Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

When I talk to people who are not particularly politically informed, or engaged, they often tell me that one of the reasons why they are not engaged or informed regarding politics is because politics is boring. Let us call this the “attitude of the consumer.” This attitude is problematic because it encourages government and societal corruption in a liberal democratic society. Likewise, this attitude is troubling because any person who possesses this attitude is saying that they can only be informed or engaged about things they find entertaining or exciting, and the preceding shows frivolity.

The attitude of the consumer encourages government corruption, because as people find politics more and more boring, they are apt to be more disengaged and less vigilant about ensuring that their representatives try to pursue the common interest. Once citizens are less engaged and vigilant, politicians will tend to use their position to pursue private interests at the expense of the common interest, as they know they can get away with it. Of course I recognize that some politicians will remain committed to the common interest even when the public is less vigilant, but these politicians are a relatively small minority. Furthermore, there is the other danger that as people become less and less engaged with politics they will allow a “clever man,” in the words of Tocqueville, to take away their right to participate in politics, if this ruler will allow them to freely pursue their private interests and ensure that economic growth is secured.

Contrastingly, the attitude of the consumer reinforces societal corruption, because as people become more disengaged with politics the media tries to make politics more entertaining to generate more revenue. To make politics more exciting the media will try to present politics as a war by other means. In such a war opponents must defeat each other without any regard for the fact they are both citizens of a common state. The point of politics in the media’s presentation of it then becomes to win, rather than to ensure that rule serves the common interest. Such a presentation of politics may be more exciting than a presentation that highlights differences in policy and possibilities of compromise, but by creating a presentation of politics as a war by other means, the media encourages people to see citizens who disagree with them as mere enemies to be destroyed, rather than as people who need to be reasoned with in order to come to mutually agreeable solutions. In other words the desire to be entertained encourages the media to present politics in a way that will encourage high degrees of partisanship among the electorate, which is a form of societal corruption as any society that is committed to the freedom and equality of its citizens must have citizens who are willing to work with their fellow citizens, rather than seeing them as mere enemies.

Apart from the dangers that the attitude of the consumer poses for liberal democracy, it also encourages a particular set of vices. Any person whose primary reason for not being engaged or informed about politics shows frivolity in that they are suggesting that if someone finds something boring, than that practise is not worth doing for that person. Frivolity is problematic in this context as many things that we find boring at first, can eventually turn into a source of fulfillment. When I first heard Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” I was bored while listening to most of it. Now I find it deeply fulfilling to listen to. Consequently, adopting the attitude of the consumer makes us more narrow-minded by preventing us from engaging with possible sources of value in our lives. Secondly, frivolity in this context is troubling as someone who only pursues activities that they find engaging or entertaining to some degree has to be self-absorbed. There are many things that we may not find engaging or exciting, but nonetheless we have to pay attention to them because they have significant consequences for our lives and the lives of others. Politics may be boring, but one has to be quite self-absorbed to not be informed about it for this reason, as no matter how boring politics may be, politics has a deep impact on one’s lives and the lives of others.

The attitude of the consumer is deeply troubling, and if this attitude continues to be further engrained it will endanger liberal democracy, and encourage the vices of frivolity, narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. There is no easy solution to overcoming the attitude of the consumer, but we must recognize this challenge so that we are conscious of the path that our civilization is going down and can confront the problem that we are facing.

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

  1. Well put, though I think that many persons are interested in political scandals, as evidenced by the success of political dramas that touch on corruption, as well as the media devoting more coverage to scandals than policy decisions. Yet if your hypothesis is correct (that if citizens become bored with politics then corruption will result) and given that citizens are interested in political scandals, then the condensed argument seems to be that if citizens become bored in politics then citizens will become interested in politics. As this is a contradiction one of the premises of the argument should be rejected. You might reject the premise that citizens tend to be interested in scandals, or respond that I am committing the fallacy of equivocation by positing the sameness of interest in politics and interest in political scandals in particular. I find the more intuitive position to be that corruption just occurs due to the nature of political power. Just as you noted that there are some politicians who will not become corrupt even when the public is not interested in politics, I think there are some politicians who will become corrupt even when the public is interested in politics. My intent here was to add a further nuance to your postulation. Thanks for sharing.

    • I appreciate the constructive and insightful comment.

      I would agree that there are some politicians who will become corrupt by the nature of their position and their own character.

      My argument was not meant to be strictly deductive, but pointing to several related, but distinct political phenomena.
      To explain, even if the public was fully engaged we are still at risk of corruption for reasons that you and I seem to agree on, but rather boredom can reinforce corruption by disengaging the public, and engaging them in a politics in a way that is destructive of democratic practise and consequently corrupting.

      I would object to your argument that corruption leads to scandal. This is true some of the time, but often corruption is called out as questionable by a few journalists, but with the majority of journalists and public sitting idly by. For example, look at the use of Omnibus bills in Canada. This was never much of a scandal but it is huge change and arguably destructive of formal democratic practises in Canada.

      Furthermore, the political interest in scandal is often apolitical. The whole Rob Ford scandal shows this as people are interested from an “entertainment” factor as much as anything. The scandal goes from being a political problem to an entertaining spectacle. But I would accept that if corruption results in scandal it can regenerate a momentary interest in politics, but that interest is nevertheless not usually sustained and consequently there is still a general trajectory of boredom fueled disinterest with politics. And all it takes is one time where corruption results without a scandal arising for boredom to do irreparable damage to a society and fundamentally alters its constitution and laws.

      Also I am using the word “constitution” in the sense of classical political philosophy, rather than the American sense of the term as a legal document outlining a charter of liberties.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Thanks for your comments. I agree with your points and think that the weaknesses in my argument are weaknesses indeed. I appreciate the fact that your argument was not meant to be deductive; this is not the time or place for that. You are right that corruption does not necessarily lead to scandal. When making this point you noted the role of the media as central to corruption becoming scandal. This is true, but your initial post was on the dangers of the consumer mindset, suggesting, as you did, that this mindset must be changed in favor of more civic engagement. But given that citizens of the polity are at least in some way interested and responsive to scandal, and we have just noted that the media is responsible for turning corruption into scandal, do we need to change the consumer mindset, or meet the consumer on their terms by pushing the media to cover more corruption? Certainly the ideal state of affairs would be the abolishment of the consumer mindset and more direct civic engagement, but might the more pragmatic and realistic goal be to increase the responsibility journalists have for covering corruption? Again, my comments are only meant to add further nuance to what you have posited. Thanks for sharing.

      • Thanks again for your comments.

        I don’t know if it is possible to meet the consumer on their terms completely, as this could tend to trivialize the scandal by transforming it into a spectacle. Furthermore, the “scandal” may loses its impact if it becomes an every day occurrence. Scandals draw attention in part because they are something that is not expected and out of line with the status quo. If scandals became an everyday occurrence I am not sure if they would generate the same interest. But I do certainly agree that journalists should be more responsive to corruption and report about it.

        Similarly, I think the consumer mindset is an essential part of postindustrial liberal democracies. These societies are commercial and people tend to think in economic as opposed to political/ethical terms. So the practical direction of my post was to try to counterbalance the consumer mindset, with the civic mindset, rather than replace the consumer mindset with the civic mindset, as I don’t think we can overturn the consumer mindset without destroying certain valuable elements of society that give rise to this mindset. This may not have been clear from my post however.

        And don’t worry you certainly have added nuance to what I have posited. 🙂

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