How to engage voters without ignoring concerns or imitating insurgent political forces?

There’s an interesting dynamic going on in politics more broadly just now. Win or lose the Scottish Referendum, the Yes/SNP’s seemingly endless roadshow puts the emphasis on engagement with the Yes support is smart politics.

Sean Trende analysing how Eric Cantor lost the Republican nomination for his home district gives precise reasons why incumbents who forget to attend to the business of ‘the Parish’ are in big trouble in these troubled times:

Cantor seemed more focused on the second and third goals of a politician — power and policy — to the detriment of the first (re-election). I am guessing he didn’t realize he might have a problem until he was booed at a district meeting a month ago.

If he’d run scared, the result might well have been different. But he didn’t, and he lost. This is really the big-picture message for GOP incumbents. You don’t have to remake yourself into a Tea Partier. But you do have to care.

But none of this takes account of the fact that doing a decent job in Washington, in Cantor’s as leader of the House Republicans, has historically required some form of release from the parish to the nation.

Mark Leonard’s piece for the New Statesman looks at a similar problem arising from the European elections and views it from a more historic angle…

All of the indicators for normal political participation are falling: party membership, political affiliation, turnout. And though the hyperconnected citizens of today are able to monitor the executive on the internet efficiently and protest using lots of new and different tools, usually they seek out ways to participate in politics as an experience, rather than voting in elections.

As Ivan Krastev argues in a fascinating new book about middle-class protest, Democracy Disrupted, “While it is popular for Europeans to compare the current global protest wave with the revolutions of 1848, today’s protests are the negation of the political agenda of 1848.” Krastev argues that 1848 marked the rise of the citizen-voter. The present protests are a revolt against representative democracy and mark the disillusionment of the citizen-voter. [emphasis added]

Leonard continues…

Political parties used to be embedded in civic life but they have become mere appendages of the state (a “governing class” that seeks office, rather than a chance to represent ideas or groups in society). This is particularly visible during European elections. Because these polls are not connected with capturing state power, the established parties can barely be bothered to campaign – let alone engage in a debate about the powers and possibilities for the parliament.

And, crucially, particularly at a time when the so-called fourth estate is being replaced by Youtube and Twitter channels wholly owned by political parties themselves…

Politics used to be about changing minds, but a revolution of political technology has turned it into a very different pursuit: maximising the turnout of people who already agree with you. This was always part of old-style campaigning but the mining of big data has allowed it to happen on an industrial scale.

But responding effectively is going to rather difficult, especially for parties on the self declared mainstream left (Irish and Scottish Labour in particular take note?)…

…it was the mainstream parties of the left that were hit hardest, particularly those in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Ireland, Greece and Finland. The existential crisis for the left goes beyond electoral arithmetic: unlike the post-Thatcherite parties of the right, the left believes in the transformative power of politics. The rise of the likes of Ukip saps that promise by preaching a politics of despair, poaching core voters and robbing progressives of the oxygen they need to develop a popular message for change.

All the mainstream parties are now promising to listen to insurgent voters. But the challenge will be to find a way of engaging them without ignoring their concerns or imitating the insurgent political forces. As Sunder Katwala of the British Future think tank argues, the anti-political rap sheet carries two charges: that the mainstream is out of touch and that it is inauthentic. The difficulty is that, in trying to make up for the first crime, they unwittingly commit the second.

And here’s what’s driving the disaffection underneath…

It will take time for the insurgent parties to become the new establishment – and thereby destroy their own legitimacy. That is time the mainstream parties simply do not have. Even though many middle-class voters will return to politics for the general election, the background to the May elections is a crisis of political representation. Our societies are becoming more atomised and individualistic, and power is flowing further away from the grasp of ordinary people.

As Ivan Krastev argues: “Our rights are no longer secured by our collective power as voters, but are subject to the logic of the financial market. Voters can change governments, yet it is nearly impossible for them to change economic policies.”[emphasis added]

Enter the Political Trilemma of the Global Economy

As Trende notes of Cantor’s defenestration by his own party activists, “…analysts need to understand that the Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years”.

If you had a tune, you could sing that over and over, and not just for US Republicans…

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