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In Praise of Politics

John Rentoul

defpol 220x300 In Praise of PoliticsMatthew Flinders, Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century (OUP, 2 February 2012)

This book has an arrogant and didactic style, which I rather like, not least because I agree with its argument. But a bossy injunction in the preface to pay attention, look up the hard words and re-read passages you do not understand is hardly calculated to change minds.

The style is dense, but the basic message is simple: people who give vent to easy hostility towards politicians should remember how lucky they are to live in a democracy. He has a good eye for quotations, such as Max Weber on democratic politics: “slow boring through hard boards”. And he has a good turn of phrase himself. “The real paradox is why public confidence in democratic politics appears to have fallen so low at exactly the point when it is delivering so much.” (p63.)

He is particularly sharp about the common idea that hard questions should be “taken out of” politics: “Depoliticisation … represents a dangerous illusion. It is the denial of politics while continuing politics by other means.” (p93.)

As if in response to Douglas Carswell, he has a go at “‘endism’ in all its forms”, including “the end of politics”. (He cites Carl Boggs, The End of Politics, 1999, 13 years before Carswell’s title.) He is thoughtful about climate change as the biggest challenge to politics. And he is harsh about “the media”, quoting the first line of Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990): “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” That depends on the journalist, I would say, but I would, wouldn’t I? Nor does he reserve his strictures for news media: he says modern comedians and writers are “thermometers rather than thermostats of public opinion” (p158.)

He also differs from Carswell in that he has a low opinion of the internet, the enabler of Carswell’s “iDemocracy”. Flinders says: “If Robert Putnam hates the television for its impact on social capital, I similarly loathe the Internet for its impact on the lives and attitudes of the younger generation. Virtual communities are dead communities and I don’t want to be bowling alone in a network society.” (p165.) He thinks that online “Balkanised groups tend to move towards the views of their most radical members … Beliefs (even completely false ones) are therefore reinforced rather than challenged.” (p162.)

On this, I am more with Carswell. You could easily make the opposite case, that the internet allows false beliefs to be rebutted more quickly; the point about Wikipedia, for example, is how useful and accurate it is, despite being so apparently open to abuse.

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  • Pacificweather

    I guess it might be rather nice to live in a democracy but first create your democracy. We must get around to doing that someday.

  • creggancowboy

    We do not have politics in Britain Giovanni we have 2 shades of blue. Thanks to Tony Blair.

  • JohnJustice

    I’m with Flinders on the value of the internet. There is a sort of Gresham’s Law operating here whereby the bad drives out the good. This is because emotional attitudes trump rational considerations on the issues of the day ( as confirmed by the latest findings of neurological research) thus reinforcing existing beliefs as Flinders says.

    In these circumstances instant rebuttals are to no avail since they do not register with the emotional committed (as demonstrated by online debates about the Iraq war).

  • mightymark

    No – its simply that no one has been able to convince the electorate to vote for other than the main parties. Nothing to do with Blair.


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