Disenchantment with Politics

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Not only in respect to the financial crisis and its consequences, the people sense that the political class is unwilling and/or incapable to explain how and why policy choices have been made. Consequently, there is widespread frustration with politics. By its submission to the imperatives of the mass media, the political class has almost eliminated the public discourse on the contents of strategic political issues – and thereby undercut its claim for political leadership.

by Michael Liebig


The German term Politikverdrossenheit can be translated as disenchantment with politics. There is a widening gap between the political class and the general population across Europe (and beyond). As demonstrated, again, by the recent elections in Britain, North Rhine-Westphalia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary and Slovakia, the main symptoms of Politikverdrossenheit are:

  • shrinking voter participation
  • declining votes for major “centrist” parties
  • shrinking membership of these parties – both conservative and social-democratic
  • increasing votes for “populist”, extremist and single-issue parties

Lately, a new and paradoxical symptom of Politikverdrossenheit has emerged: Leading politicians “dropping out” of politics. For example in Germany, President Horst Köhler, the governor of the state of Hesse, Roland Koch, and the governor of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Jürgen Rüttgers, resigned and withdrew to private life.

Why People Feel Frustrated by Politics

I would guess that the widening gap between the people and the political class is not the result of generic public disinterest in state affairs. The interest in politics differs in society, some segments of society are more interested in politics than others, but the assertion of some a priori disinterest of the “little people” in politics is unfounded. I would also doubt that there exists general hostility against the overall policy stance of governments and parliaments, even though specific policies are strongly resented. Rather, Politikverdrossenheit seems to be a manifestation of the people’s frustration with the manner in which the political class is exercising politics: The political class is “selling” its policies in the way of “public relations”, but is unwilling and/or incapable to explain how and why policy choices have been made. Consequently, people feel that they are not taken seriously.

Beginning with Rousseau, social philosophy and psychology have recognized that “appreciation” is fundamental for individual and collective identities. Of particular importance are the works of the German social philosopher Axel Honneth[1]. When a person or a collective senses denial or lack of appreciation (respect), a strong psychological and mental reaction is being provoked, which mostly takes the form of frustration and anger. It makes little difference whether the lack of appreciation takes an openly arrogant or sly expression – by both ways frustration is generated.

People expect of politicians that they provide leadership and they “instinctively” sense that political PR is a cheap substitute of leadership. Political leadership has two predominant features: The (discursive) dispute of finding the (relative) “best solutions” of political problems, and then resolutely implementing them. The criterion for “best” solutions is the degree to which they serve the “common good”. Political leadership is no PR/marketing technique and the common good is no commodity. People may or may not like the marketing of cars, clothing or cosmetics, but, I would guess, most people deeply resent politics being reduced to PR. They rightly sense that they are being excluded from the design and choice of policies, which directly or indirectly affect their personal life and that of their family.

Instead of discursively explaining the design and choice of policies to the public, governments and parliaments increasingly present their policy choices as “alternativlos” – “without alternative,” Period. Thus, people are faced with “take it or leave it” situation. The latter would mean the option of voting for another political “brand” at the next election. However, this option in a democratic system does not eliminate a profound sense of frustration among the people, because they rightly suspect that the next government or parliamentary majority will act essentially in the same manner as the previous one.

One may argue the choice of policies the result of covert pressures on parliaments and governments by powerful financial and business interests (or even outright corruption). Indeed, the enormous influence of opaque lobbies on parliaments and governments can hardly be denied. And the influence of powerful lobbies usually comes at the expense of social justice and the common good. Don’t the people suspect just that which is why they often feel disgusted by politics?

The Faustian Pact of Mass Media and Politics

The aforementioned attempts to explain Politikverdrossenheit are valid propositions, yet they are insufficient to grasp this phenomenon. They leave out the “communicative regime” in a modern society. Complex, modern society is no Greek polis anymore, where policies were disputed and decided by a small number of citizens (excluding women and slaves) on the agora. Today the political class – governments and parliaments – can hardly communicate directly with the people. The communication of the political class with the people objectively depends on the mass media. But the mass media have their own imperatives.

As to avoid misunderstandings, quality newspapers (still) do exist and there is (still) quality journalism at (some) radio and TV stations (and the internet) – analyzing political problems and presenting alternative options for solutions. These media do serve the public discourse. But, the mass media as a whole are characterized by three features: dramatization, emotionalizing and personalization – in one word: “hype.” For sure, media hype does not serve the public discourse of important political issues.

One may argue: What else is new? That’s the way mass media operate. We think this communicative regime is “normal”. It seems naïve to assume that there could be a different communicative regime.

