The Politics of Disengagement

by Naomi Colvin

I’ve been reading John Kampfner’s book Freedom for Sale, which argues that people around the world are voluntarily trading off political liberty for a measure of economic and (perceived) physical security. Kampfner grew up in Singapore, which is where his first case study is set, and the book does read very much like an observation from that rather odd city-state extended to very different societies around the world.

Measures of purchasing power per capita put Singapore in the top five countries in the world. But it is also a virtual one-party state in which debate is stifled. In 2005, Singapore had the highest rate of executions in the world relative to size of population. Singaporean judges also regularly impose sentences that include corporal punishment. There are signs that the increased access to political debate online may be changing things, but only slowly, and most of that change seems to be happening in the private sphere (which, a generation back, was also subject to strict political control.)

Kampfner then seeks to apply his argument to a range of more (UK, US, Italy, India) and less (China, Russia, UAE) democratic states and show how, in each, similar trade-offs have been made. Despite the very wide variation between these examples, I think Kampfner does do something valuable in showing how disengagement from the political process is a problem across different kinds of societies. And I wonder if the common factor isn’t that political elites in Western democracies are now presenting themselves in similar ways to their counterparts in less ostensibly free polities.

Political elites across different kinds of states do seem to be presenting themselves in broadly similar ways – as technically competent managerial types with no ideological axe to grind. What they say distinguishes them from their opponents, typically, is that their opponents are corrupt, or at least more corruptible than they are. Hence, in practice, political competition is presented as a contest in which personal plausibility is the foremost concern. Negative campaigning, which seeks to impugn the plausibility of an opponent, has been shown to reduce turn-out at election time, particularly amongst voters without decided party loyalties.

As a result, I am not sure whether the idea of a ‘pact’ – with its implications of proposals being made and agreed to – is the best way to describe this dynamic as it applies in Western democracies. I rather suspect that accepting and perpetuating civic disengagement is actually a rational strategy for many politicians, as it is for the mainstream media outlets who rely on those politicians for the flow of negative briefings and information on inter-departmental squabbles that makes up a great deal of what we call political news coverage. And, again, I suspect that the partial flow of information downwards has a negative impact on individuals’ feelings about the relevance of the political process and their potential effectiveness within it.

How this works on the individual level is very interesting indeed as a conversation on twitter last night brought into focus for me. What we tend to call apathy must be a conflation of at least three phenomena: firstly those who are, for whatever reason, genuinely not interested in the political process. Then there is a second group whose knowledge of the political process is fully determined by the partial information which they are receiving. If the BBC tells you only about the gossip at Westminster, and tussles about the speed of public service cuts but not the advisability of cuts themselves, then you might be excused for thinking that this is in fact the entire spectrum of political debate. Any idea that exists off of this spectrum is thus, almost by definition, not to be taken seriously. There is something slightly pernicious about the way the BBC relies on the illusion of an unchanging constant to perpetuate this impression: it is no coincidence that when Radio 4 listeners get riled up, it is more often than not due to proposed changes to the schedule.

Finally, there is a cognitive resistance to processing certain sorts of information, particularly those which bring into question articles of faith or long-held affective ties. I would contend that patriotism – the identification with a particular imagined civic community and its internal narratives – is one of those fundamental affective ties for many people. The impact of cognitive bias towards the status quo should also not be underestimated: change is – after all – destabilising and stability on a psychological level is a priority for most. To have, then, a media outlet of the stature of the New York Times – which, unlike many European newspapers, professes to be objective – ignoring or arguing away such potentially destabilising information must at the very least discourage that potentially difficult cognitive process from being undertaken.

All of which is to say that civic engagement in democracies – where engagement is, in theory, possible – appears to be dependent on the willingness of the individual to confront certain difficult truths about the society in which they live. Given that this process can sometimes be difficult, a free (or free-ish) flow of accurate information is an essential prerequisite, as are media outlets willing to cover and contextualise that information in a way that does not play down its significance. When John Kampfner can write – fairly accurately – that “the dividing lines between countries deemed to be authoritarian and countries deemed to be democracies are not as clear as people in the West believe them to be,” it is hard not to conclude that we are looking at a systemic failure in the relationships between government and governed and the mainstream modes of communication between the two.