If there is one job in this life which is impossible to always get right, it must be politics. It’s hardly surprising, then, that our frustrations with the political establishment are innumerable.
Any number of attacks, be they coherent or illogical, can come from any and all directions. Part of the politician’s sign of mastery is their ability to shrug off the blows and taunts and perform to the best of their ability despite limited knowledge, limited resources and limited vision.
Politicians are generally bad at what they do. This is understandable and is baked into the tragic genetic code of our political system: in their attempts to solve very complex problems, while adhering to often rigid ideological lines, politicians will inevitably run into the brick wall of reality.
When running for a seat in Westminster, there is no opportunity to remember the existentialist maxim: you won’t always get what you want. Rather than acknowledging the limitations of human beings, the flawed systems we create and the oxymoronic values we hold, the politician must sell all of their “solutions” to all of our problems with a straight face. No one wants to hear someone tell them, “Actually, there’s no perfect solution to this problem -– I can only offer you a trade-off between X and Y, and someone will always be upset by the choices we make with limited resources.”
As someone who was born in 1996, I sit right on the fence between Gen Z and the millennials, in the sweet spot which is simultaneously a generation of idealists and pessimists; visionaries and cynics; individuals of action and individuals of dissatisfaction. What frustrates me most about my peers is our ability to access more knowledge with a greater level of hindsight than any other generation in history, yet we continue to fall into the same traps which have plagued us since industrialisation (and thereby modern politics) left its embryonic stage.
The principal hypocrisy is the following: we complain about the state, yet we run to the state for answers. We rope ourselves into the same dynamic which has defined politics for decades: we seek an antidote to the state by asking the state to fix it. When stated thus, it seems obvious that this plan is destined to fail, yet we sleepwalk towards it anyway.
It is not just socialists who fall into this trap – the contemporary political zeitgeist has come to see government as the solution to every problem, from fast food to hate speech. The more we outsource our responsibilities to others, the less we are able to exercise our liberties in future. Like a muscle which is dormant for prolonged periods, it atrophies, until we wake up one morning and realise that we have forgotten how to use it for ourselves. We cannot become slaves to a political machine which will always seek to preserve itself above all other concerns.
Our reliance on political parties as means of coordination and simplification is understandable, but when the only choice of parties is between a party which will expand the state and a party which will engorge the state, our difficulties with bureaucracy, navel-gazing policies and insular nepotism will only compound. We must seek a new dynamic, and to do so requires a true recognition of basic economic principles and the public’s role as the “demand” to the political “supply”.
We must acknowledge our propensity for tribalism: to close our minds to information which might provoke us to re-evaluate many of our core assumptions; to stick to a camp which provides security (physical in the past, mental today); and to regard those who disagree as threats (again, an evolutionary phenomenon with immense logic behind it). We must construct a system of governance which attempts to keep these devils in check.
This was the desire of the American Founding Fathers and, despite Washington’s plea to avoid the tribalism which comes with political parties, Hamilton and Jefferson found themselves unable to attain such a lofty and quasi-spiritual goal. Washington’s disdain for political parties was expressed in his farewell address in 1796:
“The spirit of the party serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Who could honestly say that Washington’s observations are not prescient after watching the shambolic debate in the House of Commons over the Afghan crisis? Why should we be expected to settle for such a low standard of intellectual rigour and professional respect? Why should we allow our Parliament to be regarded as a laughing stock by the rest of the world?
Reforming our political system requires action rather than defeatism. To upend the cracked and rotten structures in Westminster will require the public understanding what is possible and what is desirable. It will require a great deal of public pressure to make the government as transparent (and thereby accountable) as possible.
For those of a more libertarian persuasion who are tired of incompetent governments ping-ponging back and forth, constantly attributing blame to the other side in a complete disregard for the facts, we must make it an unavoidable fact that a libertarian option is both achievable and supported by a large swathe of the public.
We cannot possibly expect the public to become experts on every subject (and indeed, experts also suffer from tribalism and come to entirely different conclusions with similar data sets), but we must enable educational institutes, non-governmental bodies and think tanks to give us the best possible chance at making an informed and conscientious decisions. To have the best knowledge available to us and to make a decision based on those findings is the best we can hope for, for there are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs.
We must take an active role, rather than a passive one, and remind ourselves that this government is indeed of our own making. The strengthening of civil society and its institutions will not just nourish the soul, but provide an alternative to the increasingly smothering incompetence and chaos of politics.