Over the weekend my middle daughter had to write an essay on the most significant event of 2016. She quite wrongly rejected the idea that this was Hiddleswift; rather boringly she chose instead the election of Donald Trump. Her 13-year-old judgement on the new PEOTUS was as pithy as it was damning: most people, she wrote, think Trump is a sexist, racist, orange mess.
My first reaction was to smirk at the basic truth of this analysis, chuckle and move on. But it really is depressing, yet another reminder that lots of people see politics as a game for crooks and conmen, remote from the realities of their everyday lives. Then yesterday the annual Edelman Trust Barometer was published, confirming that public trust in government has plummeted everywhere over the past year. This 'implosion of trust' is another dispiriting sign of how public discourse and political life has been undermined in the past few years.
Far too many people, especially smartarse members of my profession, at this point simply shrug, say 'that's politics', and say that the current political class have brought it upon themselves. Others are angrier, arguing that politicians deserve to be pilloried and turned out of office because they are venal, corrupt or at the very least incompetent. If politics delivers the stagnation and deadlock of the past few years it needs to be overthrown. Populism is the right antidote to a disastrous, failing, system.
But I just don't think the system is the problem. Without question, some of the people in the system, our political leaders, have not performed well, and some of them may never be up to the task. There is a perfectly good argument to be made about the way in which capitalism has in many places failed to address issues of inequality, and democracy has not responded to the negative aspects of globalisation. But these are problems of personnel and of application: does anyone seriously think the foundations of the system, the principles that lie behind it, should be thrown away? Anyway, a lot of the criticism is madly overblown and hugely, and often deliberately, uninformed.
To illustrate this point look at the current crisis in the NHS. This week Survation published the results of a poll asking what is to blame for pressure on the Health Service. The top reason given was immigration, notwithstanding the facts, for example that foreign-born staff make up a significant proportion of health professionals, that so-called health tourism takes up a relatively tiny portion of the total NHS budget, and that immigration generally has boosted GDP and so the tax take, and so the money available to be spent on hospitals and other services. The next most popular reason given was 'cuts', despite the fact that more money is being spent than ever before on the NHS. And so on, and so on.
The reality, that demand is growing relentlessly as people live longer and as expectations rise, that costs are increasing as treatments become more and more sophisticated, and that maybe we just don't pay enough tax to cover these rising costs and to meet this booming demand, didn't even make the list. It rarely does: so much easier for Punch and Judy politicians to blame the other wide, or the unions, or the foreigners, and so much simpler for the media to shriek about it all being someone else's fault, than to tell the truth. We are all to blame for the problems of the NHS because we are too cheap to pay what it really needs. We want lower taxes but a shiny Health Service; we want lower council taxes but perfect social care. It doesn't add up, and it is to the shame of our politicians and media that they don't say so.
The same might be said about the response to the banking crisis, the problems of the Eurozone, the threats of climate change and global terror, and a million other difficult issues politicians face today: they are just bloody hard. They are full of nuances and complications and trade-offs and just don't lend themselves to being boiled down to 140 characters or a screaming headline or a pithy soundbite. And yet politicians have cravenly given in to the demands of the media and tried to distil everything down to basic, painting-by-numbers, messaging. And as a result the quality of debate, the strength of decisions, the capabilities of many people in public life, all of it has gone down, and down, and down.
What's worst is that politicians and the media in Western democracies are now engaged in a hideous dance of death. The constant demands of the media for unthinking, often negative, commentary is driving down the standard of discourse; in turn politicians are undermining papers and broadcasters at a time when they are anyway under attack from online news sites, fake or otherwise, irresponsible blogs and Facebook posts and tweets and so on. In the UK regulation of the mainstream press is seen by many as having gone too far; and repeated attacks on the BBC by Ministers and others weaken that great national institution. In the US the incoming President has both indulged in fake news and accused respectable outlets of lying and conspiring against him. The same pattern can be seen the world over.
So is it any wonder that the Trust Barometer has found that trust in the media has fallen alongside that of the political classes? Both sides therefore lose, and populists and their 'new media' acolytes win. So politicians and journalists have embarked on a path towards mutually assured destruction. It's not too late for both to turn back, to start to talk about positive news, to express understanding for the difficult job both do, to seek to educate and explain and engage with the public both are meant to serve. Here's hoping they will. But with Trump now taking office it looks certain to get worse before it gets better.Suggest a correction