Democratic politics can be one of the most creative human activities. It provides an opportunity for the public resourcefulness and talent of citizens to be developed to the full. However, before exploring the positive potential of politics, it is important to acknowledge that for many people, “politics” as they see it is a nasty concept, a word with all kinds of negative associations.
When a group of young people in Pretoria were asked what came to mind when they heard the word “politics,” these were some of the things they said:
“It’s just scandals and accusations.”
“Lies and manipulation – you know all they want is your vote.”
“Long speeches, rehearsed and unfeeling – it’s not about you.”
“It’s old people’s stuff.”
Why has politics got such a bad name? When politics only revolves around elections, then it is difficult to escape the idea that political parties are in control of the game. There is nothing wrong with political parties as such. In fact, it would be impossible to hold elections without them. They provide an important channel for people to get involved in political activity and express their views, but they also often end up alienating others if they are the only game in town. Sometimes parties adopt fairly similar positions on an issue, but at other times they differ strongly. Differences between parties can result in bitter conflict and we’ve seen some of this in recent debates and arguments between party supporters, and even in violent conflict in communities. It is no surprise that many ordinary citizens try to steer clear of it.
Politicians themselves often receive much criticism. There are many unfair stereotypes. Politics is seen as something that only suits a particular kind of person: ambitious, power-hungry, ruthless and dishonest. The quotes above indicate just how negative many people feel about politics. They highlight the fact that people feel abused and manipulated by politicians. They don’t feel as though their interests really matter. They think that all politicians want is their vote. Citizens are not stupid. They are often very unimpressed by tactics that parties and politicians use to get people to vote for them. Unfortunately, this usually makes people run away from politics, rather than work to change it.
POLITICS AND POWER
One of the most common perceptions is that politics is about a struggle for power. In this fight there are always winners and losers. After an election, the party that wins the most votes is said to be “in power.” Of course it will work hard to stay there. The bigger its majority, the more powerful it feels. The runners-up in an election generally put a lot of energy into opposing the ruling party. They try to build their support so that they can take power away from the ruling party in the next election. The struggle never seems to end: if one party gains power, then another party inevitably loses power. In this view of politics, there is never enough power to make everyone happy.
Quite a lot of people have a negative idea of power itself. When they look around them and see the bitter power struggles in the world of politics, they end up believing that power is the root of the problem. Power is seen as a corrupting force that can get the better of anyone. Those who want it are treated with suspicion. Those who have it are seen as ill-intentioned or even evil. Those who don’t have it are thought to be innocent victims. In fact, this is a very simplistic understanding of power and politics. It is unfortunate that so many people have become so disillusioned, because both politics and power are essential in our world, with the potential to be positive forces of transformation.
Power comes from the Latin verb poder which means “to be able.” The idea of having the power to do things is much more creative than the idea of exercising power over others. Power becomes something to develop and expand, rather than a limited resource to fight over.
POLITICS AND CITIZENS
The word “politics” has an interesting history. It comes from the ancient Greek word politikos which means “of the citizen.” Originally, politics had nothing to do with parties or politicians. It meant the public relationships between citizens themselves. Politics was about the ways in which ordinary citizens engaged each other, across lines of difference, on matters of public or common interest.
Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, wrote a book called Politics which is still considered to be one of the world’s most important works of political philosophy. In it he argued that the key element of politics is plurality or diversity of interests and views. People are all different, and have different interests. Going back to Aristotle, politics is the way that people from different backgrounds and with diverse views manage to negotiate their clashing interests in order to solve public problems. In this sense, politics can be everywhere and can involve everyone. This older, richer view of politics still remains in phrases like “school politics” or even “family politics”.
Citizens can reclaim the real work of politics and make it their own by remembering the history of the idea. In today’s world, politics has tended to become detached from citizens. Too many people have the feeling that “it’s not about us.” Battles between political leaders play themselves out in newspapers, on television, in blogs and online platforms. The ideas and ingenuity of citizens seem to matter less and less. Politics becomes the domain of government, political parties and the media. Citizens feel sidelined, and disgusted by it all.
It was not until the 19th century that political parties began to dominate political activity in society. As a rule, parties organise themselves on the basis of different ideologies, for example conservative, liberal, socialist or marxist-leninist. These ideologies reflect different ideals of society and how it should work, particularly from an economic point of view. Often, as citizens choose to align themselves with one political party, they also develop strong prejudices about other parties and their followers. Political affiliation becomes a way of labelling people, or putting them in a box. Some citizens adopt these labels enthusiastically, while others resist them and develop a dislike for politics in general. As a result, politics tends to create strong group identities as well as deep divisions in communities. Some people are “in” and others are “out.” If this is the only meaning of politics, it no longer belongs to everyone.
The growth of political parties has also gradually had the effect of turning politics into a career. As some people become leaders in parties, they appear to become professional politicians. This creates an impression that some people are good at politics, while others are not. Many ordinary citizens begin to feel that they have no role in politics at all.
Citizens need to take back politics and make it work for them. When they do this they discover that they can build power without always having to fight bitterly over it, and in so doing have a positive impact on the world they live in. Learning to think and act politically first means being able to articulate your own interests and needs. Then it means acknowledging that other people’s interests are different, making an effort to understand them, and figuring out ways of negotiating and satisfying these different interests in order to achieve a goal of public importance.
YOUTH AND POLITICS
If we define politics as the negotiation of different interests to achieve useful public purposes, then we can say that politics is everywhere and involves everyone. Contrary to the opinion of the person quoted at the beginning of this article, politics is not just “old people’s stuff.” Young people have their own distinctive interests. By learning to articulate these and negotiate with others who have different interests, they learn to practice a different kind of politics. In this sense, politics is not only about power struggles and ideological conflict. Nor is it just about political parties and elections. Politics is engagement with the world. It is an everyday activity that takes place in all kinds of settings, like schools, youth groups, sports clubs, and so on. Politics is incomplete without the voice and action of young people. By exploring politics in the broadest sense, elections will become more relevant to young people too.
This excerpt was drawn from Idasa’s Youth Vote material – www.idasa.org