When TINA met Tony
Frank Furedi examines how politics has gone into early retirement
Every election now threatens to be another embarrassing reminder of the political wasteland that is Western society. 'Apathy' is no longer adequate to describe the lack of public involvement in the political life of the USA. The percentage of the American electorate voting in presidential elections declined from 62.5 percent in 1960 to 50.1 percent in 1988. By the 1996 presidential election, only 49 percent of the voting age population bothered to cast their ballots - the lowest figure in more than 70 years. Even those figures look impressive compared to the turnout for elections to the US House of Representatives, which has averaged around 35 percent in the 1990s.
European commentators can no longer feel smug about the political illiteracy of the American electorate. A recent leader in the Guardian entitled 'Don't yawn for Europe. Apathy must not win the elections', indicates that public disenchantment with political life is not confined to the other side of the Atlantic.
When New Labour won its 'landslide' victory in Britain in 1997, it was backed by just 31 percent of those qualified to vote. Overall, voter turnout was the lowest since 1945. 'The 1997 general election excited less interest than any other in living memory', concluded a Nuffield College study. The public appeared equally unimpressed by all the hype about the 'history-making' elections to the new Scottish and Welsh assemblies in May, which most regarded as yet another stage-managed event. The majority of the Welsh electorate chose the less-than-history-making option of staying at home - only 46 percent voted. In Scotland, a multimillion-pound media campaign designed to promote voter participation managed no more than a 59 percent turnout. And on the same day, polling booths in England were almost empty, as 29 percent of registered voters turned out for local elections.
The response of the British political class to the decline of public participation is characteristically naive. The most widely canvassed solution is to make voting easier, by setting up polling booths in supermarkets or by introducing postal or electronic voting. Such technical solutions are not designed to invigorate public life, but to improve appearances simply by getting more people to put an X in a box. But this misses the point. The reason why people don't vote is not because they are too busy or because they can't find the polling booth. Public disengagement from politics reflects something more profound - the conviction that politics simply does not matter and that election results make little difference to people's lives.
The steady decline of voter participation is a symptom of a much wider process, a growing public disillusionment with the political system. Surveys of American public attitudes indicate that approval of the government has steadily declined. Whereas in 1958 over 75 percent of the American people trusted their government to do the right thing, only 28.2 percent could express a similar sentiment in 1990. Trust in politicians has continued to decline through the 1990s. The 1996 'In a state of disunion' survey conducted by Gallup found that 64 percent of Americans had little or no confidence that government officials tell the truth. Studies carried out in the European Union indicate that around 45 percent of the population is dissatisfied with the 'way that democracy works'.
Disillusionment with political authority is paralleled by a loss of faith in all traditional values. Mattetei Dogan's study The Decline of Traditional Values in Western Europe, published last year, provides compelling evidence of a steady erosion of belief in religion and nationalism and trust in authority. In some European societies, such as Belgium and Italy, suspicion towards political institutions is intense, while in Britain the more characteristic reaction is indifference.
The exhaustion of political life has little to do with corruption, inept leaders or insensitive bureaucracies. What has changed during the past two decades is the very meaning of politics itself. At the beginning of this century, political life was dominated by radically different alternatives. Competing political philosophies offered contrasting visions of the good society. Conflict between these ideologies was often fierce, sometimes provoking violent clashes and even revolutions. 'Left' and 'right' were no mere labels. In a fundamental sense, they endowed individuals with an identity that said something important about how they regarded the world and their lives. Ardent advocates of revolutionary change clashed with fervent defenders of the capitalist system. Their competing views about society dominated the conduct of everyday politics.
The end of the century offers a radically different political landscape. Politics today has little in common with the passions and conflicts that have shaped people's commitments and hatreds over the past century. There is no longer room for either the zealous defender of the free market faith, or the robust advocate of revolution. It would be wrong to conclude that politics has become simply more moderate. Politics has gone into early retirement.
The end-of-century ethos continually emphasises problems which are not susceptible to human intervention. Theories of globalisation stress the inability of people and of their governments to deal with forces which are beyond their control. The big issues of our time - the impending environmental catastrophe, threats to our health, millennium bugs - are presented as perils that stand above politics. It is now widely believed that the world is out of control, and that there is little that human beings can do to influence their destiny. Deprived of choice and options, humanity is forced to acquiesce to a worldview which Margaret Thatcher aptly described as TINA - There Is No Alternative.
