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How to make our bad politics good

If we replaced demagoguery with a reflective political process we’d get equality and sustainability

POLITICS MATTERS. It has the potential to iron out the unfairnesses of nature and luck. We talk a lot about it. We’ve achieved a lot with it. There is an undercurrent of politics that moves irrepressibly towards respect for all – sex, sexuality, race are no longer the barriers they were recently to equal treatment. But overall it is frustrating and its returns are diminishing, particularly in terms of fairness, and the environment.
This is disappointing in a world capable of great sophistication.

Engineering is more effective for purpose

Engineers build bridges and planes that stay where they are supposed to. They rarely make mistakes and almost always do what they are supposed to do seamlessly and flawlessly.

Dangerous duds

On the other hand politics brings us Trump, Putin, May, Bolsonaro, and their policies.

And the visionless

It would be unfair to include Varadkar in such company as he is a democrat, and sharp. However, he hardly undermines the caricature of politician self-servers who prop up the status quo.


Sometimes it is difficult to see if politicians are useless – on some issues competing views are sustainable and you can disagree while conceding someone you disagree with at least has a point. But two topical issues yield insights into how definitively inept our politicians are: Brexit and climate change. If politicians are this bad on these issues we can see there are systemic problems.


After two years of negotiations politicians in the UK have not agreed what they want from a Brexit whose complex adverse economic consequences they clearly were too ill-informed to understand.

Climate change

On climate change, politics has shown itself incapable of moving quickly enough to deal with what the Science and the facts have shown to be imperatives for the most important issue of our age, perhaps of all ages, one that imperils humanity.

Clearly there is a range of issues where our politics abjectly fails.

Political journalists

It is worth emphasising that is not just politicians who sell the common good short. Globally, political journalism brings us timeservers who advance primarily the status quo and vested interests: on Brexit, on climate change, on the notable international move away from liberal democracy in several cases towards proto-Fascism. The casual regurgitators of counterfactuals.

Unspoken media ‘ideologies’

Media have, mostly undeclared, biases. The New York Times is East-Coast- liberal, anti-radical and po-faced. Irish media are far from the worst though they are typically confused and incoherent.

RTÉ promotes the status quo, old ideas and the reputations of the most privileged and richest. The Irish Times promotes the evolving liberalisms of the ‘South County’. The Irish Independent promotes populist conservatism and low taxes. And so on and so on.

They refuse to acknowledge their ideologies, and have, and are accepted as having, no independent notion of the common good.

This is no particular criticism. It is the way it is done; few are activated against it, fewer still cogently. But it doesn’t position them well to oppose the single-minded politics of the gutter that now engulfs the discourse.

How to enshrine the common good: cast votes for it

Politics is generally conducted in ways that are not ideologically well-defined and simple. If we are serious about eradicating the politics of the gutter – to find a definitive better way – we need to think afresh, to coalesce on some sort of a model.

What if voters were allowed, or forced, to make political preferences only after suspending their material interests and their gnarled psychologies? What if everyone’s politics enshrined the common good and the public interest driven by optimisation of the potential of humanity and the planet and the facts including natural and social science? What might the conclusion be?

If people were shielded from the distortions of their own material interests, capacities and psychologies they would tend to choose substantive equality, equality of position or equality of outcome. Experiments show that people cast very different votes if voting for the common good rather than voting for their own selfish interest.

Democracy must factor this into its processes. Otherwise – like any experiment carried out in sub-optimal conditions – it will produce a sub-optimal result.

So how are we doing?


We are not doing well on equality. Just 26 people own more than the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. The figure fell from 61 in 2016 to 43 in 2017 to 26 last year. The World Inequality Report 2018, co-authored by Thomas Piketty, showed that between 1980 and 2016 the poorest 50% of humanity obtained 12 percent of global income growth. By contrast, the top 1% captured 27 percent.

Certainly in 2015, the leaders of 193 governments promised to reduce inequality under Goal 10 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, according to a The World Economic Forum (WEF) index the gap in income between rich and poor has risen or remained stagnant in 20 of the 29 advanced economies while poverty increased in 17. Although 84% of emerging economies registered a decline in poverty, their absolute levels of inequality remain much higher. In addition, the report states, both in advanced and emerging economies, wealth is significantly more unequally distributed than income: This problem has improved little in recent years, with wealth inequality rising in 49 countries.

Income inequality has increased more rapidly in North America, China, India and Russia than anywhere else. There is a notable difference between Western Europe and the United States.

“While the top 1% income share was close to 10% in both regions in 1980, it rose only slightly to 12% in 2016 in Western Europe while it shot up to 20% in the United States. Meanwhile, in the United States, the bottom 50% income share decreased from more than 20% in 1980 to 13% in 2016”. There is some received wisdom but it is not universally acknowledged, still less applied: continental Europe, the report emphasised, saw income inequality moderated by educational and wage-setting policies that were relatively more favourable to low and middle-income groups”, according to the World Inequality Report.

Sustainability is a subset of equality

In passing we might notice that handing on the earth’s resources/environment to the next generation in as good a condition as that in which we found them is a central tenet of (intergenerational) equality. If people were shielded from the distortions of their own material interests and psychologies they would conclude that the planet must be preserved, at least in part for the benefit of humanity.


And yet, as the climate and species loss show, one generation, our generation, is destroying the viability of the planet for life as we know it. 2015 to 2018 were the four hottest years ever recorded, due to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5°C average rise above pre-industrial temperatures may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. If the planet warms by more than 2°C, most ecosystems will struggle. The rate of sea-level rise has risen from about 2.5mm per year in the 1990s to about 3.4mm per year today.

If the rate of ocean rise continues to change at this pace, sea level will rise 65cm by 2100 — enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities, and swamp 40% of productive land in the southern region of Bangladesh for example.

Species loss
Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Accelerating consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in evolution.

Equality, sustainability, accountability

All of the above is why Village promotes equality and sustainability.

Where to look and not to look

George Monbiot puts it well:
“The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Donald Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires; the influence of the Koch brothers in funding rightwing organisations; the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial; or the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.
It is not just governments that have failed to respond, though they have failed spectacularly. Public sector broadcasters have systemati- cally shut down environmental coverage, while allowing the opaquely funded lobbyists that masquerade as thinktanks to shape public dis- course and deny what we face. Academics, afraid to upset their funders and colleagues, have bitten their lips”.

In a world of such ephemeral and cynical distortions it is difficult to know where to look for political wisdom. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama disgracefully heralded the End of History in Capitalism’s ubiquitous triumph. He had no place for equality or sustainability. Capitalism was an ugly and shifting goal but he was widely celebrated by the party generations. In fact after the elite flogged Capitalism just unto the point where they needed to be bailed out, demagoguery and shallowness triumphed. Civilisation came to a full stop.

The only questions are what and who, next?

One, coherent, option is equality and sustainability. Who will champion that?