I often find myself wincing at the radio when politician after politician blames the opposing party for whatever is being discussed. I sense that politicians use “the other lot” excuse more often these days. It is easy to blame it for the decline of trust in politicians charted by organisations such as The Future Foundation. Journalists might be suffering a decline in public trust, we’re told, but they are at least more trusted than politicians.
Two books on my shelf describe two different possible causes of the decline of trust in politicians, of which blaming the other lot is just a symptom. Both have prominent authors and, you’ll be unsurprised to read, both offer explanations that concern matters close to the authors’ hearts.
The first book is The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama (his 2006 “missile of decency aimed at the White House”, according to The Daily Telegraph). The second is My Trade, a short history of British journalism – aimed at British journalists – by Andrew Marr.
Obama blames tit for tat tactics. He writes;
“The accepted wisdom that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists these days goes something like this: The Republican party has been able to consistently win elections not by expanding its base but by vilifying Democrats, driving wedges into the electorate, energising its right wing, and disciplining those who stray from the party line. If the democrats ever want to get back into power, then they will have to take up the same approach”
Put it another way, if they do it to us, we can do it to them. However, Obama thinks that one side of the political divide has more to lose from a decline of trust. He says that dumbing down politics keeps the electorate “locked in “either/or” thinking: the notion that we can have only big government or no government….
It is such doctrinaire thinking and stark partisanship that have turned Americans off of politics. This is not a problem for the right; a polarised electorate – or one that easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate – works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government. After all, a cynical electorate is a self centred electorate.
But for those of us who believe that government have a role to play in promoting opportunity and prosperity for all Americans; a polarized electorate isn’t good enough”.
He makes an engaging argument but he has, in effect, blamed the other lot. It is, however, characteristically eloquent and thought provoking.
Andrew Marr blames the media. Surprisingly he points the finger at the admission of reporters into the House of Commons. This made MPs accountable for what they said, even when they were just ruminating. “Instant publicity can kill honest argument”, writes Marr, “government requires full frankness; and frankness can look bad in print”.
The presence of reporters forced discussion into private. “Walpole’s ‘cabinet’, or private, wood lined ministerial rooms, replaced parliament as the cockpit of frankness”. The Commons became the place where members from all parties learned about decisions made in private, by groups of minded people. The government of the day found itself selling decisions to the electorate, via the reporters in the gallery, by announcing it to a resistant, cat-calling opposition. The blunt hammer of “tell” replaced the subtler tools of reasonable discussion.
More recently broadcast journalists have entered the Commons. Radio coverage began in 1978 and TV cameras were admitted in 1989. These recording devices took responsibility away from newspaper journalists who no longer needed to produce straight reports of what was said. They could pick and choose.
MPs found they had less responsibility. They could listen to debates away from the House especially as their words were not guaranteed to be reproduced by the press anyway. Instead they learned the “matey techniques of broadcast discussion”. A soundbite culture leads to “bland, familiar thoughts – triggers rather than arguments”.
The idea that soundbite politics has caused a loss of trust is not a new one. What is unusual is that the presence of reporters and cameras in the House of Commons is blamed, not low end journalism. Televising the House should extend democracy, after all – not hinder it. It is also interesting that this is from the book of an ex newspaper editor and current TV presenter.
Both writers blame what they know best – reactive Democrats and the media. Both also blame politicians who have adapted to a new world in which victories can be won by engaging audiences less. Only one of them offers a solution. Can we fix it? Yes we can.
Obama ends his chapter talking about an electorate who actually “recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting. They are out there waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them”.
Remind me; how is that working out for him?