This book by BBC political commentator Steve Richards is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand why the level of mistrust in mainstream political parties and politicians continues to grow.
This book by BBC political commentator Steve Richards is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand why the level of mistrust in mainstream political parties and politicians continues to grow. The mistrust is creating space for the rise to power of outsiders like President Donald Trump and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). This impacts on the ability of governments around the world to deliver good government, providing important high-quality services and properly enforcing laws to benefit communities.
Mr Richards points out that the voters have developed unreasonable expectations of governments and political representatives. He points out that mainstream politicians that are honest with voters often find themselves punished at a ballot box for doing so. By contrast, outsiders can often be dishonest or outright lie and get away with it. The outsiders inability to deliver on unrealistic promises is only exposed if they are elected. He points that that Daniel Dale, a journalist at the Toronto Star newspaper, monitored Donald Trump's statements from 15 September 2016 to 8 November 2016. Mr Dale recorded 560 cases where the information provided by Mr Trump was false, an average of 20 a day.
He makes a convincing case that those in government often have the illusion of power to voters on the outside, but in reality are constrained by international forces beyond their control and often having to negotiate with minor parties in parliaments. The constant feedback on social media also adds to the weight politicians feel, knowing that any mistake or misstep they make will be lambasted within seconds on social media.
He points out that voters often have an irrational level of criticism for politicians, well beyond what their actions or inaction would justify. The mistrust is often fed by a media that wishes to paint all those on the political ‘inside' as liars, corrupt and criminal. The media do the public a disservice when they pursue this ideological position. It means voters are not provided with an accurate picture of why a political leader might be behaving in a certain way and hold them to account for their actual behaviour rather than a more negative artificial media construction.
Mr Richards provides a good summary of his key arguments that:
As well as choosing to be powerless, and rendered powerless, by constitutional constraints, elected leaders rule in an era of extreme mistrust. If they do not do x, y or z, the instinct of some voters is to assume that those they elected are liars and, in some cases, criminals. At the very least, some voters feel ignored and overlooked.
Such feelings are a gift to outsiders, who promise vaguely to take back control and to act on behalf of those who feel ‘left behind’. The instinct to mistrust elected leaders is fuelled by some media outlets, which regard their main duty in relation to elected leaders as being to ask, as one interviewer put it, ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ It goes without saying that sometimes politicians fuel the mistrust because they do not deserve to be trusted. They can be indiscriminately greedy, self-serving and, in a few cases, corrupt. But on the whole there is a more interesting and reassuring set of explanations as to why leaders behave in the way they do. As they seek to resolve the conundrums and dilemmas, they cannot always be candid and sometimes have to go back on previous pledges or declarations. Such scheming is part of politics and is preferable to the alternative way of resolving disputes, which is the use of force.
The book is a helpful read to people concerned about social justice and truth. Having a realistic understanding of politics and what must be overcome is vital if we are to achieve a more just world. The book's one failing is that it paints a clear picture of the problem, but fails to provide much in terms of how to address the problems. Mr Richards does point out that to be successful, mainstream political leaders need to be both leaders and teachers to overcome the cynicism of a majority of voters. They also need to get better at their use of social media to reach voters directly
Images credit: Atlantic Books, 3rd May 2018, $44.99