If indeed there is no alternative, politics can have little meaning. Without alternatives, debate becomes empty posturing about trivial matters. Politicians are forced to inflate banal proposals into major pronouncements. The Scottish National Party's 'dramatic' proposal to put a penny on income tax in Scotland is emblematic of the tendency to present trivia as a radical policy innovation.
This failure of the political imagination is the inexorable outcome of a culture steeped in TINA. New Labour's impressive-looking legislative programme - devolution, reforming the House of Lords, new electoral system, Freedom of Information Act - is driven by the impulse to be seen to be doing something. But in the absence of debate about fundamentals, such innovations have an entirely managerial and technical character. The government's recent proposal to teach citizenship to school students is testimony to this managerial ethos. Public disenchantment has little to do with poor schooling. Without alternatives, politics fails to engage, involve and inspire. In this context, 'citizenship' can only mean a passive acceptance of the values dreamt up by the latest set of spindoctors. Not surprising, then, that the government's proposed programme of citizenship classes has been met by an underwhelming response from students. A survey carried out in March, among children aged 11 to 16, indicated that whereas 48 percent of them wanted more lessons in how to manage their money, only 28 percent were interested in covering politics in more detail.
Critics of TINA often fail to realise that it contains an essential truth - even if it is not the one claimed by Thatcher. The truth is that there can be no alternative when the political imagination has become exhausted.
Paradoxically, the exhaustion of the political imagination is the outcome of a century-long conflict of competing ideologies. One familiar result of this historic conflict has been the discrediting of socialism and communism. By the middle of the Cold War these worldviews were in retreat - in part due to the indefensible track record of the Soviet Union and its satellite societies. Other forms of social experiments, such as the welfare state, have also failed to withstand the test of time. However, the marginalisation of these alternatives has not been without a major cost to the defenders of the capitalist system. The ideologues of capitalism have been forced to compromise and accept many of the criticisms of their opponents. In the course of these ideological battles, the intellectual defence of capitalism has become impoverished. That is why traditional values associated with the right have also ceased to inspire any significant section of society.
Ultimately TINA is not simply a statement about political life, but about the human potential. What passes for politics today is an indictment of a human-centred view of the world. In today's political culture individuals are often represented as sad people who, because they cannot be expected to cope with most of the trials of life, need counselling and other forms of therapeutic intervention. Instead of striving to achieve new goals, society now encourages an attitude of self-limitation.
Contemporary culture pours scorn on anybody with 'excessive' ambition. Those who try to determine the outcome of significant aspects of their lives risk being dismissed as control freaks. People who refuse to publicise their weaknesses are said to be 'in denial'. Risk-takers are denounced for putting others at risk. Heroism is no longer about going beyond the limits, but about being able to suffer and survive. Not surprisingly, the overall impact of these trends is the estrangement of the public from political participation. The individual as the victim of circumstances beyond his or her control represents the personification of TINA.
These are some of the defining features of contemporary political culture: the ascendancy of victim consciousness; the unprecedented status accorded to emotion and therapy; the treatment of interpersonal relations as a series of pathologies; and the representation of individuals through the disease metaphor. It is this culture that does most to encourage the alienation of people from political participation. It is premised on a conception of the individual which stresses inherent limitations. This is the politics of self-limitation. And once one's horizons are lowered in this way, the limited self can easily become self-preoccupation. Beyond the self lies a political wasteland to be avoided at all costs. The rhetoric of therapeutic politics encourages people to feel good about themselves, to express themselves, to be in touch with their emotions and to understand their needs, and never mind what happens in the world outside.
The victim culture's preference for therapeutic or professional intervention stands in sharp contrast to its distaste for politics. This is not surprising, since politics presupposes a degree of individual autonomy, a belief in the efficacy of human intervention and a commitment to values and causes which go way beyond a preoccupation with the self. A culture premised on the diminished self encourages an inward-looking attitude and a mistrust of others. With the self as the point of reference, politics is experienced as an alien, irrelevant phenomenon. In contrast to this estrangement from politics, an obsession with one's emotions is interpreted as the hallmark of a mature citizen. Formal politics matters less to people for the very simple reason that what people can do matters less than what they feel. The politics of emotion has largely supplanted politics driven by ideologies, philosophical principles or social causes.
