The Blog

Democracy Reborn- Solving Disengagement

The reason people are disillusioned with politics is because it no longer affords people the level of control they seek- our hunger for change has outgrown the systems flexibility for it. Our democracy has grown complacent and stale, and we must act to breathe life into it once more

There is not so much a political landscape anymore as there is a political obstacle course. Public life is literally littered with barriers impeding public engagement in our 'democratic' system, and if we do not soon clear the debris, the results could be quite frightening. From the undemocratic decision making in the main parties, to the passive, immobilising nature propagated by the media, a psychological but very real barrier has been crafted around politics, excluding all but an 'elite' few.

There are a lucky few that occupy the in group of politics, whilst the rest of us are excluded, left to watch on the side lines and make a choice between some of the 'ins' every once in a while.

Lewis et al discuss at length in their book 'Citizens or Consumers?' the role the media plays in reinforcing an apolitical attitude in the populous. With their large samples of US and UK TV and press, they break down various forms of expressing 'public' opinion and discuss the flaws with these approaches. What they reveal is that the vast majority of the time 'public opinion' is referred to, whether it be by covering a protest, interviewing someone on the street, or reporting opinion polls, the framework it is set in is either apolitical, or in response to a politician/political party.

Examples of apolitical representation is someone being worried about the war in Iraq, but not making any proposals or referring to a political ideology/policy. For responding to politicians, examples include polls on where a party stands in popularity, or what people think of what so and so said, but not being given an opportunity to suggest alternates. The result of both of these themes culminate in propagating a top down approach to politics- the agenda is set by the elite at the top, with the ordinary citizen either ignoring it or merely following in its wake. A caricature of the emotional but insensible man-on-the-street is created, not able to make rational or informed opinions and so having to defer to elite 'experts'.

This research chimes perfectly with many experiences we will have all had. Many people will feel angry or opposed to things (or the opposite), but rarely do they have alternative suggestions. This isn't because they lack the intelligence or imagination to conceive of them, it's because we've been conditioned to believe it's not up to us. We're taught to respond to policy, rather than to imagine and shape it. We're now passive consumers, instead of engaged and active citizens, shaping the debate.

And the media isn't the only place we receive this message, where the everyday citizen is excluded from the political 'in' group. Where's the education for politics and economics in our schools? There isn't any-they're available as specialists' subjects in universities but nothing more. We require children to acquire a basic understanding of science, maths, the English language... why not of our political and economic systems that have huge impacts on our lives? Knowledge is power and not providing this basic level of understanding to all serves only to promote an in-group of those 'in the know' to the exclusion and detriment of the rest.

This is embodied in the language that modern Westminster is now immersed in. No longer is ideological talk bandied around- no time for nonsense morality or logic... technical economic talk is the only discourse politics now has time for. What better way to retain a small 'in-group' of power-wielders than by droning on about deficits and quantitative easing? A special, boring language is a great way to keep the out-group not just excluded, but grateful for being so.

Even those that overcome this failed education and make the bold step of joining a political party are still excluded from the 'in' group. Decisions ranging from stances on an emerging national issue, to party policy, to who stands in what area- for the main parties these are almost always roped off from the ordinary member. Even those that are trying to engage are still being sent the message that there is an 'in' group and they're not part of it.

We cannot afford for 'engagement' to be a buzz word anymore, something pulled out of the electoral toolbox at voting time. It needs to be placed at the heart of every party's manifesto's, and at the heart of Westminster discourse. It needs to play a key part in any vision we have for the country's future, truly empowering people in a way that gives them the hope to enter into the debate.

As incredible as the advancements we have made from monastic and feudalistic ways of structuring societies are, the time has come for another leap forward. The answer to 'why are people so disillusioned with politics?' is blindingly obvious to an observer, but difficult for us to perceive because to truly comprehend the answer it entails seeing through the fog of societal norms and social conditioning.

The reason people are disillusioned with politics is because it no longer affords people the level of control they seek- our hunger for change has outgrown the systems flexibility for it. Our democracy has grown complacent and stale, and we must act to breathe life into it once more.

A simple referendum every now and then is not enough, but neither do we need to discard the system we currently have that has been fought so hard for. Instead we must, as the Brazillian political theorist Roberto Unger tells us, strive for 'revolutionary reform'. We must bring forth a set of policies that, bit by bit, tackle the key areas highlighted above, placing people at the heart of our politics. We must break down the in/out divide, bring down the walls surrounding politics, and open it up for all. It is the only hope for our democracy.