Political activism has changed quite a lot in recent years. The age of mass membership of political parties has passed, and institutions which once numbered millions of paid-up supporters are themselves becoming relics. Unions which once boasted of five or so million members can only fabricate a respectable total by banding together.
Parties such as the Conservatives and Labour, with their own distant membership heydays fading into the recesses of memory, can only sit back and watch sadly, as even the most optimistic of numbers enter into terminal decline.
There is, of course, still a reliable core of activists who can be depended upon to trudge around in the rain with little hope of reward – but they are remarkably weird individuals, and their methods are becoming rapidly obsolete anyway.
All of this should add up to an electorate that has become less idiotically partisan and less automatically credulous. With party membership no longer occupying such a vital place in the lives of many, one would expect that adherence to doctrine and dogma would fall accordingly.
Simultaneously, with the advent of mass communications, as well as the mind and horizon expanding rise of the Internet – you will no doubt have heard this pseudo-sociology before – one would expect the voters of this country to be less restricted in the information they accessed, and less shut off intellectually from those with whom they disagreed.
There stands the theory. But it does not seem to have happened quite like that.
In evidence for my new hypothesis, which goes against all that has been stated previously, one need only look at the comments sections of newspaper websites. They are crawling with the same sort of slogan-chanting bores who would have attended the mass rallies of political parties past.
If, like me, you have chanced upon the Telegraph website in recent months, you will know exactly what I mean. The acolytes of Nigel Farage and his fetishistic admirers have entrenched themselves like a defending army, and will not be moved by such basic things as facts and rules of debate.
The problem has got so bad that the editor of Telegraph Blogs, Damian Thompson, saw it necessary to pen a rather astute critique of this madness. He entitled it: “Ukip needs to do something about its online nutters”. Underneath, in an event one could have predicted from space, those same nutters attacked.
And these cyber warriors – like swivel-eyed loon in chief Frank Fisher, who, in a recent interview, spoke of his petty sniping at people on the Internet with a rather tragic zeal – are symptomatic of a larger problem within British political discourse.
New media has given people the opportunity to discriminate between this sort of dogmatic trash – peddled by the likes of ex-Telegraph blogger James Delingpole, for one – and other, more rewarding analysis. What is has not provided, however, is the inclination.
If the mindset remains one which laps up pre-digested content designed specifically to be spooned into the open mouths of unthinking apparatchiks, what hope does serious writing have? The answer is rather sad: not a lot.
When this is added to other alarming indicators – such as the remarkable disparity between statistical facts and public perception, demonstrated vividly in an Ispos-MORI poll from July last year – the inevitable result appears to be a creation of even more public ignorance over issues of national importance, and not the reduction that advances in technology and greater interconnection offered.
Interactivity in selecting news – as well as newspapers that are increasingly forced to lead on opinion and sensation in a desperate bid to attract readers – has led to self-separation. We are all the arbiters of that which information comes our way. In the modern world, we all inhabit ivory towers. Facts and views which contradict with ours need never enter our heads, and, unless one is untypically politically curious, such things might essentially vanish from our intellectual intake.
What else would mean that Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg were so happy, and successful, in repeatedly lying to viewers of their Europe debates? The activist base – who are no longer just the soggy losers traipsing around high streets at weekends – will lap up whatever their chosen political vessel has to say. Confirmation bias has been made real, and personal, to all of us.
What this amounts to is the perpetuation of political delusion. Whilst political parties may soon become redundant, the banners and billboards with which we define ourselves will remain.
It might be tempting to shelter under the protective covering of ideology, to hide away with the like-minded away from all of the uncertainty of open discourse. It might be easier to simply parrot catchphrases or soundbites every time a news story concerning a particular topic pops into your field of concentration.
Resist the urge.
Use the advent of new systems of communication to broaden your horizons, to learn and experience new things. Exploit the decline of party politics: now is the chance to develop opinions without the limiting nature of partisan groupthink.
Until we as a society have done that, and thrown off the mistruths and factual manipulations of those who relentlessly play to the gallery like Farage, our politics will remain ever backward, retrograde and ignorant.
The politics of delusion will continue to hold sway, and that sort of outcome helps nobody.
James Snell is Contributing Editor of The Libertarian