If the actual modern landscape is populated by skyscrapers and apartment blocks, then the political equivalent turns out to be defined by towers of the more fairytale variety. For aren’t we all ultimately waiting for that prince to swing through the window, hammer out a felicitous tax plan, and ravish us with his moving and quotable rhetoric?
A lot is made these days of how nihilistic we all are. Look how naive our ancestors were, we crow, with their stone circles, and their ritualised sacrifice and their entrenched sense of community. Not like us. Of course, as anyone who’s had even a passing acquaintance of fifteen-year-old boys will know, there’s nothing quite so un-nihilistic as someone throwing all the right poses without the bona fide existential blankness to back it up.
The truth is, we label ourselves post-this and post-that, when really all we want is to be post-cynical or post-unhappy. To be seduced, in essence. When we critique Trump, or May, or any other modern leader, it is under the implicit assumption that somewhere in the wings awaits a figure more Presidential, more Ministerial, more Cancellarial (that’s pertaining to a Chancellor, linguistiphiles) more statesmanlike than the incipient. In short, someone who fits our idea of what a leader should be.
Which makes the truth all the more painful. Namely, for all democracy’s obvious virtue, this utopian concept of the system throwing up the perfect leader is… well, utopian. Sure, your common or garden variety of populist might make the blood move in ancient and exciting ways, but even they wont find true concord with their acolytes, not once all the bluster is blown.
On the surface of things, this opinion does not cut against the grain. There’s a fair few people out there for whom the ‘all-as-bad-as-each-other’ mantra has long passed into established fact. More often that not, however, such an opinion is borne from sheer fatigue at the election hoopla, at the idealism, at the interminable party election broadcasts that push their Saturday night viewing further and further back in the schedule.
Alternately, a reasoned application of sociological principles can result in the same conclusion. Fiske’s relational models, to be exact, which built on Haidt’s and Shweder’s work on ethics. Fiske postulates an explanation as to how people compartmentalise their morality in a remarkably consistent way. And if, in the spirit of this article’s political theme, I massage the data to my own end, then it can extrapolated to suggest that we will truly never get on with our politicians.
Fiske’s theory sets out four separate frames of ethical judgement, the first of which is Communal Sharing. In this system, resources are shared freely within a group, with no regulatory system. This mode is reinforced by imagery that depicts the group as one unified whole, the sort that can be found in religions, tribalism and all over the toilet stalls of public lavatories.
He labels the second framework Authority Ranking, a linear hierarchy in which dominance or status entitles superiors to take what they want from inferiors. On the flip side, this then obligates them to a paternalistic, pastoral, or noblesse olive responsibility to protect their ‘subjects’. For a real-world example, see the ‘Only I get to bully you’ ethos employed by most siblings.
More complex for its reliance on some rationality over instinctive processes is Equality Matching, which is a fancy way of saying tit-for-tat. This encompasses schemes to divide resources equitably. It seems relatively intuitive to us, but in fact we are the only species to explicitly engage in such a fairness-orientated system. Of course, a cursory glance at the modern world would suggest some breakdown in its instigation, but that’s another story entirely, and one not entirely unrelated to the subsequent category.
Finally, more complex still is Market Pricing: the system that constitutes our economics and legalese. A more rudimentary way of looking at this is that all the paperwork you dread doing and constantly put off falls under this bracket. It will surprise very few people who have sat through A Level Maths classes that this is a cognitively unnatural state, and as such a testament to our neurological complexity.
Ethics, then, are simply the process by which we choose which relational model to be used in a specific situation. A quick perusal of performative history is illustrative; those two dramatic mainstays of tragedy and comedy, ostensibly opposed, both manifest through the application of unsuitable ethical frameworks. To highlight a grisly example, Shylock demanding a pound of flesh constitutes the moneylender introducing an unsuitable element to Market Pricing (just in case you thought shakespearean plots were missing a certain dull, bureaucratic sheen).
It follows that societal groups using alternative frameworks on the same issue shall be drawn into conflict. Capitalism vs Communism, the subjugation of women and religious fundamentalism can all be viewed through the prism of contradictory frameworks. Yet not all dichotomies are so obvious, which brings us back to the politicians.
The fundamental problem is thus: we will never have true concord with our leaders, because their perspectives diverge so sharply from our own. This is not some institutionalised failing, but rather an failing inherent to the institution of democracy itself. In order to effectively lead a nation, leaders must interpret events in a manner utterly alien to us hoi polloi. The pension system is a case in point. Your average man or woman on the street categorises this solely as an instance of Market Pricing. They pay money in, fill out the right paperwork, and, all being well, receive money in turn.
The civil servants who administrate the whole process similarly view it as an example of Market Pricing, not least because the matter of their own salaries becomes embroiled.
Not so politicians.
In a paradox perhaps unique to money, colossal amounts have the cumulative effect of making it seem less real. Whereas bartering for a Twix would present you with little more than an exasperated cashier, the finance gurus (we always call them gurus because its a lot less terrifying than ‘financial mediocrities’) interact more speculatively with money. As such, they might, in drawing up a manifesto, apply the framework of Equality Matching: money that has to be found for the emergency services might well come from the budget allocated for state pensions.
Is this not just the same as me budgeting for the week? Well, no. Because when you budget, you allocate a set level of money across a number of relatively inflexible areas. You can’t suddenly decide to stop paying your income altogether, and spent the equivalent money in Starbucks (well, not yet anyway). A government can pack in a initiative, privatise, nationalise and so on ad infinitum.
Which is obviously not to condemn democracy. It is, unquestionably, the most moral and effective form of governance. But it introduces the phantom carrot of a messianic leader, when in reality such a figure is impossible. Or maybe it’s not an inherent flaw, and the fault lies with the perpetual whirring spin machines found across bipartisan lines. Whatever the cause, it seems inescapable that we must face an eternity of politicians desperately grasping for an elusive likability through dead-eyed appearances on the One Show. Good luck everyone.