A lament for the age of apathy


Three men sit in a lounge room around a coffee table eating and drinking
David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc in an episode of ‘Friends’ © Alamy

Turnout in the US election of 1996 fell below 50 per cent. In Britain five years later, it was the lowest since the Great war. Most pop culture either side of the millennium wasn’t even allusively or allegorically political. You can read Jane Austen — goes the old line — without knowing that Napoleon was cutting through Europe. You can watch Friends without knowing that America has a government. The peak of the apolitical age was Big Brother, which, in sealing contestants from the news, didn’t disrupt their lives much.

And now look. The political podcast has displaced the sitcom at the centre of modern culture. Turnout is up. No satirical play is too on-the-nose to sell out. We are much more engaged now, much more informed and garrulous in the public square.

How do you think it is going?

This column is a paean to political apathy. There are at least two things to be said for it. One has been sketched above. Key to the smooth running of democracy is the indifference of much of the population, much of the time. Voters are crucial as an eye on things, as a righter of the ship of state when it lists. That requires a measure of knowledge. Round-the-clock absorption is something else. It causes politics to take place in too loud a setting, laws to be made in too hot a smithy.

You might throw back at me the mid-20th century, a time of both mass participation and calm. But much of that was unthinking class solidarity. The well-off were Tory/Republican, unionised workers Labour/Democrat. Don’t confuse this with mental engagement. There is something to the trope that lots of rural Tories joined up as a way of meeting a spouse.

It is different now. People come to politics through (or for) ideas and argument. If this resulted in better conversations at least, I could put up with the price of a more turbulent democracy.

But it hasn’t. And this is the second case against the boom in political consciousness. Allow me a side step here to make this point. If you follow football in some depth, you will know the deathly chore of having to humour a casual fan. It is much worse than being in the company of an outright alien to the sport. That person, at least, won’t make you sit through some bang average opinion of theirs (“Gareth has got the boys believing again”).

Well, I have lived to see the rise of the casual politico. This is someone who knows enough about politics to make a conversation heavy, but not enough to make it interesting. Some of them are conservative. But most I meet are of that vein of opinion known as “midwit”: a sort of too-easy leftism that appeals neither to the stupid nor to the perceptive, but to the lumpen graduate. Admiration for Jacinda Ardern is one staple of this creed, as is conspicuous bookshelf display of the Obama memoirs. It is the political version of naming The Godfather Part Two as your favourite film. It is intelligent enough.

The same person might be engrossing on another subject, but never get around to it. And so we have a double loss since the millennium: the inescapability of lame, podcast-grade political chatter, but also the superior conversations never had.

When people whose métier is something else turn to politics, they all tend to err in the same way. It is not that they say extreme things. They say banal things. Actors and athletes often do this in their ventures into commentary. Climate change is an existential threat. Diplomacy is better than war. These statements aren’t, as our hedgie friends say, “additive”. Even minds as subtle as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro commit this error. Imagine how much worse it is from the random who wants to talk Pod Save America in a bar.

I don’t exempt my own profession when I write this: almost no one has anything of real penetration to say about politics. This was just as true a generation ago. The difference is that far fewer people back then pretended otherwise. There was no disgrace in apathy. In fact, there was a kind of social penalty for being conspicuously engagé. We were better off for the stigma.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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