Political apathy, democracy and making politics sexy

19 Jul 2013

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’m going to point out that the French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a long time ago, warned us that democracy is hard work to preserve. If all of society doesn’t get involved in democracy, then only the most vocal groups dominate it; if civil society isn’t vigilant, then private interests trump it; and “as soon as any man says of the affairs of the state What does it matter to me? [Democracy] may be given up for lost.” Rousseau also said a load of crazy stuff about forcing people to be free, tried to justify propaganda and came up with a concept called the General Will, that no-one understands, and ultimately lead to The Terror, where a load of people unnecessarily got their heads chopped off! But the point about democracy still stands. Can democracy survive when no-one cares about it?


If our French Friend (Rousseau) is right, then there is little hope for democracy in the UK. People do say: “why should politics matter to me?” they do ask: “who is David Cameron?” and sometimes they even shout: “Nick stop going about politics!” With this in mind, one could argue that apathy isn’t really a problem, as full participation is impossible anyway. The Ancient Athenians are seen to have got the closest to direct democracy, and they didn’t exactly make it work for everyone, as they kept slaves, preached that women were created by Zeus to punish mankind, and refused to let women and young people vote. However, this outlook, which considers democracy a futile pursuit is a negative one, and to take it is to ignore the fact many people in the UK dedicate their lives participating in democracy as: civil servants, journalists and NIMBYs. Even my local pub, presuming that the act of expressing an opinion is a democratic one, is hub of vigorous democratic activity (particularly after nine o’clock on a Saturday). And while direct democracy may be impractical, that doesn’t mean it is too much to ask for a representative system, which tries to get the full spectrum of society involved, and drives a society’s economic, academic and artistic development. 

Artistic development aside, we do have an apathy problem in the UK. To sum it up: Voter turnout is down, political parties are viewed to be corrupt, and disastrously, politics isn’t cool. There’s no way around the fact that to ask a young person to invest time and interest in politics, is to ask them to socially isolate themselves from certain social circles. This is a truly bad state of things and for the future of Government: by, for and of the people, it needs to change.  

There is no simple way to make politics cool, although the necessary place to shape attitudes is ultimately the media. I will venture that if nerdy-ness, video games and role-playing have gradually become more mainstream, then so can politics. I will also venture that geekyness is now more acceptable because of it being sympathetically portrayed in TV shows and films: like The Big Bang Theory, The Inbetweeners and Superbad. For politics to become sexy, therefore, it needs its own Big Bang Theory. We could call it The Big Political Philosophical Theory; the show could have cameos from political jokes like Boris Johnson… While this perhaps is a bit too far, it is clear that the only way to make politics accessible to normal people is to make politics more normal. For this to happen, politics has to subtly feature in mainstream media, soap operas and cartoons. Maybe not have a whole EastEnders plotline about Keynes’s General Theory, but certainly show the Branning Brothers to occasionally debate the benefits of free trade, in the back of the Queen Vic. Therefore: Actors, scriptwriters and musicians, start reading some political philosophy, because ending the current political apathy is all down to you.

By Nicholas Byard

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