I recently visited Oxford, the city which educated much of our political elite and twenty-six of our Prime Ministers. As I wandered around the streets, soaking up the history and knowledge oozing out of every side street and college window, I began to think about political apathy and cynicism in our generation today.
As I passed the throngs of students, enjoying the friendly yet purposeful atmosphere, where you could almost feel the power of free speech and opinion (although I decided to assume the BME students and students from working class backgrounds must have all been busy in the library), I came across an exhibit on Stoicism.
I am not going to pretend to know a great deal of the ins and outs of the Stoic school of philosophy, but I have always taken it to translate as not getting too carried away with hopes and desires and being calm about your lot, to avoid crushing disappointment when things don’t turn out as hoped. The extracts from Stoics down the ages on display reminded me that perhaps we get too carried away in our belief in politicians, fuelling the worrying levels of cynicism when our elected leaders inevitably fail to live up to their promises. If we are constantly whipped up into a frenzy of expectation, are we more likely to be disappointed by reality? Will we feel the need to seek another new hope, which may fuel an increase in support for extreme parties and movements?
One of the most important driving forces in politics is hope, and only a fool would suggest that we should abandon all hope in our politicians and democracy. Hope for positive change and a better tomorrow is a clichéd emblem of your standard political campaign, but hope is the reason people get into politics, making the effort to devote their lives to public service. But maybe we need to check that hope a bit more, to prevent it being dashed and falling into despair.
The obvious recent examples of vanished hopes furthering antipathy towards politicians and politics are the fever-pitch optimism of Obama’s first election campaign, New Labour, and Nick Clegg. All three of these have driven some young people I know either away from mainstream politics, or politics altogether. All three cases – relying on a completely uncritical and hysterical media – capitalised on an original feeling of disappointment to further their political goals, only to deliver even more disappointment themselves. Even the Conservatives, who did at least hint that they were going to slash everything and deliver collapsing living standards, promised no new NHS reorganisations…
Yet I still support Labour as the best option for those opposed to the way things are going in the UK, despite the party being for ‘austerity-lite’ rather than any real alternative. I still support Barack Obama for his healthcare reform and support for gay people and immigrants, as opposed to Mitt Romney, despite Guantanamo Bay still being open and the US spying on UK citizens. I still reluctantly accept that the Liberal Democrats’ presence in the Coalition government must have tamed some of the Tories’ intentions, despite, well, pretty much everything. Most of all, I still think it is far better to engage in politics than stand on the sidelines.
There is something to be said for accepting you will be let down, but still opting for the least worst option; calmly accepting that politicians are humans, and will not deliver what they say they will as they are imperfect beings.
Professor Matthew Flinders, from the University of Sheffield, makes the case for managing expectations but engaging fully in the political process in his 2012 book Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century.Blaming the media in particular for heightening public cynicism by constantly inflating the expectations of politics, he makes the persuasive argument that politics cannot ‘make every sad heart glad’, but it is a remarkable achievement in maintaining order and civility. Ignoring it – even by not engaging in local services like schools and libraries – is tantamount to giving up on the ability of ourselves, to compromise and at least to have a go at making decisions. Our politicians are the same as us. Be they in the Cabinet or just on the local PTA, they too started by looking around them and thinking ‘if only I was in charge for five minutes’. We should not think of politics as bad because it has ‘not delivered for me’, but manage expectations by thinking of it as good for at least attempting to improve the lot of everyone.
That is not to say that politicians do not need to do a lot more to prevent cynicism, by making manifestos that are clear and realistic about their authors’ limitations; maybe the fallout from the last election will lead to more of this (but we shouldn’t get too excited, in case we get disappointed). Those who are corrupt, or for example spend more time helping short-term lending companies and Saudi arms dealers than their constituents, need to look at themselves and think where public dislike of politicians has come from. However, before we demand too much from our politicians, we too need to remember that they are only human, like us, and that we are unlikely to get what we want from them – but by hating them and ignoring the process, we may find ourselves with something much worse. Political education in schools, media commentary and debates need to frequently remind us of this.
We need to change our expectations as well as politicians needing to clean up their act. We need to inject a little bit of Stoicism into our lives, bearing in mind that we can hope for a better tomorrow, but we should expect less from it, to avoid anger and disappointment. Political apathy can only be checked if we accept politicians are human beings. Cynicism can only be tackled if we realise that failure to deliver does not always mean they are ‘all in it for themselves.’
By Luke Jones