What is the point of politics?

‘Politics is not worth a lightning bolt to me. Throw it to the sharks,’ the Dutch band Normaal sang in 1984. Many people in democracies experience disillusionment with their government and political system, but the feeling is not new. Something appears to be wrong with politics. But what is the problem, and what are the solutions? Perhaps, we expect too much of our politicians as they often have limited influence on affairs. Maybe, politicians interfere with issues that are the domain of experts. And what is the point of politics when there is no food on the table?

Still, there has been some progress in political institutions. Political institutions can be customs, laws, government organisations, and other arrangements. Human nature does not change, and politicians have remained more or less the same, but our forefathers devised political institutions to provide political stability and make governments work better. They learned from previous mistakes, so there was some improvement. But institutions can outlive their usefulness because societies change over time. So, what is the point of politics? To answer that question, it might be good to start with the basics.

The basics of politics

Humans flexibly cooperate in large numbers. That made us so successful as a species. To do that, we need language to describe what is happening. For instance, during a hunt, I can tell you that a deer hides behind the tree in front of us. Some animals have languages to communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies, but human language serves more purposes. Most notably, we gossip and discuss what others are doing and thinking. That gives us more accurate information about other people in the group, for instance, who can do a particular job best. We use this information to cooperate in sophisticated ways.1

Another essential feature of human language is not gossip but the ability to convey information about imaginary things. Many forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation-states, religions, corporations, laws and money, are fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Our collaboration depends on shared beliefs or collective imaginations.1 If you believe that a piece of paper is money, but I do not, we cannot trade. If I think a law exists, but you do not, we may get into a conflict. And if we share the same religion, we can do things together, like praying or building a temple.

Politics usually deals with questions like: what should we be doing as a group, which are our rules, and who will lead us? What we are going to do, is decided by ideas like we should sow crops in the spring, do a rain dance in the summer to please the rain fairy, and harvest in the autumn. Doing a rain dance in the summer is a rule. It depends on our belief in the rain fairy, our collective imagination. Religions and ideologies more or less play the same role in politics. Ideologies are beliefs too. They can be wrong. For instance, we could expect better results from an irrigation system connected to a nearby lake. And ideologies like socialism and liberalism do not work in practice as their proponents claim.

The rules could dictate that we need a priest for the religion of the rain fairy. Every year, he leads a procession while holding the stature of the rain fairy in front of him before the rain dance begins. The priest is a sage of the village. The priesthood is open only to highly esteemed men of a certain age. If rain does not come and the crops fail, the question of who will lead the procession next year becomes of the utmost importance, as harvests depend on rain and, therefore, on pleasing the fairy. Our ability to gossip allows us to evaluate potential candidates. And so, the village may elect a new priest, hoping the fairy will send rain next season. If droughts are rare, this approach usually seems to work.

This short tale about the village that worships the rain fairy and elects a priest explains a lot about politics. There is a belief system. There are rules about the priesthood, and the priest has authority. Villagers believe the priest can influence the rainfall. Political leaders can influence what happens, but in many cases, they have to deal with circumstances over which they have little control. Leaders might revert to public display, like doing a rain dance to show the public they are working on the problem because building an irrigation system is not an option in our religion. Imaging can trump facts, but the underlying cause is often not politicians but our beliefs, for instance, the imagination that rain dances promote rainfall.

The big man

We are social animals, and politics is part of our nature. Traditional societies have politicians too. For instance, the big man is the leader of a family group or a small tribe in Papua New Guinea. No one is born a big man, nor can a big man hand that title down to his son. Rather, his position has to be earned. It falls not necessarily to those who are physically strong, but to those who have earned the community’s trust, usually on the ability to distribute pigs, shell money, and other resources to the members of his tribe. The big man must constantly be looking over his shoulder, because a competitor for authority may be coming up behind him. Without resources to distribute, he loses his status as a leader.2

This description comes from Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order. The big man is a politician. Much of politics comes down to distributing resources and favours. To become the leader, the big man forges a coalition of followers, and his followers benefit once he becomes the leader. A big man can also take actions that benefit the entire community. Likewise, a politician can look after the interests of his followers or work in the public interest. Also, the ideology-based programmatic political parties in Europe operated for the benefit of their voters. For instance, labourers often voted for socialist parties because they expected to benefit, while business owners often voted for liberal parties for the same reason.

