openDemocracyUK

We get the government our political literacy deserves

Cynicism towards the election is no shield against political manipulation. 

Rahul Desai
6 May 2015

Russell Brand graffiti, Shoreditch. Image: Flickr/ duncan c

It has been about 18 months since Russell Brand’s proud proclamation of not voting, concluding at the last minute with an election omni-endorsement for Labour, SNP and the Greens. In the intervening period of justifiable outcry he became a symbol of political disillusionment and less accurately, apathy. His history of activism added substance to his outrage unlike some of his armchair detractors. He knows democracy is more than voting even if he originally rejected that essential act.

It became fashionable to attack Brand in the same way we attack politicians. But what about us critics, die-hard voters who pride themselves as engaged in politics? Is simply performing our one act of democracy every 5 years as unhealthy as Brand’s pre-voting stance? 

There is a lot to suggest we are wrong a lot of the time about social issues. Our collective level of financial literacy is a serious cause for concern considering we’ve had over three decades of free market dominance culminating in catastrophe. The difference between debt and deficit anyone? Many students are now realising the financial system with its massive global influence is worthy of attention, and let’s hope this will result in a robust inquiry rather than a gaze of admiration. Tomorrow we will be asked to vote in an election across a broad range of issues but we seem to have forgotten the problem of this knowledge deficit.

There are far too many voters who need to be reminded that nurses, the police, firefighters, teachers, disabled people, benefit claimants, the young, immigrants and hoards of low income workers did not cause the banking crisis. The clue is in the name. This demonstrates the soft power that the establishment holds. Labour, for all their faults, didn’t control Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers nor an American sub-prime mortgage bubble. Meanwhile the Tories publicly stated they would have backed their opponents pre-crash spending plans so their economic attacks are discredited.

With this in mind the public have gradually accommodated the interests of the elite through a kind of uninformed consent. We think our robust cynicism is a shield against manipulation when in reality we are lead on a merry dance – endlessly discussing immigration when our banking culture is the greater threat. It is true our lack of solid political or financial education and media misinformation play a role in our compliance, yet we have at our disposal a great educational tool - the world wide web. 

Poor Tim Berners-Lee, he might have envisioned it as some utopian accessible learning resource - a leveller for those with unfortunate backgrounds and circumstances. But we’re all suckers for click bait, we all get outraged at profit-driven shock trolls, we all get misled with sensationalist headlines. We legitimise websites we hate sending them traffic when other sites are more deserving and more in need. Global collaboration and political information is at the reach of most people's fingertips but chances go begging. There are a multitude of websites that inform: government or otherwise. We are the nation of the BBC, with its great strengths and weaknesses. And then there’s that stuff through the letterbox. File it in the bin in junk-mail rage if you must but don’t complain you’re not involved.

The origins of this malaise could be found in the myth of individual freedom as pedalled by Thatcher. It has created a sense of complacency and self-entitlement. Self-reflectivity and critical thinking have become too challenging for a society that treats any form of intellectualism as po-faced elitism. Hence, UKIP are somehow considered a credible protest party. On top of this politicians pander to us for votes failing to mention we have a responsibility to learn the system. Therefore we think we know politics and society innately and deserve its rewards, and when these don’t come we give up completely. This irrational uninformed cynicism is ineffectual noise and only plays into the hands of power. We need the equipment to decipher the level of deceit. It's easy to identify problems in the political system but there has to come a point when we go beyond this.

Collective ignorance is a feedback loop so we are served vague slogans like ‘British values’ (colonialism?), the ‘Big Society’ and the staggeringly audacious ‘we’re all in this together’. Too many election vox pops from the public contain cliches and regurgitated opinions. Concurrently ugly smears and negative campaigning aided by social media thrive in this arena of shallowness. Such tactics put us closer to the polarised often hysterical world of US politics. Even more worrying is that these tactics work

It is easy to criticise both politicians and narcissistic comedian-activists who tell us not to vote. It is enjoyable to cheer political gaffes, see speeches get remixed by Cassetteboy then reported on Buzzfeed. If this is your only level of political engagement, though, you're playing pin-the-tale on the donkey. There are too many layers and nuances to politics to think watching House of Cards makes you Jeremy Paxman.

Recently Will Self on good Question Time form claimed politicians ‘won’t tell the truth about how little power and control they have’. He could have added ‘they won’t tell the truth about how little political knowledge we have’. And it’s partly our fault.

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