Voting wisely: an antidote to consumer politics

Nick Spencer, December 2004

The publication of Votewise: helping Christians engage with the issues by Nick Spencer (SPCK, 2004) is the second in a series of three publications coming out of the Jubilee Centre in a six month period.

In the midst of the most frenetic US election in history, democratic candidate John Kerry took time out to go goose hunting in Ohio, and then to watch the ball game at home with a beer.

To the uninitiated it looked like he was taking a break. Here was an ‘all-American guy’, taking time to relax and spend time with his family during a tough month. To those with eyes to see, it was one of the key tactical moves of his whole campaign, as important as the three televised debates with President Bush.

Beginning of consumer politics

Eight years earlier, President Bill Clinton had hired political strategist Dick Morris to help him win the 1996 election, after a disastrous showing in the 1994 midterms. Morris, to the irritation of many in Clinton’s cabinet, persuaded the president to sideline major policy initiatives and to concentrate instead on the small-scale concerns of middle-class America and, even more importantly, to reflect back to them, through his interests, lifestyle, clothing, and preferred brands, their own preferences. The president went hunting, did DIY and engaged in other ‘regular’ activities and, in the process, turned the electorate around. The following year, the Labour Party imitated this aspect of Clinton’s campaign tactics with equal success. The mentality of the marketplace – ‘find out what the people like and want, and then give it to them’ – was their guiding light. ‘Consumer politics’ was born.

Such tactics are not limited to parties of the left, of course. Politicians across the spectrum engage in consumer politics today, determined to ensure that the ‘right’ message – i.e. the one that voters like to hear – is communicated at all times and in all places. The fact that this phenomenon is so widespread, however, makes it more, rather than less worrying.

It reveals the alarming fragility of democracy today, in which visions, policies, and debate can be subsumed by the image and the sound-bite. It may be unrealistic to expect the 44 million UK voters to read and inwardly digest every available election manifesto, but the idea that an election might be decided by a candidate’s hobby or favourite clothing brand is truly disturbing. Not only are these feeble grounds on which to choose a leader but they place a worrying power in the hands of advertising, PR and media executives. Images trump ideas and political vision is outpaced by pithy, memorable catchphrases.

Addressing political apathy

The irony in all this is that this new kind of politics, based on the market’s conviction that for democracy to work it needs to find out and then give people what they want, has done nothing to address, indeed has arguably deepened, political disaffection in the UK. Election turnouts are consistently low, criticism of politicians widespread, and disaffection with the political process almost universal.

Politicians have, on the whole, reacted humbly to this criticism, setting in place measures to address political apathy and to make the political process more accessible, relevant and interesting. There have, however, been few signs of the public’s political re-engagement.

The tragedy is that there is a straightforward, cost-free solution to the failure of consumer politics. It lies within the grasp of every voter in the land and was the motivating idea behind the Jubilee Centre’s latest book, Votewise . It is simply that thoughtful, introspective engagement with the issues that underpin the political process acts as a powerful antidote to the malleable superficiality of consumer politics . Sound-bites, slogans, photo shoots and other such paraphernalia instantly lose their power when voters are focusing not on personalities and images but on issues and ideas. It matters not a jot what brand of beer a candidate drinks or what advertising slogan he borrows if an electorate has made the effort to understand his vision and has compared it with its own ideas and hopes.

Tackling the big issues

In discussion with SPCK, who wanted to publish a book that would help Christians engage with the next general election, widely expected in May 2005, the Jubilee Centre identified those issues that would be most likely to dominate an election campaign and sought to provide a concise Christian critique of each, not so as to tell Christians whom to vote for but to equip them to vote wisely.

The book begins with an overview of politicians, their public and the political landscape today, seeking to explain, albeit briefly, some of the most important changes in UK politics over recent years. It then turns to the big issues.

Every month the market research company MORI asks a statistically significant sample of the population what they think is ‘the most important issue […and] other important issues facing Britain today?’ and then uses the results to track the public’s dominant concerns. During Labour’s second term those key issues were, in order of importance: health and the NHS; education and schools; defence, foreign affairs and terrorism; crime, law and order; race, asylum and immigration; Europe and the EU; the economy; pensions; and transport. [1] (The fact that two of the most pressing issues currently facing the world – environmental degradation and international poverty – do not make it onto the list is testimony to the natural and problematic parochialism of national politics.)

The central chapters of the book cover these issues, each chapter having three functions that divide it into roughly equal sections: firstly, to outline and clarify the contours of the political debate; secondly, to offer a sensitive reading of relevant biblical material; and thirdly, by synthesizing biblical teaching with a contemporary issue, to offer a series of principles against which readers might evaluate party manifestos and promises. Each chapter concludes with a list of books, papers and websites for those readers who wish to engage more deeply in the issue.

Engaging with politics

The idea that relationships are the key to Christian engagement with politics underpins the book. The manner in which our modern concepts of love and relationships have been so thoroughly personalised, romanticised and sexualised, often makes them seem alien to the hard, pragmatic world of politics. Yet, biblical teaching has a broader and more hard-headed understanding of relationships and of the conditions that build or destroy them, and provides for us, in the often-troubled history of the people of God, a personal, familial, constitutional, judicial, economic, territorial, and international model of how relationships should shape a society. It is this model that Votewise uses as a basis for political engagement.

In spite of nodding tentatively in the direction of, or away from, some specific policies, none of he chapters attempts to outline the definitive Christian stance on an issue. Accordingly, the book does not try to describe the ideal Christian election manifesto or to reveal what that mythical beast, the Christian political party, looks like. It does, however, hope to wrest the initiative from party manifestos by helping the voter to think through the issues and ask the questions that matter to them.

It also, perhaps most importantly, hopes to afford the reader a moment for self-reflection. Whilst sitting in judgement on elected politicians is entirely right and just, doing so without a corresponding act of self-examination is hypocritical and ultimately fruitless. Elections provide just such an opportunity and Votewise hopes to encourage readers to reflect on their own priorities, for themselves and for the society in which they live.

Ultimately, voting may not be easy, if it demands a difficult prioritisation of issues, or appealing, if the options available fail to inspire allegiance. But it remains an important privilege and responsibility for those who live in a democracy, and if Christians can engage with the issues seriously, vote wisely and provide an antidote to consumer politics, democracy will be healthier for it.

[1] See www.mori.com/polls/trends/issues.shtml for further details.

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Category: News and Reviews

December, 2004

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