Anti-politics and the left.

AuthorClarke, Nick

Introducing anti-politics

There are many kinds of politics, but if politics describes those institutions by which plural societies achieve collective and binding decisions, then antipolitics describes negative feeling towards those institutions--including politicians, parties, councils, parliaments, and governments. This negativity is targeted towards politicians and parties in general, as opposed to particular politicians or parties (which, of course, would not cause the same concern). It is targeted towards the institutions of representative democracy and the way they currently work, as opposed to the idea of democracy itself (for which there remains widespread support). Given that most theories of democracy assume a certain amount of scepticism among citizens regarding politicians and the organisations through which they operate, anti-politics describes a level of negativity beyond such a healthy scepticism: an unhealthy cynicism. It also describes a rather active negativity, often deeply felt, as opposed to the passive indifference often discussed under the heading of 'apathy'.

Where do we see such negativity? Most directly, we see it in focus-group research where citizens are asked relatively open questions and given the opportunity to speak in their own, often vitriolic terms about formal politics. (1) More indirectly, we see it in survey evidence of things like trust or approval regarding politicians, leaders, and government. (2)

Why should this matter? Why is anti-politics important? What are its consequences? In general terms, anti-politics is associated with non-participation (such as failing to vote), and non-compliance (such as failing to pay taxes). For these reasons, some commentators fear that anti-politics might lead to weak government and, ultimately, withdrawal of support for the idea of democracy itself.

A second reason for taking anti-politics seriously is that negativity about formal politics is associated with support for populism. Populism is based on the positioning of one politician or party as being different from politicians and parties in general; as representing 'the people' against 'elite' politicians and parties; as representing 'common sense' in a field otherwise characterised by 'vested interests' and 'grubby compromises'. Such a positioning is dishonest in so far as it denies what must be known: that democratic politics inevitably requires a tough process of squeezing collective decisions out of multiple and competing interests and opinions, and imposing those negotiated compromises on everyone. Nevertheless, in England this positioning is currently deployed most obviously by UKIP. Our analysis of data from surveys conducted by YouGov and Populus shows that political discontent predicts support for UKIP to an equal degree as social demographics. (3) Indeed, when social group is held constant, political discontent--measured by whether citizens think politicians are knowledgeable, can make a difference, possess leadership, are focused on the short-term chasing of headlines, and are self-seeking - increases the odds of supporting UKIP by more than a half.

A final reason anti-politics matters is that, currently, negativity towards formal politics is not being compensated for by positivity towards informal politics. This is the democratisation thesis: (4) the claim that we are not seeing a crisis of democracy but a reinvention of democracy; a shift from the old, traditional, elite-directed politics of liberal democracy to a new, post-industrial, post-modern, elite-challenging politics associated with new social movements, transnational political networks, internet activism, and so on. This claim is questionable from two perspectives. Empirically, alternative forms of political action such as protest do not seem to be on the rise. (5) They also appear to be minority forms of action compared to, say, voting. (6) They also seem to be practised mostly by citizens who vote and even join mainstream political parties, making them an extension of the repertoire of already engaged citizens, as opposed to part of some alternative repertoire for discontented citizens. (7) Finally, in functional terms, informal politics does not replace formal politics. For example, it performs interest articulation much better than interest aggregation--the latter being a function traditionally performed by parties and crucial for coherent public policy.

Taking the long view

Anti-politics matters and is the focus of our current research on 'Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015' (see The project aims to take the long view of negativity towards the institutions of formal politics, going back at least to the Second World War and the so-called 'golden age' of democratic engagement in Britain, when voter turnout reached eighty-four per cent. (8) It also aims to listen to citizens' voices; their understandings, expectations, and judgements regarding the institutions of formal politics. To do this, we draw on two bodies of evidence. First, we analyse survey data: especially Gallup and Ipsos-MORI data on approval or satisfaction regarding governments, prime ministers, and party leaders; and more recent data from the British Election Study, British Social...

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