Why do we feel so disillusioned with our current leadership? Is it because ‘ideology’ is being disavowed just when we need it most?
Leadership was the unofficial theme of the week last week in the events programme, and it felt apt to gather and reflect on our collective direction at a time when public life often seems like one big rudderless ship. Whatever the angle or context, these discussions so often gravitate towards the importance of values for good leadership; that is, the onus on leaders to lay out a vision for how things should be, through appealing to ideals that mean something to people.
Holding our current political leadership up to this particular light quickly exposes why so much of politics feels off at the moment; we feel pessimistic or disengaged in part because our leaders are failing to make a good case for their version of how the world ought to be. This comes as part of a wider pattern in politics that sees the notion of ‘ideology’ disparaged and sidelined; as Eliane Glaser points out, ideology has come to be treated with suspicion and disavowed as implying some sort of insidious agenda or vested interest, often with totalitarian undertones. When we rethink ideology simply as an evaluative mechanism – a system of ideals, values and principles that forms the basis of the action we take in the world – it becomes clear how inescapably ideological politics is and always will be; to refer to something as “political”, as Glaser notes, is to understand it as being “animated by identifiable positions and agendas.”
Politics is ideological because it necessarily has normative content, and it is tribal in the sense that it involves collectively defining what we are for and what we are against. Democracy at its core requires principled opposition, division, debate, competing versions of right and wrong; as Chantal Mouffe reminds us, genuine ideological differences and disagreements are fundamental ingredients of agonistic politics. The fractious tone of current political debate might then deceive us into thinking that democracy is functioning well on this front, but while rhetoric is combative in style, it is feeble in substance, offering little in terms of clearly differentiated ideological alternatives; plenty of heat, but not much light.
Right diagnosis, wrong prescription
The Independent Group is an interesting arrival on the scene because it correctly identifies that people are fed up of politics as it is, but has wrongly prescribed a “post-political” solution. Its founding statement declared that its aim was to “pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology”, reminiscent of Blair’s assertion that “what matters is what works”, which prompts us to wonder: to what end, for whom, and who decides? Every political project has a definition of success that is inevitably value-laden, be that greater redistribution, unfettered markets, reduced government spending, or whatever. As Julian Baggini reminds us, the job of evidence is to inform policy-making to maximise the chances that a given intervention achieves the intended goal, but only ideology can tell us what that goal should be.
So claiming to be beyond ideology is blatantly disingenuous, but it’s interesting to consider what it was thought the optics of a statement like this would be to an electorate so obviously looking for something to believe in. The degree to which political imaginations, column inches, and Twitter display names have been hijacked by Brexit – a debate which has consisted more or less solely of ideological bluster while technocratic know-how has remained conspicuously low in the mix – demonstrates how eager people are for a vision to believe in that makes sense of their lived experience and aligns with what matters to them on an idealistic level. Brexit has become such a visceral issue because all along it has appealed to big ideological themes: sovereignty, national identity, freedom, cosmopolitanism. A significant factor in the referendum result was that Leave deployed ideological messages much more effectively than Remain, which took for granted that facts are enough to motivate people to act and to vote, and thus failed to tell a story that resonated. The ongoing Brexit debate, as well as the popularity of politicians like Trump – hailed for offering ideological distinctiveness and “something new” – are testament to Glaser’s point that the ideological vacuum we’re experiencing is an issue of supply: demand, on the other hand, is very much there.
Better politics, not less
Renouncing the place of ideology in politics and claiming to replace it with evidence has potentially worrying implications. Disguising a political stance as impartial common sense positions it outside the reach of evaluative assessment, exempting it from the possibility of criticism. Billing a particular political position as the only game in town because “you can’t argue with the facts!” quashes the potential for disagreement necessary in a healthy democracy and spares its proponents the important task of defending it against competing visions. It would be braver and more honest to frame a political outlook as a contestable version of things, arising from subjective interests and amenable to disagreement. Conviction lies in preparedness to persuade others of this version as the best one, rather than the only one, and to make the case for choosing it over identifiable alternatives.
It’s not that politics has become “too political” and the solution lies in disavowing ideology; it’s that politics has become simultaneously too arrogant and too cowardly to fight for our favour. The problem is in many political parties being at once both incredibly hubristic and exasperatingly timid, complacently taking for granted that our tendency towards partisanship will spare them from having to win us over, whilst failing to display the conviction that they could if they wanted to. This double serving of cynicism could be overcome by developing the courage to embrace a bit of idealism and in doing so, offering something genuinely new. Positing “post-ideology” as the solution for our broken politics gets it wrong: what we need is not “less politics”, but better, and better-defined, sets of values and ideals from which to choose, and politicians brave enough to make the case for their vision of how the world ought to be.
Nicky Saunter FRSA
In an exclusive RSA conveRSAtion event, Nicky Saunter FRSA finds out what took RSA Chair Vikki Heywood from her liberal but decidedly not academic early years to the helm of one of the world's most prestigious arts organisations.