I love politics. I love the shocks, the analysis, the numbers. I love the violence, the satire, the ups and downs. I can watch a huge amount of news, checking the updates like it’s the football. I can watch a huge amount of commentary. Left wing, right wing, classic liberal, progressive, analytical, self-reflective, unsubstantiated, dizzying, labyrinthine, unending.
This is a problem. And it’s my problem. It’s my fault – I’ve allowed myself to become addicted, like drugs for nice Christian boys, or even for less nice ones. I guess it’s your problem too. Either you watch with horror or glee each twist and turn of Brexit, the Middle East, Russia or you are so sick to the teeth of it all that you just don’t care.
Perhaps you think I’m being overly judgemental – I’m good at feeling guilty – but let’s take a moment to consider the place of politics (until quite recently) in my life. Perhaps this will chime with you:
- I check the news constantly, wanting to know exactly what is happening; it is almost a nervous tick
- I enjoy having “thoughts” on the current issues and discussing them with my friends
- I enjoy controversial moments – I am ashamed to say have watched thug life style take down videos eg Vegan Apologist Destroys Bacon Eater (but not actually that one)
- I watch commentary seeking new angles, I watch people I like and those I dislike.
- I enjoy agreeing. I enjoy disagreeing
- I watch videos which inform me of things I already know and rewatch important moments
- I am not very politically engaged beyond discussing on facebook and twitter
- I watch political commentary videos to relax
- I check polls constantly
- I stay up to watch important votes.
- I would pay to see some of my favourite speakers
Reading that list it is clear that I was fairly far gone. But it is also clear what is going on. Politics is a sport to me. I was, unsurprisingly, never very good at football. But politics takes that place in my life. Read the list again, these are, with a few minor tweaks, entirely appropriate ways to feel about sport. Politics is like theatre to me. I feel emotional at the big moments; heck, I enjoyed watching the collapse of “my team” in several recent votes, horror is thrilling in its own way, laced with the over the top highs of twitter and youtube live streams.
Politics is not sport. It affects peoples lives. People live and die based on foreign policy, welfare policy, healthcare policy, abortion policy. And yet here I am watching another Peter Hitchens supercut. Another Owen Jones interview. Another BBC non-article. Another controversial Guardian think piece. The unending news cycle means I don’t actually consider any of the big issues. What have I done to affect the result of the Brexit referendum? Nothing. How much can I affect the Kavanaugh proceedings. Not. One. Jot.
Football is not the most important thing in the world. We love the twists and turns – a Leicester City season is a euphoric and perhaps once in a lifetime experience. But we know its place. We can talk about it endlessly from our armchairs because we do not play and it doesn’t matter. Footballers live glamorous unattainable lives because they can. We shouldn’t worship them, but we do, following their careers like Olympian gods, ready to turn on them when they disappoint us. This is often troubling, but it is made less so by its importance. Footballers do not decide whether we go to war or leave supranational blocs or whether to end 180,000 human lives a year. Our worship, if tawdry is at least meaningless.
Politics is not the same. Our votes do change things, and those we worship meaningfully affect our lives and others. What’s worse they weaponise our interest, keeping us scared or angry, thankful or confused. I don’t say this to damn politicians, this is surely an obvious truth. If the inner workings of Amazon or Tesla were as interesting to us, they would weaponise them for cash (spoiler: they do). It is a natural instinct to survive. But we play along, we love each Boris gaffe, debating each time whether he is really fit for leadership, without ever discussing his voting history let alone considering how many weeks we should talk about Boris per year. We dance merrily from antisemitism to Tory insurrection to party conference season, ever accompanied by the deafening drone tones of Brexit, an issue which we kid ourselves if we believe we can understand or predict (understanding and prediction are strongly linked) or change, certainly not by just reading and arguing.
We are complicit in a great news coliseum, loving the lions tearing apart the huddled captives without realising that one day we will have sand between our toes. Each week is a beautiful new season of fashion, gaudy or sophisticated, and yet the clothes that matter are always the same. Foreign policy, NHS, Free speech, economic productivity, etc, etc.
Has it always been thus? Or when and how have those things changed? And have I noticed? And have I affected it? And did I vote based on that? Or did I vote based on whether the Tory party seemed Strong and Stable or Weak and Wobbly. Or whether this week Jeremy is a freedom fighter or a nasty piece of work.
So perhaps I shouldn’t follow politics at all. This is, I think a more reasonable approach than you might think. I would not kid myself that I understood things I did not. But maybe you say you read the news in a healthy way. Seriously, ask yourself, “why do I follow politics?” Hold that answer in your head. Let’s examine some:
- To understand the system
- To predict what will happen
- To understand things that have happened
- To change things
- To set expectations
- To hold politicians to account
Now consider, if you really followed politics for the reason you said, how would you act? Do you act like that?
