2010 General Election campaign Apr 15th

In defence of partisan party politics, mendacious politicians and the Westminster bubble

The European and local elections are just one day away and there are plenty of pre-mortems around about the rise of UKIP, the disintegration of the Liberal Democrats and the failure of both the Conservative and Labour parties to build public support.

There are also lots of anti-political sentiments around too. On the Today Programme at the beginning of the week, we heard from some British voters who were lamenting the poor quality of our politicians. They’re duplicitous and lazy, apparently.

What’s lazy is that attitude.

Everyone enjoys mocking the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’, but the great virtue of working regularly with politicians and civil servants—as I have for the past six years—is that it provides a stark reminder of the realities of politics. All the resources are limited: politicians have very little time to address policy issues properly (and believe me, legislating properly takes a lot of time; rushing through legislation is the worst thing you can do). And the pot of money to implement policy is squeezed. Choosing one sort of beneficiary is always at the expense of another. Politics often boils down to the question: Who must we shaft today?

And the issues are complex, too.   The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.  If an easy solution existed, it would have already been implemented. The issues that parliament (any parliament) is asked to solve are by definition those where a consensus cannot be easily found. Many are ‘wicked problems‘, where the exact nature of what is going wrong is barely understood. The housing crisis is just one example: intervening on the demand side (as the Conservative led government has done) or on the supply side (as Labour advocates) are both hacks that will disrupt the market and cost some voters some money.

In this chaotic environment, politicians and political parties are a good thing. We citizens simply cannot keep track of all the issues that require action. We must delegate a search for a solution, and the power to implement it, to others.  Moreover, if we were in government, we would certainly be required to make compromises and difficult choices over who wins and who loses on a particular policy issue.  We delegate this responsibility to the politicians, too… and then we moan about them when they do it.

Most people—and I include myself in this group—are mistaken about why they are voting for someone.  Stupidly, we tell oursleves that we are voting for someone because of their policies.  But this is an utterly naive approach to the decision, because we know, deep down, that no manifesto will ever be implemented in full.  It would be more honest to admit that we are delegating to our poiticians the power to make compromises on our behalf!  Since we cannot anticipate precisely what other issues will emerge over the course of a parliamentary term, we have to elect someone based on a sketchy hope that they would compromise and fudge as we would compromise and fudge ourselves.  When seen through this rather pragmatic prism, political parties are incredibly useful structures for making such difficult decisions.

That’s why there’s so much scrutiny over UKIP, and so much hullaballoo over off-colour remarks made by so many people in the party, from Nigel Farage downwards. The people who make up this new group seem to have a certain approach to life that is firmly at odds with the sensibilities that most of us bring to a new problem. Its distressing that people who do not share the UKIP outlook are nevertheless planning to vote for them “to stick it to the main parties” or “because they’re all the same” or (incredibly) as a snub to the mainstream media.

Politicians are “all the same” only in the most superficial sense, in that all politicians will obfuscate, compromise and lie i.e. But crucially, they will compromise and prioritise in very different ways, according to their temperament.  The way in which they shaft us matters

In defence of duplicity, mendacity and ambiguity

The rant above is inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s second book, To Save Everything, Click Here. It is an attack on ‘internet-centrism’ (the idea that the Internet is a single thing that can provide a short-cut solution to all the problems we encounter). Morozov asks us to question the underlying assumptions that drive many of the new technological solutions that are being developed in Silicon Valley and its analogues around the world.

Chapter 4 challenges our assumptions about politics. Noting that elected representatives seem to regularly break their promises and behave in a partisan fashion, many technologists have sought to by-pass the old political parties, and to impose new tools on the political process that force politicians into a more transparent and honest place. In an extremely useful literature review of the way politics works, Morozov challenges the assumption that politics is as broken as we think it is. Perhaps, he suggests, the fact that politicians make vague promises they barely keep is a feature, not a bug, of the system.

I make no apologies for quoting at length from Chapter 4.

In On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, a seminal defense of partisanship in American politics, Nancy Rosenblum celebrates what she dubs “the creativity of party politics and the moral distinctiveness of partisanship” and points
out that parties not only reflect but actively create the political interests and opinions of their members. Parties are easy to criticize: voters find them off-putting; special interest groups and rich donors find it all too easy to exploit them; part ies can be too slow to respond to public opinion and prevent their members from tackling important problems on their own. But, for all those faults, parties also play an important—and often invisible role—in making political life both more reasonable and more creative. They regulate rivalry and mediate deliberation, throwing weight behind important issues of the day.

