Lost in Translation: The Peddling of Party Politics

Oliver Duggan

QT Blog  Lost in Translation: The Peddling of Party PoliticsWhile pondering the philosophical and social turbulence that defined his generation Pulitzer prize winner Robert Frost famously said: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”. He was talking, of course, about subtlety, about the ability to infer a suggestion that goes beyond the bullish rhetoric that surrounded him and gave raise to European fascism.

Sitting here now, basking in the glow of the television as yet more painfully stereotypical political punditry wafts into the homes of the western world, I’m finding it difficult to disagree. But it isn’t specifically poetry that gets lost in translation; it is something far more tangible and far more instinctive. It is the human way in which politics actually works.

Interestingly though, the crime isn’t committed by the electorate or the people who represent them, as we are told. The unavoidable problem is with reportage. The steps between politics, real politics where decisions get made and whole countries affected, and the public have been muddied by a confusing desire to caste everything along old battle lines in the belief it will sell copy and capture audiences. Ironically though, the media’s outdated dogged commitment to gladiator politics has served only to confuse its readers and anger its source.

A prime example, and one that has the luxury of straddling both the political and the public world, is Question Time. There is something quite deeply depressing about how this weekly homage to ignorant platitudes calls itself ‘topical’. The news changes but the content is always the same; Dimbleby plays host to party representatives, all 3 whenever possible, as well as a spattering of eminent Journalist and perhaps the odd cultural luminary, and attempts to provide a bridge between lawmakers and law-followers. He invariably fails.

Questions are answered, not with reasoned practical analyses, but with the aim of being the mouth of a party, the voice of his/her leader and the tool of ‘party politics’. Every debate, every clipped exchange, becomes more and more a caricature of right vs. left sound-bites. It is, in this way, a self fulfilling prophecy; report often enough on petty party disputes and you force otherwise thoughtful people to bow to petty-party disputes.

However, just as the obviously depressing moments enrage, the subtly uplifting ones can calm, because for all their bravado and oratory one can sit comfortable in the knowledge that its just a game, a way of feeding the insatiable 24-hour news beast. The actual debates, the ones that matter, are broadcast deep in the caves of cable television on BBC Parliament or C-Span.

Examples of the chasms between reality and reported reality are seemingly endless.

Take for one the fierce partisan slanging matches over Rep. King’s hearing on Islamic extremism dominated news for weeks,  highlighting charges of ‘Republican racism’, ‘Democratic socialism’ and ‘Obama passivity’. Actually, for the most part, committee members were casting off their team colours and continuing assuming the far more important role of finding a strong and serious solution to homegrown terrorism and Islamaphobia.

And it isn’t just the US where the perception is that the media is more partisan. Whilst stories were being scribbled for deadlines and new ways of saying the coalition is fragile were dreamt up in the UK last week, no fewer that 19 committees sat in Parliament on everything from Pension allowances to Protestors rights, all of which had cross-party engagement.

The problem isn’t that people are stupid or disinterested in this; it is that they have always had the conversation framed in the wrong way, as us vs. them, leader vs. leader, red vs. blue. But the reality is more of a purplish hue, and society is best served when they know politics reflects that.

There shouldn’t be shock and awe when Miliband and Cameron agree at the dispatch box, it should be greeted with interest because maybe, just maybe, something important is actually being discussed. Likewise, FOX and MSNBC shouldn’t report with stunned silence when the US Senate Finance committee was able to broker cross-party support for the first wave of Obamacare. These are the great moments of our generation, the ones where we put down our differences and step up to the plate as collective individuals, not an individual’s collective, and they are being lost.

Just since 2008 voters in the United States that feel no-party affiliation at all has risen by 13.2%, and it’s not dissimilar in the UK. The political conduct in Westminster and Congress is reflecting it, party manifestos are looking more and more similar and all-party agreements are looking less and less anomalous. Why then, like a bad translation of a foreign poem, do our TV’s glow with relentless offerings of bullish rhetoric, littered with out-dated punditry and red-blue motifs?

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