Don’t care, won’t care
Why political campaigns drive apathy
We as consumers might think ‘engagement’ is fluffy jargon used by brands, which we know are morons that exploit us. And yet, people love brands and they despise politics. Go figure. It’s because brands know engagement is important, and they know how to do it. They can teach us how to fix political apathy.
A world in which we all loved politics would be so different. There are no spin doctors, my favourite politicians would be speaking from the heart and directly talking to their supporters – not through biased TV interviews or uncomfortable debates. We are able to talk about our concerns, needs and wants via social media and we expect instant responses. We have demanded and won a fairer society, one that does not adhere to former party lines – instead my elected MP responds to local issues with no concern as to whether he/she is left, right or centrist.
My new world allows me to engage whenever I feel the need, for example when a specific issue has arisen. This makes me feel that my voice will always be heard. Society is no longer divided along party lines with ideologies consigned to the scrap heap. As a consequence, our society is more content, more peaceful and Parliament exists for the people it represents and not for corporations or other vested interests.
Fred: Engagement matters…
When I was four I learnt what a ‘relationship’ was. My mother sat over my brother and me and explained that if I gave him some of my Playmobil, he might give me some of his Lego. I was sceptical but I tried it out. It was magical. The give and take generated far more than a practical exchange.
We shouldn’t be glib about political engagement, but at its base it really is as simple as a relationship like this. And yet political disengagement is a problem, a huge one. We’ve been speaking to Brits over the past 3 weeks, learning how angry they are with politics, and how sick they are with the clamour of being right or wrong, left or right, in or out.
Apart from anything, there is nothing in it for them. Their Playmobil gets them no Lego, and understandably the whole political process has become ridiculous to them.
When we ask them what political engagement looks like, we hear this echoed back continuously. People want to input and they want to feel listened to. They want politics to be a loop, one that is opened and closed by politicians who discuss issues that are important and relevant.
And the benefit of this?
“The benefit to me of a world engaged in politics is that I feel calmer…” Dave C.
Simply, the benefit is serenity. Calmness, no anger, happiness, contentment. Confidence in the future, feeling ok. Being listened to flatters our ego and sates our thirst for recognition. In an individual world, where we are no longer a cog but our own unique machines, a governing system that gives back to us and makes us feel recognised is highly desirable. It soothes our anger of being ignored.
And if the government can build engagement with the population, proving that it is listening, then good things will happen. The benefit is smooth and sustainable progression, with minimum barriers put up to positive change – change that in its very foundation will have been built by the people it is aimed at.
There are ways of truly and meaningfully engaging people, and if you succeed in closing that loop, the magic will happen. Policies and political messages will feel relevant, people will feel empowered, and governments will succeed.
Laurent: …but engagement is broken – and we can fix it
Mark Ritson argues that politics is a cheap version of marketing, and points out “these parties never actually deliver on anything” whilst brands learn from the people they serve and act on it on a daily basis. And when you listen to people they tell you, like Kemi R., that a world where people are fully engaged in politics is “a world where all didn’t seem so futile. Today, it seems like no matter who you vote for, nothing changes. ”
15 years ago, the world of business went through a massive shift, and brands started to change the way decisions were made.
The algorithm is straight forward: engage in meaningful conversations and relationships with your customers, understand who they are, what they need, what their aspirations are then build your strategy, design your products and services and communicate according to what you find out so that’s it’s relevant to them. Simple. As it’s been widely proven, brands that do this outperform the competition and their customers are happier, and more loyal.
Now, that’s exactly what politics doesn’t do.
Politicians and the supporting media system think they engage people, that they capture their opinions to focus on the right topics and treat them well, whilst in fact they do the opposite. They push the topics that are important to them and treat them in a way that fits their own agenda. They use what they hear without listening. And that is because the way they listen is ancient and broken.
The first way is the vote, a binary choice requested every 5 years or so. There’s no need to dwell on why asking an “either/or” question so infrequently doesn’t capture the nuances and distortions that underlie complex opinions about a wide array of crucial topics. The vote, as a way to empower people and gather their feelings about what direction the country should take is a completely inefficient system.
The second way is polls, used ad nauseam by politicians to inform or justify their actions. People are suddenly re-examining them after they failed to predict Brexit or Trump, but polls have always been ineffective.
The biggest problem is that it’s still the politicians who decide what the conversation should be about. Brexit is a good example of a topic that was presented as something that “had been poisoning British politics for years”, whilst in fact, nobody gave a damn about the EU until it was used to serve the tactical agenda of the government in 2015.
And this isn’t news! In 1972, Bourdieu, one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, already denounced this flawed system (it’s so old it’s not even a PDF), stating that the issue with opinion surveys is that the topics are dictated by the political context. In other words, the problems posed are political problems. Not people’s problems.
On top of that, the methodology itself is skewed as it takes for granted that everyone has an opinion about everything. This means that, often, people will invent an opinion when asked about a topic, or answer a different question than the one that was asked, resulting in “the interpretation only being a record of the misunderstanding“.
Politicians shouldn’t be the only people in charge of framing which challenges we tackle as a country, especially as the opinions they capture to justify what they’re doing about these problems are totally biased.
And if you ask ordinary people, like we did, it becomes clear that they feel they’re not being listened to:
“Everyone has something to say, even when they start the sentence with “I’m not interested in politics”. It would be nice in this world to have more referenda as this would release more interest and keep everyone going.” says Patricia C.
So how do you get there? A lot of very interesting things are happening all over the world.
Alternatives to the voting system are emerging in France, and new ways to engage people beyond elections are popping up in Iceland, where policies are initiated by citizens, in Chile, where the senate takes the form of an online platform on which citizens can discuss and modify bills, and have always existed in Switzerland through local and national referenda. They organised 120 of them in the past 20 years versus 2 in the UK.
So, is there any virtue in engaging people? We hope you now believe there is.
Does the current system favour engagement? Absolutely not. Can we do better? Just ask our neighbours.
Time to start talking about the real problems, don’t you think?
Our voters – undecideds, ambivalents, emerging voices and steadfasts – What are they feeling before, during and after they visit the polling station today?
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