Above all, parties help create conditions in which partisanship can flourish—and whatever centrist pundits like to believe, partisanship has many beneficial uses as well. It entrenches pluralism as the only game in town, forcing the ruling party to acknowledge that its own “truth” may be just one way to tell the story. Partisanship, according to Rosenblum, “does not see pluralism and political con- flict as a bow to necessity, a pragmatic recognition of the inevitability of disagreement. It demands severe self—discipline to acknowledge that my party’s status is just one part in a permanently pluralist politics, and hence the provisional nature of being the governing party and the charade of pretending to represent the whole.”

The attempt to replace partisanship with something less flawed and less contentious, Rosenblum contends, might only make things worse, for, as she eloquently puts it, “rescuing politics from the unreasonable is unreasonable.” Likewise, historian Sean Wilentz argues that for all the bad rap partisanship receives in today’s public debate, we shouldn’t forget that “the anti-party current is by definition anti-democratic, as political parties have been the only reliable vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters.” In other words, while digital technologies might one day make it easier to disrupt the party system and eschew partisanship—and start—ups like Americans Elect and Ruck.us will surely persevere in this mission—this hardly makes the project worth pursuing. That we have found a powerful “solution” to the problem of partisanship does not mean that partisanship is a “problem.” This is where solutionism together with Internet—centrism forces us to assume problems based on the sheer awesomeness of our digital tools, not on the needs and requirements of democratic politics itself. As political theorist Bernard Crick once wrote, “Boredom with established truths is the great enemy of the free man.”

The main problem with solutionism is that it refuses to accept that a striving for perfection, regardless of whether it manifests in demands that politicians ought to be completely honest and transparent or in actual efforts to transcend the supposed limitations of partisanship, might be exerting a negative influence on our political
culture. Perfection shouldn’t be pursued for its own ends; democracy is a complex affair in Which, in the absence of disappointments, there would never be any accomplishments.

Letting go of perfectionism would reveal politics in a very different light. If one assumes that politics is always imperfect—and that such imperfection is a good thing—then the solutionists’ quest for transparency seems misguided for one simple reason: pursued in an unreflexive manner, it recasts compromises like lower attendance rates at voting sessions or occasional recourses to hypocrisy and ambivalence as sins, while any realistic model of politics should at least occasionally treat them as virtues.

Solutionists do not understand that politicians are not like inflatable mattresses or hair dryers that can be easily ranked on a five-star scale, as we are wont to do with our Amazon purchases. It’s not that we do not evaluate them at all—we do—but such evaluations boil down to a binary choice, which we express, every few years, at the voting booth. A politician who has mastered the art of compromise and accepted the inevitability of imperfection might get another term in office, but a hair dryer that has mastered those very arts will never receive five stars. Polish dissident Adam Michnik was onto something when he defined democracy as “eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.” Try marketing a hair dryer with that slogan.

If disappointment with politics is to become more visible—which it might, given the changes in the information environment—then we desperately need to find new ways to have citizens appreciate its imperfections. A stream of “bad” numbers will look bad and disheartening only if we stick to simplistic, reductionist criteria of what counts as “success” in politics to begin with, if we fetishize the means, attendance rates, over the ends, the bargaining of legislative sessions.

When John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation—a bastion of technosolutionism that aims to use digital tools to promote government transparency—enthuses that “there is a cultural change in what people expect from government, fuelled by the experience of shopping on the internet and having real—time access to financial information,” this is something to be mourned, not celebrated.

The mentality of the Amazon shopper is that of someone who prizes immediate payofls and rarely wants to make sacrifices in the name of others. Try telling that shopper that not all of his or her desires can be satisfied because someone else has equally compelling interests and those have to be taken into account as well; the market simply doesn’t work that way.

But politics thrives on mediocrity, real and perceived; one day everyone is bound to be disappointed. If bargaining could always lead to win-win situations, no politics would be necessary. As the French philosopher Bruno Latour once put it, “What we despise as political ‘mediocrity’ is simply the collection of compromises that we force politicians to make on our behalf.” To accept the ‘mediocrity of politics is to accept that the citizen, unlike the consumer, is not always right: Where consumers can pay their way through, be treated like emperors, and expect to get the best possible hair dryer, citizens need to accept a certain humility and be prepared to make sacrifices, if only out of solidarity with others.

