Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What do voters want?

The Nottingham University professor, Steven Fielding, has published two posts on the excellent university politics blog, Ballots and Bullets, dealing with the issue of what voters want - and therefore vote for - in their political leaders.

His first post was written after Theresa May appeared on the One Show.  In explaining why she would take part in a light entertainment magazine show, he noted that not only was she after its audience - some 5 million probably not very political viewers - but also needed to use the show to develop her empathy with voters.  Reasoned argument does not penetrate particularly far in a modern election, and some might dispute that two or three repeated mantras amounts to reasonable argument in any case. What voters are looking for is someone they can both admire as leaders and support as individuals who understand their own circumstances.  Fielding notes Aristotle's argument on "ethos, pathos and logos" in developing his point.

In his subsequent post, Fielding looks at the desire for voters to have a "strong and stable" leader.  Again, one might dispute whether the facts of May's leadership thus far really merit those words (weakness in the face of popular press campaigning and U-turning on budget promises within days don't constitute either strength or stability) but the reality is that she and her campaign managers have been successful in instilling that as a feature of her leadership.  Fielding references the arguments on "strong man [or person]" leadership from Plato, via Carlyle to Archie Brown (who disliked it but acknowledged the public's desire for it).

Fielding's two posts are engaging and accessible for A-level students, and help to consider what the features are for a successful leader in elections (both American and British).  They also illuminate the ongoing problem for anyone who thinks electoral politics is about an engagement of rational ideas, competing for the available political space.  It isn't and probably never has been.  It is about an engagement with the gut instinct of voters, the vast majority of whom are not interested in the minutiae of ideas.  Most voters, indeed, are not particularly exercised by the idea of democracy itself (the number of non-voters certainly indicates this, while even those who do vote contain a large number of agnostics who wouldn't miss the process if it were abolished).  What exercises them is the need for food, shelter, jobs and the chance of leisure - all exercised without obvious government presence.  If they do want to acknowledge a leader, they want that leader to look as if he or she knows what they're doing, makes occasional obeisance to the people's condition, and harasses their enemies with the minimum of actual conflict.  Currently, May understands that better than Corbyn.  Much better.

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