Voices: Politics isn’t therapy – we should stop pretending it is

·4-min read

A cursory Google into the claims and promises made by our outgoing PM during his tenure paints a fairly vivid picture of a man who has quite a laissez-faire attitude to the truth.

Of course, we all knew this before he became prime minister; we have known it for years. So if you believe, as quaint as it sometimes seems, that character matters in politics, then what has materialised during the PM’s time in office was inevitable, even if you failed to register the background noise of collapsing scenery.

I cannot help but wonder what it is about human beings that makes us so willing to vote for and put up with people who do not have our best interests at heart. Clearly, our psychology plays a starring role here: certain politicians on the left and right, as well as in other areas of life, attempt to sell us a twisted form of therapy, validating our fears and frustrations and resentments.

They offer, in the place of real, if imperfect life, a view of a society gone horribly wrong. In lieu of an ambiguous future over which we have little control, they describe sunlit uplands to which we will all inexorably march, hand in hand, united, if only we trust them completely.

In times of flux and uncertainty and hardship, such a proposition, as simplistic and superficial as it is, can seem attractive – so attractive we may inclined to suspend our critical faculties. These leaders project an authority – the kind of authority that privilege and bombast and a smattering of Latin apparently succeed (rather depressingly) in communicating. This apparent authority, and the unshakeable self-confidence that seems to prove its validity, soothes us, makes us feel safe – so safe, in fact, that we may be willing to overlook obvious shortcomings in political ability.

The notion that a leader’s confidence frequently matters more to people than their competence is the sort of thing you sometimes find espoused unironically on LinkedIn, as advice for business leaders. Well, the stakes are a little higher in politics. If the Dunning-Kruger effect is to be believed, then it is typically the least competent who tend to overestimate their skills.

In certain politicians with self-serving tendencies, we also find a peculiar tendency to play the part of both aggressor and victim. So while we feel pacified by their bullishness and optimism with respect to our collective future, we are also inclined to identify with them, and the torrid time they have had at the hands of the establishment or bureaucrats or the media or Remoaners or... whatever.

How can it be, wondered a friend of mine, that an alumnus of Eton and Balliol is considered more of a “man of the people” than the child of a nurse and a toolmaker? It is astonishing what tousled hair and a tendency to play the victim can achieve.

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Ultimately, the problem with leaders of this kind is that, though they may have certain positive qualities, they are incompetent at governing. Sooner or later, things will go wrong. And when the promised future fails to materialise, or even long before that, we lose out. Such a leader will be inclined to blame others around them for their failings, and others around us for our misfortune.

We humans, you see, are always looking from side to side. In fact, there are studies showing we would rather receive no money at all rather than some money if another person were to get more than us. And the happiest societies are, of course, those with the fewest inequalities. In other words, so long as there is someone else to look down on, to blame, to be “better” than, a politician of a certain self-serving disposition can be fairly confident of attenuating our fears of being less.

Politics might function like a kind of corrupt therapy; but it is not therapy. It is not balm for a restless soul; it is not an opportunity for us to project our resentments onto the stage of communal life, which is what these sorts of people urge us to do.

When we put our faith in certain self-serving types and things go wrong, as they surely will, we suffer the consequences and are left to pick up the pieces of our battered society. So, to steal a mordant phrase from Carl Sagan, better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

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