To import the mentality of the consumer—even of the activist-consumer—into the realm of politics is to make politics so disappointing that few will tolerate it at all. Most public institutions should not be held to the same standards as their private counterparts simply because their mission is to provide goods and services that markets cannot or should not provide. This work is often challenging enough, even without constant reminders about their sub-optimal performance by peeved consumers. As Catherine Needham cautions in her 2003 book Citizen Consumers, “The fundamental danger is that consumerism may foster privatized and resentful citizens whose expectations of government can never be met, and cannot develop the concern for the public good that must be the foundation of democratic engagement and support for public services.” However, it’s not just the solutionists at the Sunlight Foundation who expect “the Internet” to deliver what perhaps shouldn’t be delivered at all. Noted political theorists have heen championing the idea of “monitorial democracy.“ wherehy politicians operate under constant scrutiny—by citizens, NGOs, commissions. and agencies—for, as we all know, politicians tend to he imperfect, inefficient, and corrupt. It’s not that this effort is wrongheaded—the stories of corruption and bureaucracy run amok often invoked in this context are certainly not fairy tales— but theories of “monitorial democracy“ rarely spell out what political activities should be left unscrutinized, unmonitored, and unrated. The danger here, as is often the case with transparency schemes, is that additional sunlight is presumed to be good in itself, not as an enabler of other, higher goods.

In Defending Politics—perhaps the smartest defense of the practice of politics published in the last few years—Matthew Flinders finds that “monitorial democracy” suffers from many of the same problems that Michael Power identified in the “audit society” more broadly. The chief preoccupation of monitorial democracy, charges Flinders, is not with fostering social goods but, rather, with “controlling, monitoring, and scrutinizing politicians and decision-makers, based upon the assumed ‘self—evident truth’ that politicians are not to be trusted.”

A recent Guardian article got a very representative opinion of the vox populi when it quoted one regular voter complaining that “my idea of a politician is a thief, a liar and a cheat.” This is a bad-faith, aggressive model of politics that holds politicians in contempt, celebrates “gotcha”—style reporting, and “rejoices in the taking of political scalps.” Most disturbingly, it says precious little about the responsibilities of citizens, focusing instead on their rights (mostly, just one right actually: the right to know). As Flinders points out, treating citizens as consumers leads them to think that politics can deliver the same “standards of service that they would commonly expect from the private sector… [which] is the political equivalent of suicide.”

As old newspaper and TV archives are digitized, as all speeches are recorded and transcribed for posterity, as one’s early tweets and pokes are scrutinized, the temptation to succumb to solutionism and to reveal politicians and public institutions as the frauds they are becomes irresistible. Politicians used to be shamed with their unflattering attendance statistics; soon, they will be confronted with various “truthfulness” indexes based on everything they have ever said. The recent preoccupation with fact checking and the cor- responding proliferation of projects like PolitiFact.com (of the Tampa Bay Times), FactCheck.org (of the Annenberg Public Policy Center), and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker (which grades the accuracy of politicians’ statements on a one-to—four “Pinocchios” scale) offer a foretaste of things to come. Right now, such projects still require humans to do both the analysis and the ranking, but as our technologies get smarter and our archives grow bigger, fact checking will probably be outsourced to algorithms.

The Truth Goggles project, developed by an MIT graduate student and widely celebrated in the media, is one step toward automating at least some of the steps involved in fact checking. This tiny piece of software can be integrated with your browser. Once you visit an article on the New York Times website, you can click the “Truth Goggles” icon in your browser, and the software will scan the article for factual claims. If the article contains any of the more than 6,000 (and growing) items in PolitiFact’s database of fact—checked claims, those facts will be highlighted in yellow while the rest of the text will be blurred. On clicking the highlighted claim, a user will see a pop—up window showing what PolitiFact thinks of this particular claim—that is, whether it’s true, half true, mostly true, mostly false, false, and so on——and providing some contextual information
as well.

Thus, we meet the double—click mentality once again: “truth” magically creeps into our browsers, While the noble eflorts of truth hunters at PolitiFact and innovators at MIT mostly remain invisible and, for the most part, unscrutinized. But who will Watch the truth hunters and the innovators? The extremes of the spectrum look rather unproblematic; statements labeled as absolutely “true” or absolutely “false”—provided they are not about climate change or evolution— may not be too controversial. But what about all the statements in between? Can we really trust PolitiFact’s decision to label something “mostly false” when perhaps it should be “mostly true”

This is where solutionists ought to be very careful. A project like Truth Goggles seems to embrace a model of politics that treats hypocrisy, inconsistency, and ambiguity as inherently bad and harmful to good politics, as something that ought to be eliminated. But is it really the case? We need to challenge not just the idea that the truthfulness of a statement can be boiled down and evaluated in “Pinocchios” but also the notion that hypocrisy, mendacity, and ambiguity are ruining our politics. In extremely large doses, they certainly do; but in small doses, they are more virtues than vices. They enable our political process to function; if they go, something genuinely important will be lost. Thus, while newer and smarter technologies can eventually help eliminate all three of these vices almost in their entirety, this doesn’t change the truths that political philosophy discovered long ago. In fact, hypocrisy, mendacity, and ambiguity have all claimed a number of influential supporters, and many of those arguments, written as they were before our obsession with “the Internet,” still hold true today.