The first point is throw away. Understanding systems for their own sake is all well and good – my final year project was on the mathematically obtuse Khovanov Invariant, I am in no place to throw stones (nor are my atrophied muscles capable of it) – but is news/youtube/twitter really a good way to do this? Perhaps pick up a book on political systems. Furthermore, I doubt most of us love rules as much as I do and even I wouldn’t say this is the whole reason I’m interested. I guess that’s the case for you too. I think most of us understand things for the sake of predicting what will happen or knowing what happened in the past, rather than the pure elegance of the system itself.
Which brings us onto point two, predicting. I would say prediction is near the heart of understanding anyway. If you can’t predict (produce an accurate set of probabilities of) what is going to happen, do you really understand what is happening? There is an advantage to knowing what will happen. To knowing when the pasta will be ready or when your train will arrive. But in these examples we have much time to learn the systems and the systems repeat many times in the same way (note though what happens to train timetables when something unpredictable happens). Political systems are not the same. This, from David Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow: “If the environment is sufficiently regular and if the judge has had a chance to learn its regularities… You can trust [an expert]’s intuition”. Politics is neither regular, nor have any of us had the hundred lifetimes necessary to connect the cues to their effects, such as that snow means the trains might be late. Worse, we think we do know. This again from Thinking Fast and Slow:
[Phillip] Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur in the not too distant future, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge … Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that thing.
The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.
If you think you can predict political events accurately, you are wrong. You would have to be far smarter than the rest of us (why aren’t you earning millions? Why didn’t you get perfect grades? Tell me if you can consistently win money gambling on political events). So while I will not say understanding is worthless (it isn’t), we are terrible at predicting politics, so if you read the news each day for this purpose, you are doing so needlessly. I would recommend reading the same aggregate of polls every couple of weeks and even then pollsters are notoriously inaccurate.
Something similar is true of understanding why things happened. If we are unable to predict recurrences accurately, do we really understand why things have happened? If World War III were about to happen, would we see it coming? The Doomsday Clock has been terrifyingly close to midnight for a while now and yet it is unclear if we are to wait around or soon be plunged into nuclear war. That said, I think we can probably have higher confidence about which particular events lead to what in the past, so there is some place for understanding. On the other hand, you’re almost certainly not going to find that out by reading today’s opinion columns, which are far too close to the events and without the tremendous value which hindsight provides.
If we read the news in order to actually change things, do we do so? When was the last time you tried to contribute to a major change? I think voting matters because I think we should behave as we want everyone to behave, but the real effect comes from convincing many other people to change their opinion. I am, as you may have noticed, for reasoned discussion, but we must be willing to change our own minds if we are wrong. Once again though, do we follow politics as if this is the case? And if we seek to change things, what is the most effective way? Is it reading news? Is it discussing topics? Is it donating to advocacy bodies? Is it personal activism? If my reason for reading news is to change things, I must actually attempt to, or I’m just lying to myself to justify my habit.
If you follow politics to set your expectations, perhaps to help you prepare, fair enough. But how often do you need to actually check the news/social media for that to be the case? News which happens on any given day is always going to be a surprise, so you probably only need to be prepared for things which you could know beforehand – the election results or a war that might start. But how often do you really need to read the news to keep track of that? A couple of times a week? Recently I’ve found Wikipedia’s current events page useful. It contains hype free headlines for the major things which are happening. I don’t know whether it’s impartial, but Wikipedia serves me pretty well elsewhere.
Finally, holding the government to account. There is a real place for careful thorough investigative journalism. Think about the Panama Papers. The question here is, is that what you are reading? And when it happens, do you consider it as important as you might do? Or does a story of real import crop up and then quickly get washed away by the oncoming flood of This Week’s News. How important is it if a politician lies? Will you write a letter? Will it change how you vote? What if it’s your guy who’s doing the lying? Look at American Evangelicals changing their views on marital faithfulness before and after President Trump’s election. Perhaps they came to understand something better, but it seems awfully convenient. Will you vote based on the behaviour of the parties or will you vote how you want and justify it afterwards? If so, why bother reading about it, you know who you are voting for anyway.
I used to watch way too much politics. On occasion I still find myself watching videos for pleasure, sucking up opinions which I can regurgitate later. I’m trying to cut down. Surprisingly, I’ve found that I’m no less well informed, but I do have more space to consider what the big issues are and what to do about them. I talk less about politics than I used to, but hopefully there is a chance I will say more. If you’ve got good reasons to follow politics, think about how to best serve those aims, but if you want to be entertained, stick to football.