Whatever happened to politics? September 28, 2006Posted by smiffy in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens, Ireland, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party.
God, it’s depressing. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m close to losing what little interest I had left in Irish parliamentary politics.
I’m not talking about Irish politics in general; that’s much too broad, and many important, even urgent issues fall under that heading (alleviation of poverty, energy policy and climate change, tackling inequality etc.). No, what I’m finding so objectionable is the extent to which issues like those – real political issues, with no easy answers – seem to be increasingly excluded from debate in favour of whatever the talking point du jour happens to be.
Take the current uproar over Ahern’s acceptance of a substantial sum of money in 1993. Certainly, it’s a serious issue, not just that he took the money, but equally the extent to which he seems to believe that there’s nothing at stake in doing so, as if being a decent aul’ skin who likes his pint of Bass, and his coddle and his G.A.A. (add cliché, as required) means the same ethical standards by which others are judged to don’t apply in his case. And it’s completely proper that’s he’s held to account on the charge, although that seems to waning after a risible performance yesterday from Kenny and Rabbitte (that said, the scuttlebutt over on politics.ie is that the Government may well fall tonight, if only to show how lamentable my powers of prediction are).
That said, while it is serious, is it really that substantial an issue? Given that no one is seriously claiming that the payment was a bribe, or that corrupt of his Office was involved, it’s hard to accept that the level of coverage it has realised it proportionate to the importance of the issues at stake. While the Opposition will flail about, faking ire for a while to score points against a weakened government and it will receive wall-to-wall media coverage because the politicians are talking about little else, maybe we should consider it a matter of regret that something like this generates such excitement whereas something like civil liberties or the European project doesn’t. Politics, in the wider sense, seems to have been completely overshadowed in favour of a shallower ‘current affairs’.
This phenomenon – the rejection of policy as central to political debate – didn’t, of course, originate in the current ‘crisis’ (what crisis?, etc.). Travelling to work in the morning, I notice that Fine Gael appear to have launched yet another vacuous publicity campaign against the hapless commuter. The two posters I’ve seen so far feature Enda Kenny, in one holding some documents and looking very purposeful out a window, with the slogan ‘It’s time for a new team, with new ideas’; in the other, he’s in an office and appears to be dictating or lecturing to a blurred group of young professionals, diligently taking notes below him, accompanied by the words ‘We’ll work as hard as you do’ (which isn’t a great selling point if directed at me).
Does anything, can anything represent the abandonment of politics more completely or more precisely than these posters? They may as well be saying to the electorate ‘You know that thing you want? Whatever it is, that’s what we’ll do’. Who cares what the ideas are, provided they’re new? Who cares what policies the party will implement, so long as they work hard doing so? It’s marketing, just marketing, in its purest form, selling an image with represents nothing but itself, all surface and no depth. Has Jean Baudrilliard has become the party’s new image guru (at least it’s a step up from Eoghan Harris)?
Similarly, the government parties don’t engage in any kind of debate of ideas (admittedly it’s tricky when there are no ideas – as opposed to ideas about ideas – put forward from the other side). Instead of laying out any kind of vision of the Ireland they want to lead us into, we’re treated to inane phrases like ‘slump coalition’ and completely meaningless and decontextualised statistics about the unemployment rate in 1994.
Frankly, all of this is an insult to the intelligence, and an insult to the electorate. In my admittedly naïve way, I’d always had a particular idea of what an election campaign should involve – various parties setting out different proposals about what they intend to do in government, and taking it as a given that the voters have the gumption to assess the relative merits of each before making a choice. Instead, the main parties seem to have conceded that policies and ideas don’t matter any more, that there is no difference between them, and squabble for the public’s attention like two people in a park, each trying to attract a confused puppy to themselves. ‘Vote for us – we’ll do exactly the same as them, only better. And NEW!’. ‘Vote for us – we’re already here, so we’re better because the alternative is worse even though there is no alternative’. And so on …
So who can we blame for this complete degradation of debate? I’d start by pointing a finger at the Liveline approach to politics (alternatively known as the ‘keep those texts coming in’ school of thought). Somewhere in the late nineties there a decision was taken somewhere that the views of the public were important. Or, rather, that the expression of those views was important and newsworthy in and of itself. Don’t make the mistake of confusing this with a respect for those views, and ensuring that a wide range of opinions fed and influenced public debate. No, most important of all with interactivity, the instant reaction, preferably in ten words or less. The text message into the radio programme, or to Questions and Answers, the pointless surveys on TV3 or ireland.com and, perhaps most pernicious of all, the increasing ubiquity of opinion polls as actual news stories – all of these should be seen as anathema to real debate, rather than complementary to it. It’s no great exaggeration to suggest that once a week, a newspaper reading is likely to encounter a top story about a recently released opinion poll, thereby telling people what they already think, rather than giving them the basis to form an opinion in the first place (which is surely more important).
It’s, I believe, this kind of mentality – treating people as consumers, as subjects of marketing research whose most banal preferences need to be studied, then fed back at them, rather than as conscious, engaged citizens who are open to a persuasive and rational argument and are intelligent enough to understand a relatively detailed policy debate – that has so degraded public discourse in this country. The main parties believe that people can’t deal with real arguments, so hide behind slick, but empty, slogans and campaigns. And the electorate, presented with nothing more substantial than cheap platitudes responds with the old favourite ‘Ah, sure they’re all the same’ (a view which, admittedly, the parties themselves do little to dispel).
So where does one go from here? In the diatribe above, I’ve referred to the ‘main parties’. I realise that it’s a very flawed phase, in that I’m referring to the three largest parties, plus the Progressive Democrats, simply because they seem to be the ones which receive the most coverage. And what a bunch they are – two populist parties still fighting a civil war, but missing a casus belli, a Labour Party which seems to have missed the point of the Labour movement, and a centrist mini-party which saw a choice between being radical and redundant and decisively opted for the latter.
When the election comes around I could, of course, opt for Sinn Féin. They, at least, seem to have a reasonably consistent progressive ideology (leaving aside the issues surrounding Northern Ireland/the OSC/whatever), although I’m not sure how far I’d trust them (an issue which deserves its own post, and which I hope to return to in future).
I could, alternatively, paraphrase George Orwell, or Winston Smith more precisely, and suggest that ‘If there is hope, it lies with the Greens’ (never forgetting the importance of the hypothetical there). And, indeed, the Greens’ aren’t afraid to put brave and innovative policies front and centre, and deserve praise, rather than ridicule, for attempting to run election campaigns in this way. But while I believe they’re the only party really willing to give climate change it’s due seriousness, I’m not entirely convinced about the merits of their policies in some other areas (what little I know of them – entirely my fault, but sometimes such a broad church can have too many alcoves). The choose a party simply because it takes policy seriously, rather than on the merits of those policies, would be almost as foolish as thinking ‘Yes, it is time for a new team’ etc. Obviously, I’ve some serious thinking to do between now and next summer.
Of course, perhaps it was always ever thus. I’m obviously idealising some mythical past in which policy took precedence over image or personality, or whether the prospective T.D. would ‘look after you’. And maybe I’m wrong in thinking that things are getting any worse in this respect. It might well be that everything’s just as bad as it always was, except there’s now more of it. But one thing I am sure of is that whenever I do go to cast my next vote, I won’t be doing it with any sense of enthusiasm or hope.