Languishing somewhere between head lice and car clampers in the popularity stakes, a new book has sought to redeem politicians’ tattered reputations by claiming they’re not all grasping half-wits who enter public life in order to fiddle expenses and take kickbacks.
Matthew Flinders’ anti-heroes, in Defending Politics — Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century, are, he claims, “overworked and underpaid, do a fantastic job in the face of huge pressures … and deliver far more than most people acknowledge or understand”.
The author, a politics professor at the University of Sheffield, acknowledges that his opinion is a minority view and concedes that most people would rather endure a colonoscopy than open their front door and find their local politician on their doorstep, but argues that this corrosive scepticism about the profession is damaging democracy.
Although writing from a UK perspective, where politicians are paid a lot less than their Irish counterparts, the naked antipathy that many feel for politicians in this country, following the spectacular implosion of the economy, means his stirring defence for those masochists who contest general elections has even more relevance for an Irish audience.
“We must not allow our political systems to become synonymous with failure because public apathy and distrust places a mighty weight on those who have stepped forward on behalf of society in order to deal with the wave after wave of crises,” he says.
Skipping over the fact that politicians have caused a large number of the crises they are now grappling with, he instead devotes this book to a “brave defence” of politics from the anti-political populism that pervades modern society.
His thesis is that people’s simplistic and self-serving understanding of the role of politicians needs to evolve into something far more nuanced, in which the difficulty of balancing competing interests, and the necessity to take decisions based on imperfect information, needs to be accorded far more significance.
“If more and more people are disappointed with what politics delivers then maybe the fault lies with those who expect too much and fail to acknowledge the essence of democratic engagement and the complexities of governing in the 21st century rather than in democratic politics itself,” he writes. So, the table is turned on the electorate — the problem is not that politicians deliver too little, but that we expect too much. Citing European polls that reveal just 6% of people trust politicians while only 9% believe they act with honesty or integrity, Flinders wants readers to re-engage with politics, reappraise its central importance in their lives and renew their faith in people who represent their interests in parliament.
Politics provides the bedrock for society and is, at its core, “a commitment to stability and compromise through social dialogue” while “democratic engagement provides the institutional and cultural mainframe that shapes social attitudes and mediates social conflict”.
People may profess to hate politics but they need it and, whether they realise it or not, engage with it every single day. It is for that reason that the widespread contempt in which politicians are held is so potentially dangerous — because a lack of faith in politics, and its ability to mould an equitable society, equates to a lack of faith in society itself.
While there is a broad consensus that democratic societies are the best model when it comes to protecting the vulnerable, delivering public services, safeguarding human rights and managing the peaceful transition of power, Flinders points to a disconnect between the widespread acceptance of democracy as a force for good and the lack of faith that exists in the application of the principles underpinning democratic governance. According to the author, this systemic problem is one of perception — democratic politics has largely delivered its main aims, fulfilling the majority of our needs, but its achievements are buried deep underneath the mountain of people’s unrealistic expectations and demands.
“The public demand better services but are not willing to pay higher taxes, they want to address climate change but don’t want to give up energy-intensive lifestyles. They want to eat cake but don’t want to get fat … there is a constant demand for results without ever having to suffer unpleasant side effects,” he writes, a sentiment that would undoubtedly have the heads of government TDs nodding in unison.
Unlike previous generations, politicians today have to contend with additional challenges — the decline of deference, as respect for the profession has evaporated; the exponential growth of their workload, manifest in people’s increased expectations of the range of things politicians can deliver; huge advances in technology, which add a new dimension to political engagement; and the accountability explosion, the belief that governments must act in a transparent way. Spanning all of these potential landmines is the role of a headline-hungry media that Flinders worries has become “increasingly cynical, mercenary, and demagogic to the point that it no longer supports democratic politics but actively undermines it”.
Flinders castigates newspapers and broadcasters for distorting politicians’ image and providing a “daily diet of lies, exaggerations and misrepresentations” in order to further their own agenda — namely, boosting circulation and ratings. The power of media to truly inform and publish stories in the public good has, he argues, been abandoned as it instead seeks out salacious gossip to titillate readers and reinforce existing prejudices.
An engaging defence of the indefensible, this treatise will provide succour for weary politicians who feel beaten down by consistent criticism and derision. Although his defence often strays into the realm of political propaganda, with politicians utterly absolved for all their sins, this is a timely book that provides a welcome counterpoint to the daily deprecation of politics.