Downgrading policy in politics reduces the chances they will ever be implemented successfully…

As Harry Magee says in the Irish Times Inside Politics email newsletter this morning, are we there yet? The answer is no, no government for the south. Last week was St Patricks holiday, and this week is Easter. The real horse trading will happen after that.

Many believe a grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is inevitable. In a time where the populist’s appeal raw emotion, an abundance of opinion and shortage of attention, a long if quiet pre-election delineation in its policy platform has yet to break through.

It’s as if very few in the media really care about the platforms anymore (if they ever did). Similar effects can be seen across the west. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute in the US, for instance, has a particularly acute take on the matter:

Trump has grasped an important truth about politics in the digital age. Policy statements do not need to be serious proposals. They are merely ways to signal to the electorate what your instincts are, and what kinds of things you care about. It doesn’t matter if they don’t pass muster in the DC think-tank community. They are essentially a long list of the candidate’s likes and dislikes – politics in primary colors.

…just as the unhinged ideas from Trump are doing nothing to dampen his fans, so the unrealistic ones from Sanders are not putting off his core supporters. And just as the scorn of the establishment helps Trump, so the attacks from experts on the mainstream left on Sanders’ ideas bolster his image as a revolutionary idealist, refusing to accept the status quo.

On a realistic note, Reeves points out that it has never been policy alone that has won elections, but until now serious flaws in a policy platform would act as a big discounting factor against any candidates favour:

…even if policies declared on the campaign trail have often been a stretch, they have at least been a stretch in the right direction. Even if they were aspirational, they were not bonkers. The capacity to propose sensible policy has historically been a necessary test of political candidates, with scholars and serious journalists acting as examiners.

Good policy may not often win you an election, but really bad policy could lose one. Now, in a fragmented media market, this basic test of policy seriousness may no longer disqualify a candidate.[Emphasis added]

If no one is listening to any of the big Washington think tanks in terms measuring the credibility of the policy offerings of various candidates, Dublin (no more than Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff) has ever really had them in any abundance.

Ireland may be the exception to that rule. PR STV enforces a closer relationship between voter and representative than elsewhere.   The reason there is unlikely to be a grand coalition is that when you look at the policy platforms, there is little consonance between them

A grand coalition is unlikely between these two post-ideological parties is that when you focus on the policy platforms, there is very little consonance between the two of them. Fianna Fail (this time) aligns much more closely with Sinn Fein’s positions on major policy.

In fact, even though the former will not contemplate a coalition with the latter, Fianna Fail’s detailed pre-election policy platform aligns much more closely with Sinn Fein’s public positions on most major matters of pressing concern.

As Reeves notes, the tendency to discount policy as something that matters in politics anymore is likely to come with a cost in the long run:

If policy and politics separate entirely, the people who end up in office are likely to have little regard for policies, or even the skills required to make them. This will reduce the chances that policies will be implemented successfully, or that they will be effective, and therefore make them even less relevant to an electorate already concerned that our governance system is broken.

Worse, the careless disregard for facts, laws, costs, and even basic math is corrosive to the democratic process. It is too much, perhaps, to expect politicians to seek to make voters better informed about the key issues. But I think it is reasonable to hope they will not misinform them.

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  • aquifer

    It looks to be increasingly difficult to muster the journalistic and research resources to focus on how successful policy is, or not. Putting information into the public domain in a way so that it can be found again later could be key. What did people say and when?

    Sectoral conferences could help to flush out where policy is not working, or having journalists ‘curate’ contributions from specialists.

  • kensei

    Is the current state of discourse really due to the downgrading of policy, or is it a symptom of economies that have generated huge inequalities and large amount of insecurity over the past couple of decades?

    Emotion has always trumped policy. The Republicans in the US have been pushing unaffordable tax cuts with the promise they’ll magically turbocharge the economy since at least Reagan. Any policy basis for arguing against high marginal rates had essentially disappeared by the end of his Presidency and the consequences to the fiscal position have always been clear. the current Republicans are the same, only more so.

    Emotion has always ruled in politics. That’s why there is the inane – who’d you rather have a beer with question, or Ed Miliband as a “North London Geek”. I’m not sure policy ever had the place suggested.

  • Slater

    It’ll be a FF minority coalition and anyone who dares vote it down will rue the day.