Why political parties and their supporters lose touch with reality

Every political career ends in failure.

And all too often, it’s not because an obvious failure of policy (politicians are much too wily for actually letting facts get in the way of political judgement).

Rather, those that do end suddenly are often victims of Macmillian’s famous dictum: events. Things happen in the real world which blindside the political classes and leaders in particular (the demise of the Appeasers at the build up to WWII being an obvious example).

Alternatively, politicians and political parties can slowly lose their grip on power because they “lose touch” – with their electorate, with important stakeholders in their own party (MPs fearing for their seats) or outside (military chiefs or coalition partners).

How can the smart politician or sharp party machine drift away from reality in this way? Do they change? Do they let power go their heads and start to believe their own mood music?

One explanation is that the politicians, their advisers and supporters can suffer from group think and the risky shift

In his magisterial study of contemporary American politics, Bill Bishop demonstrates how the clustering of like-minded folk creates the conditions in which these kind of natural group dynamics can flourish.

Here’s how it goes:

  • you spend time only with people who share your views and values
  • you don’t ever hear or see any evidence or advocacy for opposing or critical views to those accepted in the group
  • views and opinions become central to group membership (so even nonsense gets accepted and embraced as signs “in-out” group membership)
  • individuals within the group demonstrate their membership by taking more and more extreme positions on any particular issue or dimension, flushing out dissenters as “out-groupers”
  • very quickly this new position becomes the norm as (see 2) no dissenting voices are heard
  • black is now officially white and literally unquestionably so

To those who find themselves studying the conversation online (e.g. on Twitter or the Guardian’s boards) about the Labour Leadership Campaign (or the Daily Mail and Express comment pages about immigration) this explains why the debate is anything but dialogic.

And as philosopher and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn observed, these kinds of opposing world views (paradigms) tend not to be susceptible to evidence-based argument (Einstein didn’t initially get chaired from the room by his peers).

It’s like arguing with a lobster – neither of you really change your position and you, the factual friend, just end up shouting and looking silly disputing with a crustacean