Most media are not guided by a specific ideology, they are “ideologically neutral”. Most mainstream media are private businesses, their primary purpose is commercial profitability. To that end, the media employ “hype” as the seemingly most effective way to expand circulation and Nielsen ratings – and thus the acquisition of advertisements. But by following their own commercial imperatives, the “free” mass media are effectively crowding out the public discourse in terms of the contents of political issues. The “public sphere” is dominated by scandalization (of mostly irrelevant events) at the expense of the political discourse aiming at the common good.

In his Theory of Communicative Action [2], Jürgen Habermas‘ uses the term “discursive-cooperative” (verständigungsorientiert) communicative action. It describes what is lacking nowadays in politics and the public sphere as a whole.

The political class has engaged in a Faustian pact with the mass media, submitting to their mode of communication which focusses on the scandalization of “events” at the expense of the discourse on policy contents. And the public perceives the media-compliant communication of the political class as the unwillingness to explain why certain policies are being pursued and others not.

This perception of the public is correct irrespective of the actual contents of policies, which may or may not serve the (longer-term) common good. In post-war history, German governments have rarely made strategic decisions that were truly wrong. But the reasons for these – mostly – correct strategic decisions remained – mostly – opaque. A serious discourse has been absent – both prior and after strategic decisions. Instead, minor issues were blown up by the political class strictly following the media rules of dramatization, emotionalizing and personalization. No wonder, the public, including the “little people”, have a felt sense that political games are being played at their expense.

Far from being “clever” by submitting to the rules of the media game, the political class has systematically undermined its own credibility. The political class has fallen victim to its own communicative action. In the long run, media-compliant politics has undercut the leadership claim of the political class. And politicians themselves seem to realize that – which would explain why the attraction of holding a political office is in decline. The slow, but steady erosion of Europe’s big “people’s parties” is a case in point. The more media-compliant their performance became, the more they lost their political leadership role. Moreover, the growing gap between the “centrist” political class and the people is creating a fertile ground for “populist” movements – “left”, “right” or new forms of political extremism – which have nothing to offer but a charismatic leader and a central enemy image.

Reconstructing the Public Sphere

The problem are not (private) mass media as such, but the submission of the political class to their rules, which stifle the cooperative discourse in respect to the content of crucial policy issues. In a complex modern society with its unprecedented level of international connectivity this deformation of the public sphere is atavistic. Because of its complexity, modern society existentially needs public dialogue, discourse and debate focussed on the contents of political issues – as opposed to their packaging.

The freedom of expression is a value in itself, but at the same time free speech is a civilizational achievement which was meant to facilitate the development of society. Free speech was borne out of the historical experience that societies which suppressed an open discourse over the best way society should develop, tend to stagnate and decay. (That’s why in the long run, democratic states and societies are superior to authoritarian political systems)

Now, we have the absurd situation where the very free media and a political class submitting to its rules have created a new form of political “censorship” over the public discourse on the content of strategic policy issues.

Real politics means that politicians present problems to the public, explain its causes (and call for expert advice), and offer a variety of options for solving the problem. The media should report and comment that and provide a platform for additional views and opinions. As long as the media provide such a platform for in-depths debate on strategic policy issues, I don’t mind pin-up girls or “human-interest” stories on movie stars or lots of sport news.

Is the communicative reconstruction of the public sphere, in which discursive and cooperative political action is possible, wishful thinking? No, it is an existential necessity. The current communicative regime – involving the both the mass media and the political class – has become a threat to society. Politikverdrossenheit is an unmistakable warning sign.

Obviously, the first step for the communicative reconstruction of the public sphere has to come from the political side. And politicians would be well advised to read what Max Weber wrote in Politics as a Vocation [3]:

“One can say that three pre-eminent qualities are decisive for the politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion…To be sure, mere passion, however genuinely felt, is not enough. It does not make a politician, unless passion as devotion to a ‚cause‘ also makes responsibility to this cause the guiding star of action. And for this, a sense of proportion is needed. This is the decisive psychological quality of the politician: his ability to let realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness. Hence his distance to things and men. ‚Lack of distance‘ per se is one of the deadly sins of every politician….The ’strength‘ of a political ‚personality‘ means, in the first place, the possession of these qualities of passion, responsibility, and proportion.”

That is the real antidote to Politikverdrossenheit.

Endnotes

[1]Axel Honneth, Kampf um Anerkennung, Frankfurt/M, 1992/2003

[2]Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2 Vol. Frankfurt/M, 1981

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