Why We Hate Politics.

AuthorLeighton, Dan
PositionBook review

Colin Hay


Political disaffection is one of the most discussed, though arguably least well understood, phenomena of our times. There is an increasingly voluminous literature mapping declines in trust and formal political participation, as well as the unevenly distributed rises in extra-parliamentary activism, through social movements and single issue organ-isations, that have taken place concurrently. While the general pattern of activity is well known, there is considerable disagreement on the reasons for it, and the extent to which it even constitutes a problem. Within professional political circles there is an emerging consensus, exemplified on the left by those such as Gerry Stoker and Matthew Taylor, that immature citizens are the problem, rather than defective institutions or politicians. As Taylor recently put it: 'we have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government'. Stoker has argued similarly that an increasingly individualised citizenry is bound to be disappointed by the discourse of collective decision making that is the hallmark of the democratic process.

In Why We Hate Politics, Colin Hay seeks to challenge such assumptions and reverse the guiding premise of the scholarly literature from which they draw. Rather than assuming that 'citizens get the politics they deserve', he argues that 'democratic polities get the levels of political participation they deserve'. In so doing Hay's book offers useful analytical frameworks for thinking about political engagement in general and a contentious, though compelling, argument as to why the adjective 'political' has become a term of abuse.

Hay's argument shares affinities with Adam Curtis' recent documentary The Trap (reviewed elsewhere in this volume). Yet where Curtis's meandering if entertaining narrative style sometimes obscures his argument, Hay always stays focused and to the point. Both Hay and Curtis concentrate on how the basic assumption of rational choice theory--that all human beings are necessarily 'self-interested rational utility maximisers'--has come to colonise the way we think about everything from electoral competition to the behaviour of public servants and citizens. Rational choice theory assumes that political actors are, like the rest of us, pre-programmed to be selfish, thus rendering nonsensical the notion that politics is about the common good. Rational choice theory...

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