On my first day at university, the head of the politics department gave a talk to the few people who were doing politics degrees. He explained that in previous years and talks, he had asked the students if they thought whales should be saved. This always gained quite a large response. So, then he would lay five pounds on the table, explaining that it was to save the whales, asking the whale-saving students to do the same. Some people would do this. Next, he would lay another five pounds on the table. A few students would put in another five pounds. Very rarely, a few generous souls would equal his next fiver. Nobody ever went higher than that. The twenty pounds they'd contributed was less than the price of a good night out. As students, it was certain they'd be enjoying a large number of good nights out over the coming semester. Absolutely no-one, no matter how strongly they felt about the poor dying whales would ever give more than one night's entertainment for them.
Politics students, despite the evidence I've seen, are perhaps a little more interested in politics than the general population. Despite this, no-one on my degree course has ever contributed to a political party. Few people have. It's been said that we're only a few meals away from anarchy. When people are not starving or terrified, there is little reason for them to get involved in politics. When they are starving, the next meal is more important. Those who have the time to worry about politics don't have the motivation: Those who have the motivation don't have the time. In general, people are happy to let others get on with the boring stuff whilst they enjoy themselves. When the time comes around for them to make their mark on a piece of paper, they do so happy in the knowledge that their duty has been done and now its someone else's fault.
Not caring about politics, most people don't make very much effort to understand politics. Here in the UK, where we fear and mistrust all that is European, most people have very little idea what the European debate actually is. They talk of losing sovereignty, but would find it very difficult to define sovereignty. Thanks to the indefatigable work of the national tabloids, most people believe sovereignty has something to do with having the Queen's head on our coins. Intellectual property rights are an example closer to Kuro5hin's heart. One of the key problems that opponents of overly restrictive IP law experience is getting anyone not involved to understand the issues.
Nobody Who Cares Understands
In representative democracies, the prevailing myth is that the people who get to vote on things represent the interests of the people who elected them. More often, however, they represent their own interests, which include maintaining their majority and the backing of their party and financiers. Even if they intended to vote in the peoples' interest, this would prove an impossible task. The people in power have got their by winning what is, in basic terms, a popularity contest. They have not been selected for their expertise and the sheer range of issues they decide on is far too wide for anyone to have deep knowledge of. Fortunately, the people who have actual power to formulate and implement policies are experts or have experts guiding them. These experts know the problem domains in which they operate. However, they themselves have problems.
Wherever there are experts, there is disagreement. Look at any science: Experts in these domains are expected to follow scientific rigor and methods to "prove" their conclusions. Regardless of this, many times you will find equally regarded experts disagreeing on various issues. Although all reputable biologists agree that evolution occurs, there is disagreement in exactly how this happens. Even in a hard science like physics, there have been numerous differing models of the atom in the last century. The point is that available data is limited and can be interpreted in varying ways. What seems right from one set of assumptions is entirely wrong from another. This applies to an even greater extent in politics. Even the question of whether a policy has been successful is contested. Evaluating the effects of any policy is difficult because it's impossible to know what data is significant, accurate or in existence.
The Status Game
Although many people believe in the structure of democracy, few seem to believe that the policicians currently in power are worthy of their position. This is easy to see since in party systems, majority tends to swing between parties on a more or less regular basis. As already stated, most people don't care who is in power, so long as they're not hungry. As in most human activities, the many are happy to be led by the few. This is an evolutionary response. Challenging for leadership is dangerous, but leadership brings status. In our evolutionary past and to some extent in our present, status meant more resources, both sexual and material. As has often been remarked, power is an aphrodisiac. However, since only a few can reach high status, it was often safer to exist as well as possible with lower status. This status response permeates society. Can't make it as a respected K5 poster? Become a reviled K5 troll. And, of course, no poster on K5 ever gets quite as much respect as Rusty, the founder.
Politicians become politicians because they are driven to the status of power. In the same way, businessmen are driven to the status of resources. This may not be - and probably isn't - their conscious reason. In a way it is the reason behind their reasoning. Most people do not have this drive for power and they don't care about politics (in any form - they are content to be somewhere in the middle, a little like gang members). The people who are interested in politics and argue about it are playing their own status game, in which good rhetoric and intelligent argument makes you a respected member of the community in which you argue. This is a status game of respect.
The prevalence of the party system is hardly a surprise in this status theory - it is another status system in which one can rise all the way from a mere representative to presidential candidate. Once a person has attained status, their primary concern is to keep it. Without status, a politician is nothing more than a voice, a suit and a lot of spin. It is interesting to note that politicians have devised ways of keeping their status high once they have exited the realm of politics. This is evident in the British system of honours and the transatlantic system of seats on trustee boards.
Ideology is Dying
An ideology is a system of ideas on how the world is, how it should be and how it can be changed from one to the other. As various political organisations gained power and attempted to implement their ideologies, it was found that some don't work very well. In the modern world with all its complexities, governments are becoming more worried about the whole chaotic system of society working at all than with implementing their own personal utopias. Besides, the people don't want utopias, they just don't want to be hungry. With all the problems of getting policies to work, the easiest solution is to copy other states when you can. This is partially a cause/effect of globalisation. As Europe grows closer together, state policies become more similar. What started off as a purely economic organisation has become very political. Long before, the majority of developed nations found that liberalism was generally a good idea. Most nations agree that drugs are bad things, although a few are edging towards decriminalisation.
In both the UK and the USA, there are large numbers of people who recognise that the two main parties of each respective state are increasingly similar. In the UK, the Labour party abandoned its public ownership policy and became New Labour. In the modern world, public ownership as a policy is no longer economically feasible. Ideology is now the realm of people outside power. It's a topic of argument and a way to see the world, but it no longer has a great effect on the policies that emerge from government.
Politics is Impossible
Politics in the traditional sense has been the discussion of ideology, the classic debates of free market versus controlled market, of individual rights versus the good of the state, of war, war, war versus jaw, jaw, jaw. In this sense, politics is becoming impossible. Although people may still argue these issues, and indeed these arguments are all around, these concerns have increasingly little effect on the manufacture of policies - it's too difficult to take flawed arguments into consideration whilst the nation must continue to run. The average person neither understand nor cares about politics; the interested person cares but does not understand; and the people in power did not get there by listening to what the people say.