Tuesday 17 March 2015

Political leanings

In April, The Husband, The Boy and me are heading to Washington, DC.  As voracious consumers of American political dramas, we can't wait.  I've been fascinated by US politics ever since a year spent at the University of California, during the Bush-Gore-chad debacle.  I was captivated by the enigmatic professors (where students would line up to get into the lecture halls, spilling out onto the aisles - in contrast with the drab, empty lectures back in Edinburgh).  I was hooked on constitutional law, political theory, Revolution and the rights of man.  The USA may not have been the birthplace of modern politics, but it sure as hell felt like its spirited adolescence.

The UK of 2015 feels like a world and an age away.  The initial excitement and possibilty of new coalition politics has given way to the usual apathy and a race to the bottom.  There are precious few big ideas and those that are making the electoral rounds are about tinkering with budgets rather than positive transformation of people's lives.  

With so little of substance to choose from, UK voters are tempted by the single-issue parties and personalities who thrive on the collapse of ideas: nationalism, anti-immigration, Boris, Farage and the rest.  I'm not sure this is what Francis Fukuyama meant when he wrote about "the end of history".   If this is the zenith of liberal democracy, then give me revolution.  Give me anything, but this half-hearted fight over who can privatise the NHS more stealthily and how the South East's housing crisis can be resolved by placating foreign investors, baby boomer second home owners, and private landlords.  Give me honesty, and a leader who is not afraid to make the difficult choices to safeguard our future.  Give me strength.

If political philosophy were ever needed, it is needed now.  We need reminded about why we have representation in the first place. Why should we get out of our mortgaged-to-the-hilt, energy inefficient, consumerist homes and vote? Why should we ask our representatives in power to pool our resources and make the necessary decisions to educate our children and treat our sick?  Why should we pay taxes and ask Government to spend *our* money at all?  From a position of privilege, it is easy to rail against government spending.  But imagine, as a thought experiment, you were about to be born into this world and you didn't know where on the wealth/race/gender/religious spectrum you would arrive at.  You might be rich, or you might be dirt poor.  In this circumstance, behind John Rawl's "veil of ignorance", what sort of world would you rather it be?  One where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?  Or one which has a degree of social equality and redistribution built in?  I know what I would rather face, and I think most people, if pushed, would agree that social justice is the fundamental building block for our way of life.

Rawl's theory of social justice is one of the most compelling arguments for politics.  So why have we turned our backs?  Why have politicians become so self-serving, and how have we let them?

One answer is neatly put by Runciman, in a recent short book.  We have come so far from Thomas Hobbes' nasty, poor, solitary and short (pre Leviathan) world that citizens see no need to worry about politics and politicians:

"The danger of modern politics is that stability produces disengagement.  Citizens who are protected from the most destabilising threats of violence start to lose interest in politics altogether: it becomes the background noise in their lives.  But violence never goes away entirely.  Instead it gets franchised out to government agencies who take advantage of our inattention to abuse the power we give them.  They do it because they can."
- David Runciman, "Politics: ideas in profile"

I'm not sure where all this leaves me. I'm excited about the DC trip, but I'm under no illusions: I realise politics is as corrupt, lobbyist- and money-driven there as it is anywhere else in the western world.  I'd like to "be the change" I want to see in the world, but I don't really know where to start. Join the PTA? Become a local councillor?  Or continue venting my frustrations here on the blog?  It can't just be me, can it?

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