Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Must bad politics drive out good?

Paulie has a good post up (which links to a few other good posts of his), asking something I don’t really know how to answer. Or rather, I don’t know how to get the answer I’d like.

He contrasts the standard ‘politician’ style of political representation – “slimy, scheming, backstabbers who will try and leave everyone with the short-term illusion that they are agreed with, and a longer-term sense of personal betrayal” – with another style, and he wonders whether it could work:

Do we want to be represented by people who are more prepared to show their working? More prepared to place themselves open to consultation, put stuff on the record, explain themselves, and be prepared to defend their decisions?

The question, as he says, boils down to that of whether representatives (and candidates) can be incentivised to act in this more discursive, nuanced way rather than in the standard populist manoeuvring way: can they win elections like this?

I suspect there’s a version of Gresham’s law in operation, by which bad politics drives out good. If you try to explain a complex and contentious position and how you reached it, you’re going to have a hard time up against someone who’s happy to hit you hard and fast with some punchy soundbites and pander to people’s prejudices.

Some discursive types do get elected, and most MPs I think do show some of those nobler qualities at least some of the time. But overall, our current political set-up has a strong tendency towards simplistic populism.

Another point: Paulie pitches his discussion at the level of the individual representative – but how many voters really know much about their MP or other candidates? The main factor in most voting decisions is party affiliation. And most of these voters’ changes in voting behaviour are largely driven by the activities of the party leaderships (as portrayed in the mass media). So either electoral politics – although not necessarily government itself – would have to become more decentralised, with local candidates and representatives having higher profiles and more independence from the party machine (fewer MPs with larger constituencies?), or the party leaderships would need to become more discursive etc. And the media would have to be on side. It seems unlikely.

The only other thing I can think of is some sort of ‘naming and shaming’ for those politicians who are particularly awful in terms of playing the standard political game, but I don’t know how that could be effective in practice. I don’t know how it could compete in terms of public attention with converse exercises that ridiculed the ‘gaffes’ that inevitably accompany thinking out loud.

Or am I underestimating the public’s tolerance of politicians who are “prepared to show their working”? I fear that while people might honestly say they’d like this, they’d probably not go for it when they saw it up against the status quo.


Chris said...

One way of incentivizing MPs to behave properly might be to share the power, perhaps by increasing the power of select committees and the like to US levels - this gives the thoughtful ones more chances to shine without being in ministerial posititions, and the humpty ones more slight tastes of power and lessons in why you have to work with other people. The downside, apart from the fact that it doesn't seem to have increased the level of public discourse in the US that much, is that it seems an odd way of helping democracy by making the act of voting aye or nay less important. I'm not sure if you could call it decentralisation, but maybe having independent and worthwhile power makes it easier to be less in thrall to the party leadership.

The naming and shaming thing has been, of sorts, suggested by Larry Lessig. I'm dubious myself.

Liam Murray said...

Public tolerance for a more thoughtful and open politician would, in effect, be almost nil.

People can effect an air of political sophistication by claiming to disdain spin and want more honest & straighforward politicians - it's a way of sounding intelligent without actually having to say anything about or understand policy.

In truth the vast majority of people have almost no interest in the detail or capacity to make a decent judgement on it - politics will always favour those who can master the mass media and 'perform' better in the various arenas use to let them slug it out.

Paul E. said...

You've probably picked up the kind of response that I was expecting and hoping for. However, I still think that there is a space to see if individual candidates can run on the 'not a politician' ticket. I noticed that Newsnight's focus groups showed a very negative reaction to parts of Brown's speeches that attacked the Tories. And I also notice that Cameron recently (and Oliver Letwin for a long time) have been positioning themselves as 'not politicians' in some ways - and it seems to be a reasonably successful strategy.