Politics brings out the traits we most dislike about ourselves.
A recent UK poll revealng the extent to which politicians are reviled has sparked some holiday navel gazing.
An Independent article claimed that people dislike politiians because they are always acutely partisan.
An essay in the Dec 2013 political quarterly argued that the way politicians behave turns people off. The irony is that what seems clever and necessary to them, like point scoring, fence sitting, selective use of facts, and photo opps, is precisely the activity that loses them voter support.
This amounts to a somewht naive call for niceness, or in the words of one pundit, “political civility”.
The issue should be of more concern for politicians because they ought to want to be in a noble and respected career. And because somehere in the solution are lessons for how to win at politics.
The discussion has again flushed out concern for the professionalisation of politics. Those who take up the career find it being conducted in a cynical fashion, but don’t have enough experience or other skills to play the game differently.
This is true, but the source of the awkwardness lies in the humanity of politicians.
The political sphere is a kind of acid wash, flushing away the softer parts of our natures, leaving behind only the most stubborn of human traits.
We are all self-justifiying, self-righteous, and prone to criticism of others. We all tend to agree with information that fits our beleifs, and hang with people who agree with us. But in normal life these are balanced by family, friends and colleagues - just enough so we appear reasonable to others.
In politics there is little balance. For your ego to survive it must build itself up and cut others down. That can create a personna that is unreasonable and unattractive.
There’s a growing school of pyschological thought that over half of what we are is defined by other people. The actions of politicians are reinforced by the company they keep; even their foes, staff, pundits and media.
I felt recent leaders of the NZ Labour Party were doomed not to survive because their reference points and advice came from people trapped within the same inauthentic and separated political world.
Politics accentuates the less attractive features of the human psyche. Yet, there are few other careers in which your success depends so much on being liked, or on being persuasive.
The secret to civility in politics is balance; to gain perspective on oneself, one’s job, one’s ideology, and what society and a nation needs, and doesn’t need. The solution is to break from the destructive political environment. The solution is simply to get out more often.
Politicians do not have the luxury of explaining away the inconsistencies between what they preach and what they do.
We manage to live with ourselves because our ego is great at pretending to ourselves that we are consistent, capable, and rational. An effect called cognitive dissonance subconsciously invents creative reasons why we do or think things that are different from our conscious picture of ourselves.
Now imagine that your job is to espouse ideas. You are a politician These ideas will be closely linked to how you think the world should be. They will in turn be closely linked to how you think you act to make such a world possible.
Your ideas are recorded or observed by many other people. You make speeches. Appear on television. Talk to many people.
Your ideas appear to be listened to, or at least talked about. The more interesting your ideas, the more you are talked about. So you become more specific. You begin criticising people for having different ideas.
You begin to espouse these ideas more widely and more forcibly. It’s your duty to tell other people about these ideas. You need the resources to get the ideas out.
Before long the idealism for your nation and about yourself becomes a crusade.
But you never stopped being human. It is likely that there is something you do, or have become while on your crusade, which does not match the person you think you are, or the type of world you argue for.
Hence, Len Brown was able to have an affair and use a lot of his work time to indulge it, despite claims to dedicate his life to Auckland and to family.
Hence, Al Gore travels the world, using carbon-belching vehicles, and owns three large houses, while telling everyone else to lower their carbon footprint.
Hence, Ed Miliband used limos and expensive hotels to travel the UK arguing against the wealthy and misuse of taxpayer money.
Ghandi ostensibly lived the life he espoused or move out of the life that his electorate lived. He may or may not have done - I don’t know. But our admiration for his persona demonstrates how unique it is for any of us not to be altered by politics.
The lesson for politicians is not to believe your ideas so much that your duty to pursue them outweighs your duty to live by them.
Rush for the middle to blame for voter rush for the door.
A Guardian / ICM survey this week showed that voters in the UK are increasing disengaged from politics. It found 25% of them were bored by politics, and half say politicians make them angry.
It’s ineffably weird to see politicians fret over public disengagement.
They create half-baked pop-psych theories to explain it. They blame it on people themselves. They propose programmes to make people change.
Politicians never conclude that they, or their service, is not worth hiring.
They never conclude that they have chosen a little appreciated - okay, a much despised - career.
They never conclude that low votes and disengagement means they are currently irrelevant.
It’s not up to the public to like politicians enough to vote for them. It’s up to democratic politicians to be liked, and to put up with vilification that has always come with the job.
Lower engagement is a sign of good times. People have confidence in the ability of themselves, and of the commons, to make life worthwhile. The political struggles of the past have created a social order and an economy which makes political organisation unnecessary. Technology has created physical well being which gives each of us a sense of individual empowerment.
Politics is left with the realm of cultural order and values rather than actual physical and economic improvement. Only those who care about how others live their lives are passionate about this sort of politics.
