The Bagehot column in this past week’s Economist argues that political reforms recently proposed in Britain are beside the point because prospective voters are increasingly divided into two indifferent camps, which it calls “The cynical and the bullied”:
On one hand there are the relatively well-educated, relatively well-informed, relatively young who expect to make their own decisions, find self-expression in buying what they want when they want it, and see themselves as individuals free of geographic, institutional or social bonds.
On the other are the casualties of de-industrialisation who suffer from persistent poverty and social exclusion. The former are cynical about political leaders and irritated that voting is not more like shopping, while the latter feel bullied and let down by the institutions they rely on for their survival.
That seems generally true, at least here in America. I don’t know that voters expect politics to be more like shopping, but there is a sense that shopping decisions are far, far more relevant than political affiliations or even political opinions in projecting an image of who you are in the culture. The real question is to what degree this is intentional—to what degree to those already in power actively discourage political participation.
That freedom from political entanglement—of being above politics— is seen as a kind of personal autonomy dates back to the 18th century and the spread of market economies and bourgeois values. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) Habermas lays out the argument that the bourgeois recognized themselves as independent, free, to the extent that their involvement with commerce liberated them from the corruption of court politics, allowed them to live private lives more or less ruled by the spontaneous order that the market generates. Their autonomy is a matter of politics dropping away, being supplanted by an economic order. The implicit faith in the market suggests their default mode would be not to vote, not to be involved with politics, which would underscore for them a failure in their worldview, a flaw in their freedom. Their ignorance of politics is for them a sign of strength, not of weakness.
So perhaps this attitude has been inherited by subsequent generations of middle-class people; a sense that it is a sign of distinction and good faith to ignore politics, to trust that the private sphere, the world that really matters, will be for all intents and purposes, be left alone. Hence politicans would have an interest to limit their state interventions to the “bullied” and to cronies; their policy would be to work around the edges to insulate the middle from awakening as a constituency. This would mean that Bush’s crony government is not some kind of accident of his bad management, but the very principle behind his electoral success.