Politicians Need to Stop Talking at Us Like We're Idiots

Liz Carolan

Liz Carolan is an advisor on governance and transparency. She has worked for the Institute for Government, the Open Data Institute and the Africa Governance Initiative.

Our leaders are failing us.

As a political leader, your primary role is to lay the foundations for a sustainable society and economy, one that enables us as citizens to live in dignity, and with confidence and pride in our country.

No politician can do this on their own. Policy is little more than scaffolding within which we all interact with each other in an infinite number of creative and unpredictable ways to build, shape, and continually reshape our city and country.

If I as a citizen am crucial to this project, why does it feel so often like my leaders not only have little confidence in me, but actively hold me in contempt?

This is what it feels like when I turn on RTÉ radio and hear my minister of finance, Michael Noonan, sigh at me about “eating the seed potatoes” and tell me that the European Commission’s ruling can be overturned by turning over an iPhone and reading “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

Or when I hear Taoiseach Enda Kenny skirt a debate around the government’s budget by saying he won’t go “into economic jargon here because the vast majority of people don’t actually understand”.

I feel like I am being treated like an idiot. I feel like my leaders see me as the enemy, as if speaking with me is a chore they could really do without right now.

The role of a government leader is not just to take decisions, but also to engage with the people who will be affected by and can help inform those decisions. To communicate with us, to debate with us, to be transparent not just about outcomes, but about the process of getting to those outcomes and decisions.

That communication should be two-way. The richness of experience in our country holds perspectives that can forewarn of unintended consequences that, with a few tweaks now, can be avoided.

But, I rarely trust or engage with people who treat me with contempt. If you want me to trust you, to work with you to reshape the country, I have to feel that you have confidence in me – in my intelligence, in my rationality, in my ability to be part of rebuilding our city and our economy.

Because we are not idiots, and we are not the enemy. It is your job to communicate with us, to explain to us what happened. Why did it happen? What is the plan? What should I be doing? How do I counter the guy down the pub spouting populist, dangerous nonsense?

It’s not easy – I know, I’ve been working with and have held great respect for people who put themselves forward in politics for years. But communicating with us is your job.

It could be that there is a reason why decisions are being taken the way that they are – but if there are then they are not being communicated to us, and I certainly don’t feel like I am trusted to understand the deliberations that led to them.

If what I have seen in the past few weeks feels like contempt, then we are used to it. We are used to the state treating us as an inconvenience. And for thousands of public servants in this country, this treatment has been their experience as both citizens, and as employees.

This contempt, this chronic unwillingness to communicate, this poor-quality closed-box policy-making has left a massive open goal at the centre of our civic life – one which is being exploited daily by dangerous populists.

This will only continue to be the case if our leadership does not learn to entrust us with the space and the information, and the respect, to engage critically with the decisions affecting our lives.

This isn’t about being liked, or doing the right thing. It is a basic pragmatic requirement for being effective.

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Reader responses

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at 15 September 2016 at 08:01

The idea that politicians all hold the public in contempt is unfair and damaging. While there are arrogant characters like Noonan and Kenny, the majority work hard for their constituents, put in long hours for little reward and are primarily motivated by a desire to help their communities.

Politicians are often obsessed with communicating with the public but widespread public discourse cannot happen effectively without media facilitation.

The mainstream media has effectively turned it’s back on rational discourse and decided the pantomime of the people versus the power is a far more interesting (i.e. profitable story). The online media is worryingly influenced by various agendas. Add to that the proliferation of propaganda on social media and, with so much vilification, how are the people expected to reasonably engage with politics?

Just look at the aftermath of the marriage equality referendum; many politicians and party activists worked tirelessly to make that a reality, both in bringing the referendum to the people and in engaging the people so that the result was achieved. But the media completely downplayed the role of politics in achieving this reform. We are supposed to believe that the movement was a spontaneous expression of public will that was divorced from the political system. The idea that politicians could have a positive impact on society was anathema to the narrative they were trying to sell.

This age of disinformation is perhaps inevitable given the unregulated democratization of internet content creation (in itself a positive thing). Maybe we will soon adapt and be better able to see through the propaganda and thus hold the media to better account. Every medium matures with time and nobody falls for radio reports of Martian invasions anymore. But for the moment, reason is on the back foot.

This article is falling into the same old habit and is neither nuanced or balanced in its assessment. The reduction of the issues in Irish public life to ‘politicians hold the public in contempt’ is both simplistic and incorrect and is disappointing from a professed expert in the field. Articles like this are doing more to create an “open goal in Irish civic life” than any “dangerous nonsense spouted down the pub” and, if the author is truly concerned about the rise of populism as she claims, I would suggest reflecting on her own role in adding fuel to the problem.

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