A Guardian column speculated that the homogenization of political parties and dearth of issues has driven passion out of mainstream politics.
I agree: many professional era politicians and their aides seem remarkably inept at their chosen career. As a result they opt for banal positions on unremarkable issues.
Mainstream Parties have always tried to occupy a middle-ground. It’s the best way of appealing broadly enough to gain sufficient votes to govern. But professionally manned middle ground has a cynical foundation. The middle ground isn’t held to reflect popular opinion, nor to win to put significant policies into effect. It’s held just to win.
No surprises then that many voters choose not to help politicians play this game.
New Zealand’s rating as the world’s least corrupt society is due to its culture, not its politics.
Our low-corruption society is a precious thing. It gives each of us certainty and security - the factors most valued by humans.
It protects the elite from revolt. It protects the middle class from crime and elitism. It protects the working class and poor from crime, hardship, and lack of opportunity.
Honesty is a cultural thing. People are innately honest, but remain particularly so when that is expected of us, when those around us act that way, when we are conscious of close connections to others in our community, and when we believe we are being observed.
These things are true of small, prosperous, countries where you find strong levels of employment, enterprise, self-reliance, sport, participation, strong commonalities in values and experience, and small scale community activity.
Honesty is rooted in cultural values we might never fully appreciate. Research has shown, for example, that the higher the rate of tipping, the more corrupt the country.
Honesty is not a political thing. It is not something that is mandated, although it can be reinforced. It is not something that is made by laws on crime, or institutional transparency. It is not led by rhetoric from politicians. It is driven by action of ordinary individuals.
Our politicians are not corrupt - because they are generated from our culture. But politics has the power to poison culture.
Honesty can be knifed by politicians blurring the lines of probity; by saying one thing and doing another; by taking convenient options rather than hard ones; by acting as if words and vainglorious ideas are hard graft; by talking as if no one can be trusted without authority’s sanction; by creating structures that dominate or replace community organisation; by dividing society into victims and abusers; by pushing an ideological agenda at the expense of others; by fueling dispute and disparity; by bureaucratising charity; and by adopting the rhetoric of community bonds as a campaigning tool, as if they’d invented it.
We must step extremely carefully into our future, because if we weaken our culture of honesty, we lose what makes us a very special and unique place.
A new study explains why liberals have more trouble with each other.
Research has shown that liberals tend to think of themselves as more unique from their peers than they really are. Conservatives tend to think of themselves as more similar to their peers than they really are.
It’s a tantalizing explanation for the apparent difficulty in left-wing movements coalescing, while conservatives clump together disturbingly easily.
It matches with my observation of the easy “oppositionality” of left-wing people. They seem to readily find or create differences between them and their peers, as well as anyone else.
It has been noted that the New Zealand Labour Party is regularly riven with factions. In contrast, while differences of opinion exist within the National Party, they hold together.
The researchers think the findings explain the difficulty of the “Occupy” movement in finding common ground. The Tea Party, in contrast, has held together remarkably well despite a disparate and self-selected membership.
What is most fascinating is the suggestion that ideology is actually based on ego. The liberal ego is wants to be different from others. The conservative ego wants to be more like others.
So is politics, and difference, all in the mind?
Politicians dressing up for their visits to where the real people work generally look like goofs.
Try out this great selection of politicians playing “dress-up like real people”.
I despise these exercises because;
1) the politician is quite clearly dressing up to pass through for a photo exercise. The dress up emphasises the effort they’ve made to fit in, and the fact that they’re posing for photos.
2) they look out of place. It’s not just the shiny new work clobber - it’s the fact that their office-soft features, and impractical mind, is generally ill at ease in the situation.
Politicians look much better in-the-field when they dress down their usual gear, rather than change the uniform.
I’m in favour of workplace visits that don’t include photographers. If a politician really cares about what people think, or wants to really talk to them, why do they need photographers or media present? Even if politicians are actually doing the visit just to be seen to be doing it, the act of doing it NOT as a photo opportunity has a much more powerful effect on the voters who experience it.
Political fieldwork is now play-acting at being in touch, rather than actually doing it.
It’s even worse than that. Politicians have come to need media presence as a crutch for public engagement. Cameras help create the illusion of relevance and importance. It’s helpful though, because rather than rely on engaging voters with the force of their ideas and personality, politicians are utilising the effect of celebrity to encourage the public to engage with them. Otherwise they fear, quite rightly, that no one would bother.
How much truth is there in political advertising, and how much do voters take the trouble to find out who they’re voting for?
These questions are raised by an incredible story out of America where a white Republican male won an unwinnable Democrat ‘black’ seat on the Houston Community College Board - by claiming he was black.
Dave Wilson’s mail drop advertising campaign appeared to insinuate he was black to win over voters in a mainly African-America district from the black incumbent. He lifted images of black people off the internet with the captioned “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.”
