisations of one form or another) is a process that some have thought might improve the reputation of politicians. By, for instance, giving central banks control over interest rates or creating an independent institution to decide which drugs should be provided by the public health service, politicians are arguably no longer to blame when things go wrong. Yet as Colin Hay points out, the doctrine of depoliticisation--enthusiastically pursued for several decades by political elites from the left and the right, at the domestic and European level--assumes an extremely low opinion of politicians' ability to handle public affairs: 'Is it really so surprising that citizens should be disengaging in their droves from electoral and other forms of formal political participation when those they might elect are quite so dismissive of their own capacity to do good ...?' (Hay, 2007, 93-4). Privatisation, meanwhile, is simply an extreme form of depoliticisation. It does not stretch the imagination to assume that many people may have given up faith in the representative system once those aspects of public life which affected them--train fares, energy bills--were no longer under the direct auspices of government.
These mid-range causes of anti-politics are neither ingrained nor superficial. They are policy choices, and as such they can be reversed through policy. But a full response to the problem of anti-politics will have to go beyond formal policy-making, and into more nebulous realms: party organisation, the fostering of civil associations, and a campaign for a shift in political discourse.
Remedying anti-politics: how the left can respond
The decline of party and union membership has eradicated some of the most effective means of providing people with an experience of what collective decision-making entails. Membership of civil society organisations is more buoyant, yet many of these are single-issue groups encouraging only 'cheque-book' participation, whereby members contribute dues but do not participate in the democratic processes of the organisation (Jordan and Maloney, 1997). A key plank of any social-democratic response to anti-politics has to be to find ways of increasing party and union membership, of encouraging realistically political participation in these organisations, and of fostering other civil associations which are comprehensive enough and democratic enough to offer the opportunity for meaningful political involvement.
But beyond that, the left must find a language which tackles anti-politics head-on, reaffirming the crucial importance of representative processes to a free and functioning democracy. This does not mean that politicians should seek to 'speak the language of ordinary people', as recommended by the entire panel at a recent seminar on anti-politics. On the contrary, it means speaking a language which confronts some of the stereotypes and habits of everyday discourse, while at the same time re-engaging people in the business of politics. This is a tricky balancing act--the required language has to be both realistic and inspirational. It has to be realistic in spelling out the problems, difficulties, and messiness of politics, yet inspirational in setting out why it all matters. Marc Stears recently pointed out the centrality of passion to democratic participation:
... arguing with others; sitting and listening; knocking on doors: none of these come easily or straightforwardly to most of us. And none of them would come at all without some kind of belief that it all really matters and a sense that we can garner enjoyment and satisfaction from the engagement itself. (Stears, 2012)
Such passion, though, has to be combined with the language of Nye Bevan and Bernard Crick--the language of political realism--to forge a rhetoric which can effectively take on the forces of anti-politics.
Conclusion: European integration as a case study
Social democrats must confront anti-politics, but how in practice can this be achieved? The most effective method would be to make the pro-politics case in relation to the most urgent questions confronting public affairs today. One of these questions is surely that of European political integration. Anti-political language from both within and outside the European project is creating a state of affairs in which any progress towards political integration appears unlikely. Populist right-wing parties play on people's distrust of political elites, portraying the EU as an elitist power bloc threatening their way of life. Yet the EU has for a long time, and despite its efforts at closing the democratic deficit, been itself a source of anti-politics (see Moschonas, 2009). It has always been a fundamentally technocratic project, and Brussels' dismissive response to the no votes in French and Dutch referendums served to foster the sense that the EU has little if anything to do with democracy. Now, Angela Merkel's reasonable plea that Europe become more politically integrated before debt is mutualised is falling on stony ground, because there is little sense both among European citizens and political elites of what a politically integrated Europe would look like. Suggestions emerging from the EU institutions and Brussels think tanks tend to focus on the precise institutional design of a more politically integrated Europe. But it is not institutional reform that gets people going--after all, elections to the European Parliament have seen consistently falling voter turnout despite the European Parliament gradually gaining in power. What is missing from this picture?
It feels as if it has been a long time since a politician of the centre-left made the positive, ideological case for a politically integrated and democratic Europe. Such is the force of anti-politics, both from eurosceptics and from the cautious Brussels technocracy, that it seems an extremely risky thing to do. Yet a passionate and realistic account of what a democratic Europe would mean for its citizens could help to change the course of the debate. Many people feel that large-scale social and economic processes, often lumped under the tag of 'globalisation', leave them impotent and at the mercy of the tides (White, 2010). They no longer recognise democratic politics as a tool of change and progress, and the EU is if anything seen as just another overbearing force. If social-democratic politicians in Europe were to grasp the nettle and make the case for a political union, then perhaps some minds could be changed. And perhaps they could, in the process, draw some of the sting from the forces of anti-politics.
Bevan, A. (1949) speech at Labour Party conference, Blackpool, 8.6.1949, in Labour Party, Annual Conference Report, London, Labour Party.
Blitzer, J. (2011) 'The aging of Spanish democracy', International Herald Tribune 7.11.2011.
Crick, B. (1982) In Defence of Politics, Harmondsworth, Weidenfield & Nicolson.
Grant, W. (2008) 'The changing patterns of group politics in Britain', British Politics 3 (2): 204-22.
Hansard Society (2012) Audit of Political Engagement 9, London, Hansard Society.
Hay, C. (2007) Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Inglehart, R. and Welzel, C. (2005) Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence, New York, Cambridge University Press.
Jordan, A. G. and Maloney, W. A. (1997) The Protest Business? Mobilizing Campaign Groups, Manchester, Manchester Unversity Press.
Lengauer, G., Esser, F. and Berganza, R. (2012) 'Negativity in political news: a review of concepts, operationalizations and key findings', Journalism 13 (2): 1-24.
Moschonas, G. (2009) 'When institutions matter: the EU and the identity of social democracy', Renewal 17 (2): 11-20.
Norris, P. (2011) Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
O'Brien, N. and Wells, A. (2012) Northern Lights: Public Policy and the Geography of Political Attitudes, London, Policy Exchange.
Russell, M. (2005) Must Politics Disappoint? London, Fabian Society.
Stears, M. (2012) 'The real deal: learning to love everyday democracy', Juncture 1.8.2012, at http://www.ippr.org/juncture/171/9490/the-real-deal-learning-to-love-everyday-democracy.
Transparency International UK (2010) Corruption in the UK, London, Transparency International.
White, J. (2010) 'Europe in the political imagination', Journal of Common Market Studies 48 (4): 1015-38.
William Brett is a researcher for the Augur Project (www.augurproject.eu) and for the Constitution Unit at University College London. He is also setting up a Europe-wide research project on anti-politics.…