Professional politicians who want to survive in the system have been forced to adapt to the politics of emotion. They have had to recognise that their political, ideological and moral links with the electorate are fragile, and that traditional forms of party politics, political values and identities have little purchase on an evidently disenchanted public. Politicians have adopted a therapeutic style in order to connect with the mood of the times. This political style has been perfected by the Clinton administration, successfully copied by New Labour and increasingly emulated on the Continent.
An important study, The Therapeutic State by the American sociologist James Nolan, suggests that the therapeutic rhetoric employed by Clinton during the 1992 election marked a major shift in the prevailing political discourse. Clinton and his running mate Al Gore talked publicly about their marital problems, and about issues relating to Roger Clinton's drug addiction and a stepfather's alcoholism, and it was widely reported that both the Clintons and the Gores were in counselling. Since 1992 Clinton has never stopped talking about his feelings and his personal failures. Nolan sees the triumph of therapeutic rhetoric during the 1996 political conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. Elizabeth Dole's emotional tribute to her husband at the Republican convention in San Diego was more than matched by Gore's sob story about his sister's death from lung cancer at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
Blair's New Labour drew heavily on the Clinton experience. The 1996 Labour Party conference demonstrated that therapeutic politics had arrived in Britain. The highpoint was a speech made by Ann Pearston of the Snowdrop campaign, demanding gun control on behalf of the Dunblane victims. Delegates wept openly as Pearston recounted the details of the tragedy, then gave her an enthusiastic standing ovation. And Tony Blair led the conference in a minute's silence to mourn the Dunblane victims. Pearston's speech, which was carefully rehearsed by New Labour spindoctors, provided the only memorable point of the conference. The Tories had declined to invite Pearston to their conference, thereby demonstrating their now-renowned ineptitude in the field of media management. The result of the 1997 general election was clearly foreshadowed during that conference season.
The shameless way in which victim-celebrities are now paraded to give a more 'human' face to political campaigning was illustrated during the recent Euro elections. Forget the party manifesto: New Labour's final election broadcast starred Lisa Potts, the former nursery nurse famous for shielding children in her care from a horrific machete attack, speaking about the qualities of 'leadership'.
Therapeutic politics eschews matters of policy and principle, and attempts to establish a point of contact with an estranged electorate in the domain of the emotions, to touch the hearts of those whose minds are closed to the old political slogans. The most effective practitioner of this art is perhaps Mo Mowlam, New Labour's Northern Ireland secretary. Mowlam not only exudes ordinariness but intense warmth, routinely hugging anybody she bumps into. She is not just a real person. Her highly public struggle with a serious illness also demonstrates that she is no stranger to pain and suffering. With such qualifications, it is not surprising that 'our Mo' is the most popular member of the New Labour government.
The elevation of emotion over intellect has potentially grave consequences for democratic politics. Individuals consigned to the role of perfecting their emotional maturity can easily become the targets of therapeutic intervention. Instead of the active citizen, people are treated as fodder for citizenship classes, parenting skill seminars and training in emotional literacy. That is why therapeutic intervention, and the professional regulation of everyday life, is now one of the biggest growth areas in state policy. A political system that celebrates the public display of emotion indicates that it has lost belief in the ability of its people to act rationally. And once people's feelings become a suitable subject for public deliberation, how long can it be before those in authority feel entitled to dictate how we ought to feel?
So where does all this leave those who are interested in transforming the political landscape? Politics with a capital P can not be made relevant as long as the culture of self-limitation goes unchallenged. That is why confronting the politics of emotion with all of its anti-humanist implications is so important. Individuals who are continually encouraged to be self-referential have little interest in collaborating with others around causes which are external to the self. On the contrary, such an inward-looking consciousness tends to inspire a mistrust of other people. In sharp contrast to the past, people now tend to be more suspicious of other individuals than of the state. And as long as people fear their neighbours more than powerful institutions, the estrangement of society from politics need have no negative consequences for the authorities.
The key battles ahead are in the realm of culture and of ideas. At a time when the dominant intellectual climate lags behind the insights of the Enlightenment, strengthening a belief in the history-making potential of humanity will do more than anything to help force politics out of early retirement.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999