Review of The Good Politician. Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-Politics, by Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, Jonathan Moss, Gerry Stoker. Cambridge University Press. 309 pp. £21.99.
Even by the poised and collected standards of the best Anglo-American political thought, the very title of this book sounds alarming. That is because it investigates an equally alarming—if somehow unsurprising—state of affairs which, in the liberal-democratic West, is looking increasingly like the most complete bankruptcy of representative democratic politics since the Second World War.
It also sounds involuntarily ironic, setting out the quest for what is now best described as a quasi-oxymoron. Looking for the good politician, whatever that elusive species may be, is a complex and complicated task, because it has to establish the right connotations of its candidate before even starting to search for one; and it has to do so at a time when class divisions—never completely dormant in the once prosperous West—are fuelling with discontent and anger the not exactly crypto-fascist winds now blowing in much of continental Europe.
Apocalyptic tones? Maybe a good look at the rise of so-called anti-politics—a term whose now relentless use, like that of several others, would make a politically charged new edition of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas quite apposite: entries such as populism, confusion, globalisation, elite—just to name a few—across Europe and North America will help to better contextualise the urgency of the times. If in the US a real estate tycoon and TV personality president is throwing out of the window over half a century of NATO-centred foreign politics, while (un?)wittingly waging war on contemporary neoliberal capitalism via a rather surreal embracing of sixteenth century mercantilism, the EU is shaken at the seams by an increasingly disgruntled, cynical and yet energetic front of dissent—quite arbitrarily, and somehow hypocritically, labelled populism—that has pulled the rug from beneath the feet of traditional party politics in the name of concepts—nation, race, sovereignty, family and volk—that are unashamedly right-wing nineteenth century. That both phenomena have been set in motion by war and poverty-driven global diaspora, for which these very same disgruntled citizens are responsible by proxy, is entirely another matter (but always worth remembering).
All this manifests itself in different ways and intensity throughout the better part of what mainstream foreign affairs correspondents usually refer to as ‘the international community’: Western-style(d) liberal-democratic market societies. But, as far as Europe is concerned, things don’t look good. While Macron and Merkel tread on very thin lines, Spain is torn by the Catalan issue, Italy has just produced a political Frankenstein—the present Lega Nord—hegemonised coalition government, a likely kiss of death for the Five Star Movement, is a painful arrow in the body of an EU ever more alike the iconography of Saint Sebastian. At the same time, the Visegrad group countries are somehow tempted to revaluate their equally totalitarian, pre-Soviet past in different guises.
Nor is the usual composure of the British Isles spared by such chaos, witnessing as they are a tidal wave of neo-isolationism while tying itself in the knots of a matryoshka doll of a Brexit negotiation where a contortionist Prime Minister has to agree with herself first and then discuss what still remains with her European counterparts in the not-so edifying hope that they may sink faster in the process. And this while some Brexit-obsessed conservatives openly abjure their vocational role of free- market praetorians to feed their habit. Things appear to have changed drastically since 2008. The really discouraging thing is that social democracy eventually reached its much-coveted goal to be reincarnated as the main liberal force just when liberalism itself entered its death throes. Both fell, embracing each other.
But scholarly books should be reassuring, and this one promptly delivers. The result of a deep and rigorous sifting of archives and figures, the joint academic effort of The Good Politician aims at cooling down the temperature of the debate and injecting some healthy empiricism into the proceedings. By focussing necessarily on the UK, it does many things: it maps the evolution of the perception of politics and politicians in British society since the Second World War; it defines anti-political sentiment and its diffusion within postwar British society; it describes its socio-political scope and intensity while, at the same time, taking into account the professionalisation/spectacularisation of politics via the increasingly relevant influence the media have exerted on the relationship between citizens and politicians since 1945.
In the background of a gradual but constant decline in political participation in Western democracies, one which the authors do not contend with, a few traits emerge. First of all, one has to jettison another received opinion: that between 1945 and the 1970s, Britain knew a golden age of politics and politicisation, followed by a generalised, specular depoliticisation. Ken Loach is of course a naive idealist, and the spirit of ‘45 wasn’t so radiant after all. The analysis of square miles of surveys, figures, polls and reports provided by panellists referring to an agency like Mass Observation (the name of which always seemed to me to be appositely Orwellian), the bulk of evidence investigated here draws a more mixed situation: in the early postwar years, the British public, although maintaining a healthy form of ‘commonsensical’ scepticism toward politicians, was showing a form of ‘reverent’ diffidence and shyness toward politics. That this is in contrast with the irreverence—even disgust—the observed masses now show for politics in general and politicians in particular.
Constructively and admirably, The Good Politician sketches a map out of the maze. But this is maybe its weakest contribution, one which doesn’t diverge much from a common revulsion of theoretical interpretations and an almost religious allegiance to ‘facts’. Having side-lined both dominant readings of the populist phenomenon—one which sees anti-elitist politicians claiming to be the true representatives of the people, the other that considers anti-politics as a mere survival strategy by those very elites it purports to oppose—and equally raised reasonable doubts on the suitability of constitutional reforms as a possible remedy, the authors are left—and leave us—with the hope that the adversarial tone of the debate abnormally inflated by the media might attenuate itself.
Commendable as they are, similar books and their assumptions rest on the brink of the very paradox the whole edifice of representative democracy is teetering upon: the seemingly irreversible metamorphosis of politics into policy brought about by an undisputed managerial approach when it comes to socioeconomic issues which, combined with economic slump and neoliberal austerity, has combatively brought multitudes of disgruntled individuals into what they perceive as ‘politics’ via an ever-growing number of complaints. And while only a few, ‘the elite’, resist such temptation, the majority follow the evergreen path indicated by so-called populist leaders: scapegoating the migrant ‘Other’. These aspects are barely touched upon, while the best part of the discussion is devoted to fixing what looks irredeemably broken. Politics as transformative action upon reality and as a cause for betterment is something that we should do and be, rather than just study. It was its complete disappearance from the landscape of Western society since the war that got us in here. It will be good politics, not only good politicians, that will get us out of it. Hopefully.
Leonardo Clausi is the London correspondent of Il Manifesto and the author of Uscita di insicurezza. Brexit e l’ideologia inglese (Unsafe Exit. Brexit and the English Ideology)
The Political Quarterly, Volume 90, N. 1, March 2019