December 27, 2016 1 Comment
[Many of us here in America are very hopeful that Donald Trump will take a start on ‘Draining the Swamp’. I surely am. But I, like many of you, am wary, I have long since learned to not put my hope in princes, either in business or, perhaps especially, in politics. So we’ll see. Back in 2013 Jessica addressed this, and her words are still very valid. Neo]
One of the worst things about the state of our politics is the devaluing of one of its main currencies – hope. When politicians make a fetish of ‘hope’ they are setting both themselves and us for a disappointment. Whatever some people believe, the number of things which the State can actually solve for us is limited. Not all the attempts of the British Welfare State have eliminated poverty, even though the State takes 40% of all incomes above £32k (45% if you earn over £150k), and we all pay 12% of our income toward the National Health Service. There does not exist a State which has disproved Christ’s dictum that the ‘poor are always with us’, although there exist some where we have effectively nationalised charity in as far as we think it is up to the State to deal with those who have fallen into misfortune. This is a bad idea, as such people rarely have the command of the Welfare State system possessed by those who live off it much of the time. It ends up with a situation where newspapers can easily enough find ‘scroungers’ and end up stigmatising whole groups of people, most of whom do not fall into this category, and who end up being at the sharp end of knee-jerk reactions when politicians need to play to the gallery. In this sort of politics, everyone loses, including the State itself, which falls below the level it would expect of any of its citizens with a sense of decency.
But it seems that inflation has taken a real hold. Party X feels obliged to turn up the rhetoric of hope because if it tells anything like the truth, Party Y will criticise it for not having faith in the nation, and promise that hope the other one failed to; it is a bad situation, and one in which we, as the electorate in some way collude. But such an inflation leads only to a deflation of the very currency of ‘hope’ itself, and it makes us cynical and distrustful. But quite how one persuades politicians not to debauch this currency is something no one has yet found an answer to.
Of course, to some extent, all democratic politics has at its heart the problem of how you both get a majority of voters to choose you and maintain your integrity, and we probably go badly wrong if we imagine there was a time when it was easy. Many British observers of democratic politics in America in the nineteenth century were appalled at what they thought of as its venality – but as Gladstone once said “there are millions of hard hands to rule and force is not an option”. His own route was to try to educate the electorate and to appeal to its higher instincts – something his great opponent, Disraeli, eschewed as he tended to go for the lowest common denominator.
At some level, however, our politicians need to capture something of that Gladstonian instinct that nothing which is morally wrong can be politically right, even if it is politically expedient. But, as our societies discovered with finance and inflation, it is tempting just to print more money and leave it to the next generation to sort it out; but the problem with that is it just gets worse and therefore harder to cure. One of the great achievements of the Thatcher-Reagan era was to bring down financial inflation; we need their like to do the same with rhetorical inflation. If this fails to happen, then I wonder what future there is for democracy as we know it?