This chapter deals with how focus group politics has emasculated government, ensuring that policies and decisions are taken not out of necessity or a conviction of leadership, but as a way of pandering to swing voters. The chapter follows the path of this surrender to focus groups through Reagan and Clinton and to Tony Blair. The result is a population deeply disillusioned with politics and political affiliation. By treating Citizens as Consumers, governments are now judged only by the economy, leaving them unable and perhaps unwilling to mobilise the populace into action against the threat both to the planet and to the Wellbeing of society as a whole.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the focus group became a standard part of marketing, before permeating into politics with the idea that you could tune into and satiate the unconscious desires of voters.
Ronald Reagan’s advisers in the early 80s found that up to 80% of US Citizens were now focused on being “self-actualised”. They then used tools such as Values and Lifestyles (VALs) to develop Reagan’s “let the people rule” zeitgeist. Counter-intuitively, VALs had shown that a key new generation of floating ‘inner-directed’ voters could be attracted to Reagan’s favour for an “individualistic” society, a policy later echoed in Thatcher’s proclamation that there was no such thing as society.
In the early ’90s Bill Clinton placed the focus group at the heart of his new politics, concentrating successfully on the wishes of swing voters. Consequently, politics is now more concerned with the wishes of swing voters than by what politicians need to do to lead society.
Politics is now more concerned with the wishes of swing voters than by what politicians need to do to lead society.
Yet democratic politics should be concerned with making tough decisions for the good of society at large. Collective action failures, such as global environment issues, can only be avoided by this type of leadership.
Cognitive scientist and political commentator George Lakoff has this to say in Don’t Think of an Elephant: “There is a metaphor of political campaigns where the candidate is the product and the candidate’s positions on issues are the features and qualities of the product. This leads to the conclusion that polling should determine which issues a candidate should run on.” This is echoed by Drew Westen in The Political Brain: “People were drawn to Reagan because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him and found him authentic in his beliefs. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions.”
This new model of focus groups as the heart of policy rejects a key aspect of democratic leadership politics – that there are collective long-term interests that only elected leaders have the ability to deliver on. Focus groups will tell you that people want lower tax and more public services – that’s human nature. So, for instance, New Labour listened to focus groups that told them they did not want money wasted on investment in railways. Then, years later, when the chaos on public transport came home to roost New Labour got the flack for the mess. Of course they did. They were supposed to lead, plan ahead, think long term and think of the greater good, something focus groups will never do.
The idea that the visions and tools of the commercial world can and should be brought into politics is worth considering further. Business as it currently operates largely appeals to individuals who want to make money. Politics needs to speak to our rational, collective interest side. As Michael Edwards says in the 2008 Demos/Young Foundation report Just Another Emperor: “The use of business thinking can damage civil society, which is the crucible of democratic politics and social transformation. It’s time to differentiate the two and re-assert the independence of global Citizen action.”
People are no longer being asked to think of themselves as active Citizens but as Consumers who pay taxes and in return receive just what they – and not others – need and want.
People are no longer being asked to think of themselves as active Citizens but as Consumers who pay taxes and in return receive just what they – and not others – need and want. Thus the Consumerist culture so prevalent in the corporate sphere now extends to the public sphere. This culture of the public being “delivered” service for paying tax combined with a “results” zeitgeist has led to a health system fixated on curative not preventative treatment and an education system focused on exam results rather than a more rounded approach to education.
Certainly politics is richer for having people with business experience within it, but what is missing is a coherent framework and an accountability to ensure that the greater good is placed over individual greed and that the single-focused, corporate-share-value driver vested interest does not override the interests of society. Now the connected world on-line is a catalyst for change as it allows democtratic discussion of ideas.
Evidence that the UK population are less and less engaged in Citizenship is not hard to find. Political apathy is rife: general election turnout slumped from 71% in 1997 to under 60% in 2001 and 61% in 2005 – the second and third worst turnouts since 1900.
Only one in five people trust politicians and even fewer trust the word of government ministers. Indeed, the 2008 Edelman Trust Barometer found that the people we trust most are “people like ourselves”, while the Commission on Parliament in the Public Eye reports that the UK is now close to the point where a government could not claim democratic legitimacy.
This apathy and mistrust in politics has left it sclerotic.
This apathy and mistrust in politics has left it sclerotic. Politicians now fear vested interests of companies that may not fund them, media interests that may not favour them and voter/Consumers who may not vote for them. Our democracies are therefore unable to act on the biggest ever collective-action problems that things like climate change represent. By allowing themselves to be measured purely on economic growth measures, our politicians have become mere ciphers with little or no power to make a meaningful difference to the world.