Anti-politics has increasingly preoccupied political scientists, with many seeking to explain falling electoral participation and the growing gap between citizens and government. Yet the term ‘anti-politics’ presupposes that the actions of citizens are non-political. This is grossly misleading. We need only look at the rise of populist, anti-establishment parties across Europe – or, most prominently, the rise of Trump in America – to see that disenchantment with conventional politics is anything but non-political. Instead, as we argue in a new article in Political Quarterly, it represents anger and alienation rather than apathy, and a shift in political participation and the way people ‘do politics’.
This demands a radical reconsideration of ‘the political’. Perhaps the old dichotomy between process and arena definitions has reached its use-by-date, or at the very least needs a fundamental rethink to better link the two with contemporary forms of political participation. Process politics, whereby politics is present in all situations involving power relations and not simply in the formal governmental sphere, is increasingly seen as vital when striving to understand current methods of participation. Formal politics and processes such as voting – the arena side of the equation – thus no longer adequately capture the diversity of participation we now see. Citizens today increasingly act according to engagement, rather than duty, norms. They are interested in politics that matter to them, not politics as practiced in alien and distant parliaments. It must be acknowledged, however, that this itself presents its own particular problems. In the first instance, although there is nothing wrong with politics in this form – indeed it is to be encouraged – politics must be aggregated upwards to remain inclusive and representative of the whole citizenry. The age of arena politics is far from over. Instead, it must be recognised that many process forms of politics, in particular, though not exclusively, online activity, should not be considered anti-politics or apathy, but, rather, genuine political engagement.
Ignoring, or denigrating contemporary political actions is dangerous and unfair, particularly to the group most often labelled as apathetic and disengaged – the young. Here, an example is ‘clicktivism’. Not only is it frequently pejoratively labelled ‘slacktivism’ – missing the point entirely – but also, it is often placed under the umbrella of anti-politics. Perhaps this is in part the resistance of political analysts to recognise and accept changing forms of political participation, particularly among the young. To do so, however, is to ignore a growing and increasingly important form of politics which can bridge both the process and arena definitions of politics, with groups such as Anonymous and 38 Degrees using clicktivism to directly influence policy. The internet presents an important and immediate means of sharing information – although it is not without its own problems.
Further, looking at the role it has played in various revolutions and protests, such as in Turkey, we see the significance of such action. Citizens no longer need wait for the morning paper or party meeting to learn of, or organise, political activity. Most importantly, given the nature of the protests, it seems impossible to disparage the sharing of information over the internet as non-political.
Rather than so quickly condemning new forms of participation as ‘anti-politics’, therefore, they must be accepted and embraced by the political class. What is needed is a recoupling of government with citizens. Accepting new forms of political participation is one important step towards this; however, what is also required is a bridging of the supply-side and demand-side forms of politics. Government may be increasingly out-of-touch with their citizens, but this is, arguably, in part because of the demands of modern governance – something citizens are frequently unsympathetic towards. Governments cannot have all the answers, particularly in a time when wicked problems abound. Pretending they can hides this fact from citizens; although citizens should, in turn, perhaps be more understanding of the challenges facing political actors. Recognising this would perhaps begin to undo some of the mistrust and disillusionment citizens now have towards politics and politicians.
Constitutional reform and attempts to bring citizens back into formal politics may be a further avenue to the recoupling of citizens with political authorities; however, more is needed. This may include, not only recognition of new forms of political participation, but also a revival of, and revolution in, traditional politics. In Britain, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader had the potential to do this. With the Labour Party increasingly out of touch under Blair and Brown and centrist politicians increasingly mistrusted, Corbyn presented a breath of fresh air. His Party, however, has failed to get behind him, with party dissent frequently on display and potentially fatally undermining his leadership. This, despite the fact that, immediately after Corbyn’s selection, party membership increased. Corbyn evidently reached sections of the populace; yet this was seemingly unimportant for his Party. It is perhaps little wonder then that citizens are disillusioned with traditional, centrist politicians. In this case, a potential avenue to the recoupling of citizens and political actors was blocked before it had a chance to take effect.
Redressing disillusionment with politics will not happen over night. It is, however, a project worth undertaking. The health of democracy is undoubtedly in question; and yet, it is not in terminal decline as often argued. Instead, it is fundamentally changing. Perhaps it will not be until a new, younger generation of politicians enter parliament that new forms of participation will become more prominent, not least internet communication. However, given the importance of addressing this problem, it would be best if the current breed of politicians recognised that contemporary politics is changing. Citizens are not disengaged, but simply engaging in different ways. Perhaps a small, yet important, means of recognising this is to drop the term ‘anti-politics’ and recognise that such engagement is anything but non-political. Rather than a re-engagement with politics, therefore, what is instead needed is a recoupling of citizens with political authorities through the bridging of process and arena politics.
You can read the full article ‘Two Cheers for Richards and Smith: Beyond Anti-Politics?’ here.