The role of institutions

Our disappointment with politics is not always justified. Politicians in modern democracies are like the big men in Papua New Guinea or the priests of the rain fairy. And in democracies, the citizens elect their leaders, so why do we not elect better ones? Hence, the room for improvement in the quality of politicians appears limited. But we cannot do without politics. After all, it is part of our nature. The programmatic ideological political parties of Western Europe may have been an apex in the development of politics. They promoted general policies in the interest of their constituency rather than benefits for individuals.

These parties have lost their lustre. Today’s world differs from the world where these parties emerged and flourished. If you were born in a socialist or Roman Catholic family in the Netherlands in 1900, you remained a socialist or a Roman Catholic for the remainder of your life. Society was stable and politicians didn’t need to compete for attention. The ideologies and religions of these parties have not passed the test of time. They do not answer the questions of today. And many voters think traditional parties have neglected their interests. In the absence of better ideas, politics became more about personalities and emotions.

Institutions can raise politics beyond the level of individuals and their interests, emotions and weaknesses. Traditional societies already have them. For instance, the practice of electing a new priest if the crops fail is an institution. This arrangement answers the question of what we should do on such an occasion. Otherwise, villagers might disagree and start a bloody conflict. After all, the harvest is of the utmost importance, so if you do not have faith in the measures taken, you must protect yourself and your family. But institutions like rain dances do not guarantee good outcomes.

The Chinese were the first to develop a modern state with a rationally organised administration with merit-based recruitment and promotion. It was one of the most significant improvements in state institutions in history. But Chinese emperors did not have to pass an exam. They usually inherited the title or emerged from a power struggle. Emperors had unchecked powers. So the question was how to guarantee a continuing supply of good emperors?2 You cannot, but perhaps institutions can protect the country from poor rulers. And this problem does not go away by electing leaders. That is why democratic states also have institutions, most notably, the separation of powers.

The separation of powers aims to split the state into three independent branches, which are the administration (the executive), the parliaments (the legislative) and the courts (the judiciary). Each has its responsibilities, and the branches do not interfere with each other’s tasks. Parliaments make the laws, the administration executes them, and the courts verify whether they are applied correctly. Ideally, the administration has no power over the parliaments and the courts, for instance, the administration should not nominate or appoint candidates for the parliaments and the courts, and the courts should stay out of political affairs, which is the domain of parliaments.

As political leaders often change or are controversial, many nations have a ceremonial head of state to provide a sense of stability and continuity in the form of a person. Some countries hold on to their royal families, while others have presidents. Usually, ceremonial presidents are highly respected individuals who are supposed not to interfere with political affairs. Royals can also provide a stable sense of nationhood, but kingship is a birthright. Kings do not need to have particular qualities, so they may lose respect, while a ceremonial president usually has earned respect.

Our predicament

Improvements in democratic political systems are possible, but our current predicament is not so much the result of a lack of democratic oversight of governments. Our belief systems are at stake here, for instance, nationalism, socialism and liberalism, but also cultures, religions and traditions. And money can buy influence in politics. That has always been so, but wealth inequality has increased in recent decades, creating a self-reinforcing trend. Existing ideas and ideologies are models of reality with assumptions that do not always apply.

For instance, you can analyse the economy from a socialist or a capitalist perspective. The results are very different, and neither is entirely wrong or right. The proponents of ideologies and religions have an explanation for everything. Within the confines of their models, their arguments make sense. If you believe in the rain fairy, it makes perfect sense to think she is angry if rain does not come. We all have beliefs, and so do I. And it might surprise you how often I find my opinions wrong. We should let go of them and see them as models of reality with merits and limitations. That allows us to have rational debates.

Our political institutions are based on ideas from the past. Clinging to defunct ideas is like doing rain dances to prevent harvest failures. If existing ideas do not work anymore, troubles arise. If crops continue to fail because of persistent droughts, some villagers realise that electing a new priest does not solve the issue, and they may get into conflict with adherents of the religion of the rain fairy. And even though the causes appear complex, our predicament is about the failure of ideas. We are at a crossroads and some developments may soon alter human existence:

  • We are running out of resources, and a protracted period of economic decline might be upon us. Our institutions are built for growth. And so, we could expect political instability to increase.
  • Nation-states and their ambitions pose a constant threat to peace. To have peace, we need the world to be unified under one leadership, which could be democracy on a global level.
  • Humans may soon enhance themselves with biotechnology, information technology, and cyborg engineering, and may turn into post-humans with abilities we do not have, while artificial intelligence may make decisions for us.
  • Post-humans might already exist and created virtual universes for their personal entertainment. We may find out that we live inside one of those universes and who owns our universe.

