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How do politicians understand their own status?

How do politicians understand their own status? It’s a question I’ve often wondered about without being sufficiently motivated to explore what I’m certain must be a significant literature investigating this question. I was made to ponder the question again by a lovely extract in Unwinding, by George Packer, describing the meritocratic self-regard of politicians and how this leads them to treats others working with Washington. From pg 65:

In Washington, elected officials considered themselves a higher breed. They were “principals,” had shown the moxie and endured the humiliation of standing before the public, and in their eyes, staff were a lower form of human beings—parasites that attached themselves to the front man for the ride. Connaughton knew that he had nothing to teach Joe Biden, a political natural who had been doing this for almost two decades, with a fingertip feel for what the American people wanted. Connaughton was thoroughly expendable, unless he could prove himself a workhorse.

It immediately made me think of this scene in The Thick of It, with Hugh Abbot expressing the bewilderment ‘normal’ people provoke in him and the contempt he feels for them:

It’s easy to see how politicians might come to feel strangely about the electorate. They are dependent upon them, yet largely  insulated from them. They take decisions which shape the lives of the public, while the fact of being decision-makers leaves them at a remove from those who these decisions impact upon. It seems plausible many of them see themselves as superior, even if simply in the polite meritocratic guise of being ‘high achievers’, while their role expects them to be continually polite to the public. The whole edifice of Westminster operates at an epistemic remove from everyday life, leaving politicians with a sense of themselves as seeing how the world really works. One which is perhaps indistinguishable from a pronounced déformation professionnelle, as the peculiar conditions which obtain at one particular phase in long history of a specific parliament are ontologised and taken as the conditions within which all democratic politics will necessarily operate. If you don’t believe me, we can meet at the centre ground to discuss it.

Those politicians who thrive enjoy a connection with ‘normal people’. They have a ‘finger tip feel’. They recognise emotional  patterns, learn to identity sympathies, become adept at interpreting concern. Or at the very least, they are able to successfully perform these capacities in a way which leaves them prone to being written about as charismatic, caring and connected to ordinary people. There’s a confirmation bias liable to exist here, as instances of successful connection are much more noteworthy than the countless occasions upon which a member of the public fails to be persuaded by a politician. Nonetheless, there is  significant interpretative work taking place, across a profound and growing structural and cultural divide. If that gap continues to widen, which is crudely speaking what I take post-democratisation to be, what does this mean for politicians whose political fortunes exist within and through it?

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  1. Very interesting ideas explored here – and love ‘The Thick of It’ reference…this show is like a continuation of ‘Yes Minister’ . Somewhat related, it is only recently I Googled the etymology of ‘berk’. My father was a fan of ‘Yes Minister’ and had a particular fondness for deciding certain people were berks…I now know what he was actually saying 😀

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