Wilson acknowledges he was deceptive, but says: “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters.”
That’s true. If they know what they’re doing, politicians play to voter prejudices. They use words and images that evoke certain ideas and sensations. They promise they will listen to voters, even though they quite naturally have their own agendas.
I think a couple of factors contributed to Wilson’s win;
- Name recognition - Wilson is described as a political ‘trouble-maker’ and previous candidate. Studies show that if voters recognise a name, but don’t know the person, they assume the recognition must be for positive reasons.
- The incumbent stank - The Houston Community Board has been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism for a series of costly decisions. It is entirely probable that voters knew what they were doing when they elected Wilson to replace politicians they disliked.
- Connection - Wilson’s flyers exude voter-connection. He doesn’t say he’s black, but he signals that he’s sympathetic with a ‘black’ point of view. Voters picked up those cues and consciously chose a candidate who professed empathy. If Wilson misled them, that is on his conscience, and ultimately his chances of re-election
I doubt the story is quite as simple as media is spinning it, even if Wilson is acknowledging some deception. For example, Wilson was ‘outed’ by subsequent flyers produced by the incumbent. It is not credible that voters could believe one set of flyers, but not another.
A new guide that admonishes UK bureaucrats for using jargon ignores what constitutes “work” these days.
The guide advises bureaucrats to “use plain English” and short words. They can no longer ; tackle, deliver, collaborate, advance or combat.
The underlying theme of the guide is that work is tarted up by bureaucrats with words that imply more that actually happened.
For example, civil servants can no longer commit or pledge, because, “we’re either doing something or we’re not”.
The guide says they can do without these words.
But I wonder if they can. In fact, I wonder if many people can.
So much of what constitutes ‘work’ these days has only a homeopathic connection with manufacture of product or delivery of necessary services.
The work is largely about concepts and ideas, and these are expressed in language. For many, language - words - IS the work.
There is also a primitive desperation to connect ideas with the real things. Words help us feel our ideas are having some effect.
Without these words, what will become of the work?
If we remove the ability to pretend there is a connection between bureaucratic navel gazing and practical life, will the ideas become more focused on actual effect? Will it lead to people stopping think-working all together?
BTW: My favourite jargon to drop is “one stop shop”. Govt officials have been making me write about these for years…
This weeks escalation of outrage over ‘roasting’ demonstrated the extreme end of the political technique in which you define yourself by what you are against.
It was easy fodder. Young men bragged about deliberately getting younger girls drunk for sex. Never mind the reality, it was despicable enough just to consider, let alone achieve.
With so many people in the beltway outraged, it was hard for everyone to get enough publicity and self-definition from the event.
The story required escalation to give the political class more opportunities for self-definition.
So they found new people to be upset at (more young males), new issues to be against (male attitudes to women), new perspectives (young women ‘coerced’ into having sex).
It got better for the political class when two radio hosts asked the ‘questions that can’t be asked’ of a female caller. A new front was opened to use for political grand-standing and furthering the anti-rape issue.
It was manna from heaven when we discovered that the police had not been accurate is saying no one had complained to the police. Well, it was kind of true - one complaint couldn’t be sustained and three people wouldn’t make a complaint official. There was just enough difference in the police position to open a third front on the issue.
I can understand the exasperation and bewilderment of the Police Commissioner at the hysterical outrage whipped up over the matter.
The political class willfully blinded themselves to messy realities of human sexuality to escalate the matter out of its pathos and into tragedy.
The technique of defining ideology by being against other groups or attitudes is useful, but the ease with which outrage can be used means it too often supplants constructive politics. Politicians must be careful to weigh their outrage and constructiveness in equal doses.
I am demoralised by watching the political class lurch from outrage to outrage, leaving behind not a single improvement.
But I have worries about the “being against” technique from a wider view of what’s good for society.
- Simplifying issues doesn’t resolve them. Shoe-horning events to fit a simplistic moral ideology runs roughshod over all the levers that really exist to make changes. A society built on respect doesn’t come from political shouting or big-platform government policies. Simplifying people and issues encourages lack of respect. It encourages an environment where people to treat others as if they are stereotypes. It reinforces the American model of ‘there’s me and I’m right, and there’s you and you’re wrong’.
- We are pushed to the extreme. The irony of focusing on, and inflating, the worst about humanity, is that we don’t become better people. Extremes are so self-evidently ‘wrong’ that it’s easy to oppose and learn nothing.
- It ignores reality. Reality is so damn messy. When we simplify things we ignore the way life really is. We push ourselves into policies which are just not practical. Politics should be about real life - the art of the possible.
- "What-I-am-not" politics is destructive, not constructive. It’s easy to be against something, but what are you really for? What specific things do you think should be different, and how will you bring them about?