Apart from that, several developments have converged to make existing political systems increasingly dysfunctional:

  • Political institutions developed on a national level. They are not well-suited for today’s globalised world. At the same time, existing global institutions lack legitimacy.
  • Globalisation changed politics. Wealth inequality is extreme, mass migration creates new social problems, while elites have undue political and economic influence.
  • Individualism makes it harder for people to rally for common causes, make sacrifices, and for individuals to submit themselves to agreed collective purposes.
  • Identity politics pits people against each other. In the past, it was about nations, but nowadays it is often about religion, gender, race, and political orientation.
  • The outcomes of policy measures are often not easy to estimate as many factors interfere. Usually, there are unintended consequences. We must allow for a degree of trial and error to arrive at improvements.
  • Many issues are of a technocratic nature and involve science and uncertainty. Most people have not learned to evaluate scientific research and statistical analysis.
  • Parliaments are theatres where politicians compete for voter attention. They often do not quietly and diligently work on the nation’s problems.
  • Many important decisions are made outside the public view. Governments and businesses collect data about us. We often do not know what is going on.

Each country has a distinct history, hence unique institutions, laws and arrangements. Nowadays, many critical issues are global, but it is not the level at which states operate. As a result, the influence of the elites and wealth inequality increased, and the elites became less accountable. The issues we face, like global warming, crime, and infectious diseases, require a global approach. Businesses increasingly operate internationally. Existing world institutions lack legitimacy and democratic oversight. And there are issues with democracy itself.

Liberal democracy emanated from liberalism, which centres around the individual. We are social animals and collaborate in groups and societies. Liberals may neglect societies. Most notably, neoliberalism helped to undermine their social fabric. Societies are more than social contracts. They can make people feel they belong to a community and it is a basis of social cohesion. That is why we can become emotionally attached to our nation-states.

The liberal view holds that you are free to do as you please unless you harm others. That can work well if we correctly identify harm to others. In the past, the definition of harm has been too narrow. As a result, we now have to deal with consequences like the disintegration of societies, mass migration, pollution and depletion of resources. Liberal democracy works best when there is a balance of power between social groups, and none can dominate the others. In recent decades, the balance of power shifted in favour of corporations and wealthy people, and conditions became less favourable to liberal democracy.

Individualism allows us to appreciate personal experiences and feelings. Everyone’s life is different, and you do not know how it is to be someone else who has a different life. For instance, a white man can never truly understand how it is to be a black woman and how it is to be discriminated against by whites and to be beaten up by her jealous boyfriend. That is true, and personal experiences can help to identify underlying problems, but once personal feelings get the upper hand, there remains less room for objective reality. And solutions more likely come from addressing facts than from catering for sensitivities. But people often desire attention and understanding rather than solutions for their problems.

It is hard to interpret data, scientific analysis, correlation and probability when multiple causes interfere with the outcome. In economics, that is all too clear, and the mathematical models that economists use can give us a false impression of exactness. Scientists can err, but usually, it is up to science to prove that. For instance, we use coronavirus vaccines based on a risk assessment. There is a chance the vaccine harms you, so you only take it if the disease is more dangerous than the vaccine. Vaccine sceptics have a different assessment of the risks of the disease and the vaccine, often based on incorrect information. Nevertheless, the coronavirus vaccines are of a new type, and their long-term consequences are not yet known.

We do not always know beforehand what will work. Technocratic issues usually are not well-suited for politics. Measures can have unintended consequences. Improvements may come from trial and error, and problems often are not fully solved. Politicians may not be interested in improvement. Instead, they may tout their ‘solutions’ based on their ideology or religion and simplify matters to play on the emotions of voters. Perhaps you have the impression that politicians are more occupied with political theatre or doing the bidding of lobbyists than the betterment of your country. You are not alone.

The boards of corporations and government agencies make decisions that affect us all. Meanwhile, corporations and governments collect data about us. Their decisions usually stay outside the public view. Lobbyists influence the political process and often operate in secret. On the local level, business representatives befriend politicians and civil servants who grant them contacts. These things happen everywhere, and also in countries with low levels of corruption. Successful people in business and politics spend much time on social networking. The elites are, above all, a social network.

