The politics of false premises and broken promises

7th Nov, 2014

This blog post brings together three things that caught my attention this week: an election, a voting intention poll and an excellent piece of survey research by Ipsos.

Ipsos’s international ‘Perils of Perception’ survey found that general publics have a poor grasp of socio-political issues. Importantly, people tend to have an exaggerated view of society’s problems. They assume teenage pregnancy rates are higher than in reality; that fraud accounts for a greater proportion of benefit budgets than is the case and so on. It is interesting, given current debates, that they also exaggerate the levels of immigration and migrant populations in their countries.

These findings emerge as we see politics facing crises throughout the developed world. The latest UK voting intention polls see the ‘major parties’ share fall to such an extent that all three have legitimate fears of failure in next May’s General Election. In the US, the mid-term elections have consigned the remainder of the Obama presidency to constitutional deadlock and policy stalemate. It looks like ‘the politics of cynicism’ (to quote Obama) have finally defeated the ‘hopey, changey stuff’ (to quote Sarah Palin).

There is surely a link between these two phenomena. The low regard for establishment politicians must, in part, be caused by the electorate’s exaggerated sense of society’s problems. The misperceptions must contribute to the sense of political failure and impotence.

However, before we start to feel too sorry for the poor politicians, we must remember their role in creating the misperceptions in the first place, especially when in opposition. In our analysis of the best social research data, we could see little evidence of ‘The Broken Society’ as coined by Tony Blair when campaigning in 1997, nor the ‘Broken Britain’ favoured by David Cameron in 2010. Rather we see families, communities and societies evolving rapidly and responding to the tumultuous change wrought by globalisation and technology. We see change not social decline or moral malaise. In exaggerating society’s problems on the campaign trail, politicians sow the seeds of their own failure and disrepute, such that the political system is the only thing that appears ‘broken’, not society. False premises lead to broken promises.