Political philosopher Judith Shklar wrote a whole book, Ordinary Vices, in which she argued that a war on hypocrisy is a futile and counterproductive endeavor, for hypocrisy is a structural condition that makes liberalism possible. The liberal reformers, she argued, should stop fixating on hypocrisy and go after other problems—most of all, cruelty. “The paradox of liberal democracy is that it encourages hypocrisy because the politics of persuasion require … a certain amount of dissimulation on the part of all speakers. On the other hand, the structure of open political competition exaggerates the importance and the prevalence of hypocrisy because it is the vice of which all parties can, and do, accuse each other. It is not at all clear that zealous candor would serve liberal politics particularly well.”

Several decades after Shklar, political philosopher Ruth Grant, in another important defense of hypocrisy, argued that some kinds of hypocrisy are actually positive, even necessary. Thus, she argued, “the blanket condemnation of hypocrisy must be seen as a political vice—and particularly so if what passes for honest politics is not principled politics but the frank sel interestedness of those ‘realists’ who are, in fact, merely cynics.” More recently, political theorist David Runciman advanced similar arguments, proposing that some types of political hypocrisy are even desirable and worth encouraging. His explanation of the recent preoccupation with rooting out hypocrisy rings true: it’s not that there’s more hypocrisy today; it’s just that, with twenty—four—hour political exposure in the media, it’s much easier to find.

Mendacity has received less attention from political theorists, but historian Martin Jay, in his Virtues of Mendacity has made up for this intellectual deficit. Truth can disempower and is not always worth airing; or, as Jay puts it, “truth—telling can … be a weapon of the powerful, while lying is a tactic of the weak.” A politics without lies and hypocrisy wouldn’t be politics at all. According to Jay, “Politics, however we chose to define its essence and limit its con- tours, will never be an entirely fib-free zone of authenticity, sincerity, integrity, transparency, and righteousness. And maybe … that’s ultimately a good thing too.” To expect politicians to tell the truth is to subject our deliberately mediocre politics to perfectionist standards that would drain politics of any meaning. This doesn’t mean that we should encourage our politicians to lie, just that we should remember that lies can often serve enabling functions, and while in many cases they Will be enabling corruption and laziness, in others they will enable compromise and hope.

One unintended consequence of our turbmchargcd fact-checking culture might be that ambivalent and ambiguous political statements will give way to more concrete, numerically obsessed accounts. This might work well for some purposes—cue Bill Clinton’s speech at the National Democratic Convention in 2012, which stood in stark contrast to the predominantly fact-free performance of the Republican camp—but this too might have a debilitating effect on our politics. As political scientist Deborah Stone has argued in her seminal The Policy Paradox, ambivalence has many positive uses in democratic politics; it’s more of an art than a science. “Ambiguity enables the transformation of individual intentions and actions into collective results and purposes. Without it, cooperation and compromise would be far more difficult, if not impossible,” argues Stone.

For example, defining a policy in rather ambiguous, vague terms might help politicians to garner support from many different quarters; precision might come later on. “Defending American { interests’ is an ambiguous idea around which everyone unites,” she 1 notes. Ambiguity makes it possible to actually get things done, giv- pe ing politicians some breathing space to work on a problem without getting distracted by the attention of the media and the public.

Thus, writes Stone, “legislators can satisfy demands to ‘do something’ about a problem by passing a vague statute with ambiguous meaning, then letting administrative agencies hash out the more conflictual details behind the scenes.” Most importantly, without  ambiguity, conflicts might never get resolved, and compromise ‘ t , might never be achieved. “Ambiguity facilitates negotiation and compromise because it allows opponents to claim victory from a single resolution,” concludes Stone.

One thought on “In defence of partisan party politics, mendacious politicians and the Westminster bubble

  1. I suggest that there are two further contributory factors in the lazy perception that politicians are corrupt, useless, in it for themselves and the rest of the cliches. The first is the huge case workload of constituents’ problems they have; the second is that many politicians have gone almost straight into elected politics via party apparatchik work with relatively little external balancing experience. This latter aspect is perhaps inevitable but might help to explain the cynicism of many. It is the former that is worth exploring a little further.

    The caseload that all MPs have to carry is the inevitable side effect of the emasculation of local government by centralising services and diluting accountability to quangos and agencies. The result is that they are increasingly unable to give effective scrutiny to prospective legislation and, perhaps more important, to hold government to proper account. It is possible to see this as an unlooked-for by product of the modern state but a cynic might consider this as a deliberate policy by the Executive to make life easier for itself.

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