Even small holidays like Easter have me pondering the point of politics. You don’t come across much politics during a holiday, unless you’re a politician on an international jolly during the term break.
Holidays reduce life to its essentials. Politics isn’t among them, so how important is it? I’ve figured that the irrelevancy of most national-level political activity to ordinary life is part of the strength of the democratic system.
In our fundamental relationships politics does not exist. I don’t find national politics at the beach, with family and friends, eating, drinking, talking, and working with other people. The ‘politics’ of intimate and familial relationships exist, of course, but I’m talking societal politics.
The kind of politics that voters live is not the kind politics that the Beltway lives. For a PR guy who needs to know his clients’ audience, this reminder is vital to me.
Out here in the dry grass backyards, the cooling beaches of autumn, politics is a space filler. It’s fascinating to hear a Government announcement zip past in a 15 second news bulletin never to resurface, to see people turn first to the sports pages, and to completely miss the TV news bulletin.
Politics provides humorous relief and a reference point for ridiculousness. An organiser of a fishing competition quips that John Key will be buying all the fish caught. A neighbour laughs at the Greens’ earnestness. A farmer guffaws at incomprehensible Labour policy while rabbit-hunting.
Is politics really this irrelevant? Of course not – politics helps large groups of people live together and express common values. What is really going on in the above examples is that we are using politics as a fulcrum – a way of finding common ground and establishing shared values.
None-the-less, the most important things to each of us are local, so irrelevancy is the starting point for national politics. It’s a long climb out of the immediacy of the personal, the interpersonal, and even the community. Out in the wild, the output of national politics is ruthlessly graded. Like a journalist’s pyramid hierarchy of news, only the most locally relevant makes it to headline consciousness.
Everyday things help people collectively make better political decisions. In the wild a political idea lives or dies on the basis of its relevancy to voter’s lives. They can make a rigorous judgement because they have no emotional investment in the idea. This ruthless real-life grading system rejects ideas that don’t make sense, and ignores ideas without everyday relevance.
People don’t judge a political programme, policy, or statement just in terms of everyday relevance. Voters also have a life-view, an ideology, and an experience from which they form political opinions. Each voter is already pre-disposed toward a particular political viewpoint. They assess the relevancy, and read the meaning of, political events with that subtext.
This double-barrelled basis for ruthless grading of politics can appear to intellectuals as voter apathy, and occasionally ignorance. But voters’ grounding in the real needs of life is the strength of democracy. Autocracies and dictatorships show what happens when unfettered control is given to people who live politics as a lifestyle as well as a profession.
So every holiday I give thanks for the apparent pointlessness of politics. If politics wasn’t largely irrelevant, we would never know for sure when it really mattered.