What does it mean to study politics in 2019? (Part 3)
At the start of this academic year, the Politics and IR team sat down and thought about why one should study politics in 2019. In a time of crisis in all its forms and shapes – environmental, constituional, humanitarian, economic – each team member wrote their own response to the question yet their answers are univocal: now is exactly the time to study politics! Here’s Part 3!
Dr Soeren Keil: “It’s Brexit, stupid”
In 1992, after winning the Presidential elections in the USA, Bill Clinton was asked how he managed to defeat incumbent President George Bush (sen.), who had just won a war in Iraq, defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and oversaw the transition to a world, in which the USA would be the only superpower. His answer was short and simple – he said “it’s the economy, stupid” referring to the economic downturn in the USA and the rise in unemployment under Bush, in spite of his impressive foreign policy success. When studying Politics and IR in 2019, one can use Clinton’s famous quote and adjust it: what makes Politics and IR interesting is of course Brexit. Brexit – or the “B”-word as some refer to it – has been dominating our news for the last three years. It will remain a key topic in your classes on European and British politics, but it can serve as a frame for the study of other aspects of Politics and IR as well.
Brexit can be studied as an example of a new ideological battle between the dominance of the previously accepted consensus on Liberal Internationalism, and a growing national isolationism that is also symbolised by the election of Donald Trump as US President. Brexit also raises wider questions about global politics, for example why the Russian President Vladimir Putin supports it, while Japanese, Canadian, Australian and even Chinese elites have all argued against it. This raises the question of what Brexit tells us about global power dynamics. Moreover, Brexit raises questions on global cooperation and interconnectedness. In an age where climate change poses an existential threat to the human race, more cooperation and interaction between countries will be the main requirement for dealing and overcoming this challenge. Yet, Brexit might be a sign that we are moving away from the willingness for cooperation and joint action.
Brexit raises questions about the role of the internet and the impact of social media on our democracies and our daily lives. There is growing evidence that other countries attempted to influence the outcome of the referendum, and that these so-called trolls have also targeted the US elections demonstrates their increased influence on political outcomes in the 21st century. Brexit was framed in a discourse about migration as well. Taking back control meant in many instances limiting the freedom of movement that the EU’s single market offers. Migration is already a key theme of politics and IR today and, while the major flows of migration happen far away from the EU and the USA, they affect countries in the Third World and pose new challenges, not least in terms of how to ensure humanitarian protection for vulnerable people that have to flee from war, prosecution and climate change that forced them to leave their homes.
Brexit, in other words, is so much more than just the study of the relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. It is a lens into key themes and topics in our world today. Understanding these interlinked themes and their relevance for our lives is a key element of your degree!
Dr Demetris Tillyris: “The right to expect illumination”
The platitude ‘that’s politics’, often uttered by students or casual observers of public affairs, captures the fatalism that surrounds popular perceptions of our contemporary political world – the commonly held belief that our politics is plagued with unprecedent crises, and marked by unbridgeable disagreements which bespeak of our lack of a shared moral and political language. This much, it appears, is crystallised in various contemporary phenomena which hit the headlines. Increasing levels of political distrust and intolerance, a shift towards extremist politics, a rejection of ‘politics-as-usual’, and the rise of post-truth politics, are just some of the manifestations of our malaise and culture of disaffection.
To be sure, disenchantment with politics and its practitioners is hardly a modern phenomenon. Whilst people who find themselves in the midst of this maelstrom – who feel that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ as Marx puts it, and who struggle to make themselves at home in an ever-changing world – might feel that they are the first, or maybe the only, ones to be going through it, such an experience is a recurrent feature of history, and can be traced to the very beginnings of political philosophy. The despair intrinsic to such an experience aside, our disenchantment with politics can be an important engine for social and political change. For, it compels us, students of politics, to respond to the ancient-old, and indeed defining, question of politics: ‘how we should live together’. It also invites us to reconsider a range of adjacent philosophical questions, some of which are the following:
- Is deception or manipulation ever permissible in democratic politics? Are these vices incompatible with political integrity as we often assume?
- Do we have a duty to alleviate poverty and aid those in need or, should we erect walls between us?
- Is it permissible to break an unjust law?
- Can violent resistance or war ever be justified, given the atrocities and destruction which they entail?
- Should we ban veils or religious symbols from public life?
In attempting to tackle these perennial problems, students of politics should be attentive to what we might term, following political philosopher Stuart Hampshire, ‘the particularity of the particular case’: the diversity of lived experiences, imaginations and outlooks of different individuals or groups; the moral messiness of public life and of political history. But, answering these questions would be impossible without also enlisting the help of great thinkers – the oppressed and dispossessed; the fervent proponents or zealous enemies of liberal democracy – whose writings, though controversial, can shed light on who we are, and who we can be; or, at the very least, they might reveal to us the perils which follow from the crookedness of our thinking, and remind us of what we should not be. In the words of political theorist Hannah Arendt:
‘[E]ven in the darkest times we have a right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination might come … from the uncertain, flickering and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth’.
The study of politics might, in certain cases, oblige those immersed in it to remind philosophers and politicians of certain basic truths about human life which are well known to all thinking human beings except philosophers and politicians. In some others, it might compel us to distance ourselves from what we know and cherish. Thinking critically, analytically, and imaginatively, putting forward informed policy solutions to political problems, are some of the skills which students of politics should expect to hone – skills necessary for successful professionals and responsible citizens. But, students of politics should also allow for another, more disquieting possibility: studying politics might, in fact, make us worse citizens before we can become better ones. Attempting to forecast where such an intellectual journey will take you would be a mistake. What is certain, however, is that such a journey will be about you.