We are accustomed to growth, for instance, economic growth, and so are our political institutions, but we are using more than Earth can provide. To prosper in the future, we must change how we live. We hope for a better future but think in material terms, not well-being. Property, not happiness or love, has become the ultimate goal in many lives. And for many, the ultimate nightmare is to own nothing and be happy. We will not elect politicians who tell us we have to do with less. The expectation of material gain defines our political systems. After all, big men distribute resources to their followers.

The limits of democracy

In democratic countries, leadership often changes, and that can cause discontinuity. Dictators often stay in power for a long time. The limits of democracy are most visible in times of crisis because there is freedom of speech and the press. Usually, the institutions of a nation provide political stability, but if people think the institutions fail, political instability ensues. Today, this is most visible in the United States where political violence is rising. China is moving ahead and may become the most powerful nation in the near future. During the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union also powered ahead but failed later on. And so, China’s success is not necessarily a failure of democracy.

Politicians often do not do what they promised to do. There might be political struggles that deflect attention away from the nation’s problems. And democracies can make poor decisions when voters don’t like much-needed measures. In times of upheaval, voters might opt for a leader who promises to take drastic action, for instance when the economy has collapsed or when insurgents and criminals wreak havoc. The most notorious example is Adolf Hitler. The suffering of the Germans during the Great Depression and the inability of politicians to solve the economic crisis helped Hitler to grab power.

Political debates can be about facts, interpretation of facts, and fiction, for instance, the rain fairy, reptilians, or the Jewish deity. People also believe in money, laws, nation-states, and corporations, but these fictions create reality. In other words, we make these imaginations come true. Our faith in the rain fairy does not produce a rain fairy, but this religion might promote social stability. Lying and misrepresenting facts to forward political goals can undermine the functioning of democracies. Usually, people believe these lies. Politics is about which collective imaginations should drive our decision-making. A correct assessment of the situation likely leads to more favourable outcomes. Ridicule and containment probably are better countermeasures than banning free speech. After all, sometimes crazy ideas turn out to have merit.

Even in stable and functioning democracies, citizens often lack faith in politicians. Politicians are easy scapegoats if things go wrong. Most people do not see their contribution to a problem. Parliaments are not a representation of the population at large. Those who like to talk, for example, lawyers and teachers, tend to be overrepresented. Engineers who know how systems work tend to be underrepresented. Perhaps that is why laws often fail to meet the intended objectives. Poor people and people with little education also do not enter parliaments in large numbers. And so, politicians neglect their interests.

Perhaps giving citizens more responsibility via direct democracy can make democracy work better. If you voted for it, you won’t blame others if it goes wrong. And that can make you think better about the consequences of your choices. Switzerland uses referendums in addition to parliaments. The Swiss are content with their political system. Hence, it could be an improvement. Implementing direct democracy the right way is not simply introducing referendums. After all, good institutions do not guarantee good outcomes. Referendums can go wrong, for instance, by reducing complex matters into simple yes-or-no questions. Referendums work well in Switzerland because the conditions in society are favourable. Switzerland has a political climate in which citizens civilly debate issues, and people are willing to compromise.

Swiss democracy

Switzerland combines representative democracy (the use of parliaments) with direct democracy (voting on issues by citizens). The Swiss are satisfied with their political system so it might be an improvement to political systems in other countries.

As they say, freedom comes with responsibility. Perhaps, we can only be free if we consider the interests of everyone else because our choices can impede the liberty of others. And so, individual liberty may only thrive with social equality. Societies that succeed in combining personal freedom and social equality tend to be the happiest. The American natives had a great degree of individual liberty and social equality. When making decisions, they strived for consensus. They could be an example to us.

The Great Law of Peace

Is a more equal and free society possible? In the year 1142, five North American tribes formed a league known as the Five Nations. The league still exists. Their arrangements are not uncommon in tribal societies, and we could learn from them.

Some countries have done a better job of creating a prosperous, free and equal society than others, and their examples can help to lead us to a better future. Denmark is such a country, and Francis Fukuyama calls the issue of creating a prosperous, free and equal society ‘getting to Denmark’. Denmark combines a competent government with a cooperative relationship between unions and employers. The Danish economy is innovative, incomes and social benefits are high, and labour markets are flexible. Many pundits argue that cultural differences block the introduction of these features into other societies. It is not easy and takes time, but it helps when everyone agrees on the goal and helps to make it happen.

Featured image: House Of Commons in the United Kingdom. Parliament.uk. [link]

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).

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