The Democracy Exam: Voters Have Power to Change Governments And How We Choose Them
Before our politicians take office, they are required to pass an exam. In this exam, they demonstrate their right to the political position they are applying for by undertaking hustings and debates and campaigning during election season. The examiners are voters. Collectively, we decide which politicians have passed the exam. Those who pass are elected to office and are afforded the power and responsibility associated with being an elected politician.
If an election is an assessment, what are we assessing politicians on? What criteria do we expect politicians to fulfil to pass the exam? It is through this question that the health of our democratic process can be evaluated.
A considerable proportion of campaigning occurs through the mediums of television and radio, where politicians partake in live debates, panel shows, and interviews. The plummet taken by the Conservative party in pre-election polls after Theresa May was absent from the BBC debate is testament to the significance of televised campaigning. News reports on electoral campaigning – whether online, on television, or in a newspaper – tend to be comprised of excerpts from these sources. Both the tone and content of political campaigning is influenced by the dominance of the debate style, shaping the information we have available on which to judge politicians.
These means of conveying information require succinct and charming communication. Complicated issues are reduced to soundbites and quips. Often, political issues are too complex to be conveyed in a short opening statement or response to an interview question. Details are missed out. Justifications are missed out. The territory of the soundbite response can be disorienting, particularly as on the spot answers are often required. One such example is Diane Abbott’s interview with the LBC, where she stumbled on figures, whilst discussing cuts to police funding. Her wider point went unacknowledged by media outlets and the public alike, who instead focused on her momentary memory lapse as evidence of incompetence. In practice, on the spot memory retrieval is a skill irrelevant to one’s capacity to be a good politician.
Our faulty examination techniques elect politicians ill-suited to their role
The format also feeds into an emphasis on the politics of personality, an arena where what you say is far less important than how you say it. Consider Nigel Farage’s persona as a typical bloke with whom many would be keen to have a pint. This technique for garnering support flourishes in a political landscape where back and forth banter take precedence above the discussion of policy. Again, whether Nigel Farage would be fun to have a pint with is entirely irrelevant to his capacity to be a good politician.
In amongst all of these confusing signals, two things are happening:
We are not given access to relevant information on which to assess politicians. If interviews only scratch the surface, how are we supposed to fully assess the issues and make an informed decision in the voting booth?
We are being conditioned to care too much about factors that are irrelevant to one’s potential competence as a politician.
The consequences are serious. Our faulty examination techniques elect politicians ill-suited to their role. Politicians who hoard expenses. Politicians who are later exposed as bigots. This is done whilst ignoring other candidates who might be more well-matched to the position. Whilst focusing on extroversion, personality, and capacity for soundbites, we ignore diligence, intelligence, policy preferences, and moral integrity.
If we expect our politicians to be better, we must become better
We need to reform the exam, but how? The problem is not that politicians are criticised and questioned on their policy positions, but that this investigation is instead focused on extraneous areas, such as whether a politician retains a cool demeanour or becomes flustered. The responsibility for changing this culture rests upon everybody. More so than politicians and the media, the individual voter has the power to enact change.
Each individual voter must realise that simply consuming election season media more critically gives us power.It is a power not just to change governments but to change the way we select governments. The desire for a greater analysis can be seen by the reaction to Jeremy’s Paxman’s pre-election interview with Jeremy Corbyn. The more outraged we are when our politicians and media let down, the greater the pressure to change. The more we demand information - such as MPs’ records - the more we force greater awareness.
Here, the UK is fortunate to have a public service broadcaster in the BBC - still the most trusted news source. As such, they have a responsibility to inform not to search for ratings. Under public pressure for better political coverage, the BBC is more likely to respond than a commercial channel.
If the BBC leads the way other journalists may find they have an opportunity to report on election manifestos and the voting records of politicians, to bring relevant information to a wide audience of voters. The media have a responsibility to be critical, but not antagonistic. Public pressure can work to create a new media, one that provides us with the information we need to choose the right politicians.
Politicians want votes and media outlets want ratings. A race to the bottom depths of sensational campaigning is to be expected. We are our greatest power and the greatest obstacle to change. If we expect our politicians to be better, we must become better at choosing good politicians.
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