Anti-Politics and What the Left Can Do about It

Article excerpt

"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. …