Why Politics Still Matters

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by him here.


One of UK comedian Bob Monkhouse’s better jokes goes something like this: ‘People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they are not laughing now’. When I published the first edition of Why Politics Matters in 2006- which looked at rising negativity towards democratic politics- there was polite interest at presentations made to politicians and journalists but a sense that my concerns were not exactly the pressing issue of the day. As I publish the second edition for 2017 negativity about the practice of politics is a major news item and anti-politics and post truth politics are terms that have entered everyday debate.

Some politicians are taking advantage of the mood of anti-politics by offering populist stances on issues and by distancing themselves very clearly from something called the ‘political establishment’. The top nominations for 2016 might well have been Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, leading the Leave campaign in the EU membership referendum. Other politicians offer convoluted apologies to public audiences for being a politician. Isobel Harding, a journalist at a meeting I was chairing in 2016, argued that she would throw up if she heard another politician explain how they only took up the job ‘by accident’. They were an engineer or doctor – or some other occupation deemed socially acceptable – turned up at some political event and then, seemingly through forces outside their control, found themselves as a candidate for election and then eventually an elected representative.

If politicians fear they are social pariahs as a group, then most citizens would not try to persuade them that the situation is otherwise. In 2011–12, we asked some people in focus groups to indicate what words they associated with politics. The eight most popular grouping covered: deception, corruption, feather-nesting, self-serving, politicking, privileged, boring and incomprehensible. Not a terribly positive list, I think you would agree. We know that millions around the world like the idea of democratic governance in the abstract but struggle to be convinced by the politics essential to its delivery. Why Politics Matters tries to understand this contradiction and, because politics matters, it asks what, if anything, we could do to make it work better.

While the problems and solutions to the current malaise of democratic politics will vary from country to country, I believe that my focus on common features and key comparisons provides a good starting point for discussion of where we are, and what needs to be done. The negative response to politics that many of us share is, I think, a very human reaction to the way politics works. As an intricate mechanism in our multifaceted and complex societies, politics exists because we do not agree with one another. Politics is about choosing between competing interests and views often demanding incompatible allocations of limited resources. Crucially, because it is a collective form of decision making, once a choice has been made then that choice has to be imposed on us all. In the context of greater individualism and a determination to make your own choices the mechanics and institutions of politics can appear out of touch. Yet although social media may be changing the technological expression of politics but it does not mean the fundamental nature of politics has changed. It’s still about making and then imposing collective decisions.

Perhaps there is something in addition about the way that politics is done today that moves citizens from being slightly irked by politics to outright annoyed People don’t like to be taken for a sucker or treated like an idiot. Politics as experienced daily often seems calculated to do exactly that. When politicians debate issues in simplistic terms, when they imply that we can have it all at no cost and appear to manufacture arguments they think will play well to different groups, it is hardly surprising that we think they are taking us for a ride. Nor is it odd that cynicism becomes a common coping response. My book does not berate citizens for not engaging in politics but tries to understand why they often don’t but also how they might be persuaded to do so more. You can’t have democracy without politics. In this light, it’s clear that we need to change some of the practices of politics.

The Second Edition brings into play new research conducted with colleagues over the last decade.  It offers a more comprehensive portrait of rise of political disenchantment in different countries. It provides a fuller and better organised account of many of the competing explanations of that rise in anti-politics. It is updated to deal with the rise of social media, changes in party politics and the rise of populism. Finally, it offers a more extensive discussion of some of the democratic innovations that are being trialled to bring new life to politics.

In truth, the book ends on a slightly more pessimistic note than the First Edition. The Trump campaign and the EU referendum in 2016 seems to have established a new low in politics which is pulling many other actors towards it in a cycle of misinformation, dishonesty, and fear mongering. However, a favourite saying is: ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Perhaps if I ever get round to a third edition I will have something more positive to report. There are many people out there who care about creating a better politics. If my book gives them any ammunition in their battles I will be a happy author.

Gerry Stoker Why Politics Matters Second Edition is available from Palgrave https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/Why-Politics-Matters/?K=9780230360662



When democratic innovation meets realpolitik

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Fresh off the boat from Australia last month to start my new position here at Southampton, I was a little surprised to see domestic Australian politics make international headlines. Predictably, though, it was for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, the culmination of the Kevin-and-Julia saga just exemplifies what a sorry state party politics in Australia is in. Of course, I don’t expect other readers of this blog are avid followers of Australian politics. But the issues on display in this latest crisis, while perhaps more visceral (Aussies call a spade a ‘bloody shovel’, after all) and often more public in the Australian context, are much like the issues in Britain and other advanced industrial democracies. Indeed, almost everywhere there is declining trust in the institutions of representation. And so a study that colleagues (Simon Niemeyer and Carolyn Hendriks) and I published in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science, might be of interest to those beyond the Lucky Country (click here to view).

In the paper, we examine the reaction to a proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election. Citizens’ Assemblies, by way of quick explanation, belong to a family of institutional innovations based on participatory and deliberative democratic ideals. Made up of a cross-section of the lay public, they are designed to foster inclusive, informed and considered discussion. The specific proposal put forward by Julia Gillard was for 150 ordinary Australians to meet regularly over the course of a year, listen to expert advice on climate change, debate the issue, and come up with recommendations for the government. This idea met with such contempt and disapproval that it was later crowned ‘the biggest political miscalculation of the year’. But why was everyone so opposed to it? And what does that say about the prospects of deepening deliberative citizen engagement on critical issues like climate change in Australia and elsewhere?

In this paper, we set about answering these questions by analysing the reaction to the proposal of Australia’s ‘opinion leaders’—politicians, industry and environmental stakeholders, and newspaper columnists. We found that many of their criticisms represented a misunderstanding of how democratic innovations like the Citizens’ Assembly operate (i.e. ‘Citizens can’t understand a complex issue like climate change!’ Actually, they mostly can) and what role they play in representative democracy (i.e. ‘It bypasses the democratic process!’ Actually, it contributes to it). The by-and-large reactionary, ill-informed nature of these criticisms hints at broader problems in the public debate. But the most damaging criticisms of the Citizens’ Assembly proposal related to its deployment in a complex and highly partisan political context. Indeed, many actors saw it as a way of the government appearing to do something on a crucial issue without having to actually do anything at all. We are not interested, in the paper, in deciphering the validity of this perspective (although I suspect all the authors have some sympathy for this criticism of the proposal). Instead, what matters is the perception itself; it speaks volumes about the pervasive cynicism surrounding party politics, and it hints at the difficulty of instigating democratic innovation on such a difficult and controversial issue.

What we ultimately argue, then, is that this backlash vividly shows how innovations like the CA need to be far better integrated into their broader political context. Only then will they have any chance of contributing to deeper, more deliberative citizen engagement.

The role of the EU as an international climate actor – conference on November 21st

The failure of world leaders to reach agreement at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) in 2009 has further strengthened the need for a strong international climate change regime. This upcoming C2G2 conference explores the role of the EU as a leader in global climate politics, with presentations from leading academics, key policy makers and representatives from civil society organisations. It will be particularly valuable for postgraduate and early-career researchers.