Politics is about Ideas

Steve Richards is described as “one of the most influential political commentators in the country” He is the chief political commentator of the Independent on Sunday and in his recent Guardian piece he emerges as the chief defender of the political orthodoxy that politics is, and this is truly incredible, about ideas.   Aye right as we say in Scotland, politics is not about our evolved moral psychology but about a dispassionate, considered and rational discussion about ideas.

In a column called “David Cameron will lose the battle of ideas if he keeps firing 1979’s bullets” he qualifies his assertion in this headline a little saying ” There is a single explanation and it relates, as Miliband suggests, to ideas. For a party to win this contest, its ideas must match the mood of the times.” Then he has David Cameron “must win the new battle of ideas” and concludes that the Government “is failing to win the battle of ideas.  Richards is arguing that politics is about or ought to be ideas.

Actually he doesn’t really believe this orthodoxy and his own column groans under the weight of contradiction – as above the ideas must apparently match the mood (i.e. the emotions) of the country.  Also “the policies that arise from those ideas must form part of a coherent political project”  Oh wait not just ideas then but ideas rooted in a coherent political project.  He means here that ideas must appeal to the moral foundations which underpin the limited number of voting blocks.  He has “most voters do not pay attention to politics, let alone ideas”.  The reason most voters do not pay attention to politics is because ideas don’t engage them, emotions do.

“One of the mysteries in the current political situation is why the Conservatives are not well ahead in the polls.”  Well it is mysterious if you think that politics is about ideas but if you think that politics is moral psychology and rooted in intuition and emotion then the situation in British politics might amenable  to some explanation.

One person who thinks that politics is mediated by emotions which support political strategies which look like conservatism and liberalism is Avi Tuschman the author of  Our Political Nature.  Note how violently Tushman’s thesis contradicts that of Richards:  there were conservatives and liberals 25,000 years ago on the African Savannah and we can be reasonably confident that not a one of those folks living then believed that politics was about ideas or political philosophy.  More likely the ideas and political philosophy that have emerged in the past 400 years have been retrofitted to fit the last 400,000 years of human psychological evolution.

In “Our Political Nature” Tuschman points to a typology of voters that might be useful in understanding the becalmed condition of the British Conservative party.  There are four types -ideologues,  wallet voters, identity voters and non-voters.  Wallet voters (see Labour press this button here)  look in their wallet and if they like what they see they vote for government.  Right now in the UK despite the start of the economic recovery wallet voters have less money than they had several years ago so they didn’t vote Labour in 2010 and are not with the Tories in the opinion polls.   Identity voters can vote as pensioners, as being gay, as being a Londoner, as being self-employed.  They identify with a group and try to vote in the interests of their group.  Some of these identity voters identify as being British or English and formerly they were available to the Conservative Party but now they are with UKIP.  Non-voters are non voters they will vote only if the issue is profoundly simple and deeply salient.  (In Scotland the Yes campaign in the Independence Referendum  is wisely fishing in this pool because the issue is indeed simple and salient).   In the UK general election though nothing is simple or salient enough to bring non-voters to the Tory flag.

If politics is moral psychology why are there non voters, wallet voters and identity voters?  There are two types of answer to this and one is that intuitions and emotions and psychological traits are biological phenomena which always expressed strongly in some and weakly in others, they are also expressed variably and independently.  The voter who believes in social justice and the moral righteousness of his In-Group will have no one to vote for.  Also the sheer ancientness of the psychological traits are adapted to Tanzanian social life 20,000 years ago (not 20,000 year old ideas) and that makes it hard sometimes to make sense of George Osborne.

So the Conservatives are becalmed on three of the four types; what about the ideologues?  Well it is even worse there – there is complete ideological convergence which may be in the country’s interest but it isn’t in the interest of the political parties.  New Labour adopted some of Thatcher’s clothing (rejecting many important items) and added to its basic leftist Haidtian harm reduction and fairness moral foundations the Fiskian Social Structure reference of Market Pricing in its enthusiasm for free markets and capitalism.  In response to this move and the attendant political success the Conservatives claimed social justice as their own (no cuts to the NHS and development aid) and moved away from the In group loyalty foundation (recall “banging on about Europe all the time”).  This last shift was UKIPs opening and now the Conservatives cannot shift these new colonists.

However it is the movement of the Liberal Democrats which completes the ideological convergence – there they are running New Labour’s fierce anti-terrorist policy, reforming education, reforming welfare and cutting benefits, fighting Blairite wars of liberal intervention, cutting taxes…In Fiskian terms they have adopted MP for which they previously evinced moralised antagonism.  They have moved from anti-authoritarianism to mild authoritarianism. If politics was about ideas then changing your mind shouldn’t be too bad – there should be a certain churn of ideas  but that is not what the Libs Dems have done.  They have changed the whole moral psychological basis of their politics and it is that which has led them to the edge of an existential crisis.

In times of continuing austerity none of the three parties can communicate at the level of emotion as effectively as in times of growth.  No tax cuts can be offered, no spending increases can be offered and with three parties fighting on the identical emotional ground it is hard for the Conservatives to break out in opinion poll terms.  Their only hope for 2015 is that wallet voters will conclude that even tough there is less in their wallets than in 2015 than 2008 the best hope for refill in the short term is the Tories.


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