Concluding Notes: Reappraising Politics and Debate
Why should a researcher concern herself with the activity of politics? In this book we hope to have given some answers to this question for students and scholars alike in the humanities and social sciences. We also hope to have offered compelling reasons to reappraise politics as a contingent and controversial activity, as it is our impression that this perspective is sometimes underappreciated or left out completely in current research.
Students and scholars have much to gain by studying politics as an activity. This perspective opens up several dimensions that are critical for understanding politics as action, as opposed to a perspective that focuses primarily on the outcome of politics, as seen for instance in studies of votes and legislative processes. If the researcher does not include the dimensions linked to the activity-character of politics, her results will be based only on a part of the full panorama. As an example, in EU studies frequently the European Parliament’s powers against the Commission and the Council are evaluated by counting the voting results of legislative processes. While this is a possible and perfectly legitimate approach, it does not tell the researcher how the battle of forces between the institutions and their members went about, what strategies the actors used, how they applied them, and why they won, lost or adjourned their motions. Moreover, concentrating on the mere outcomes of decision-making does not tell the researcher much about the backgrounds, moves and rhetoric of the politics involved. As politics is mainly carried out by linguistic acts (speeches, documents, letters, legislative © The Author(s) 2017
C. Wiesner et al., Debates, Rhetoric and Political Action, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-57057-4
texts, etc.), this dimension is crucial to its understanding. Scholars should therefore be sensitive to the processes and actions, strategies, intentions and speech acts that underlie the outcome of politics, when they analyse speeches and writings of persons involved in the studied contexts of politics.
We have endeavoured to show that, if a person wants to study politics as an activity, she should focus on the moves and strategies of the actors involved and gain some knowledge about the rules and the language of politics; in other words, she needs political literacy. In addition, she should have or develop concrete approaches and practices that allow for studying the actions, moves and speech acts of the agents, their claims and their backgrounds.
besides our general aim of highlighting why politics should be studied from the point of view of its activity dimensions, we also wanted to offer some useful hints and comments in this respect. While we strongly believe that each research design must be individual and custom-tailored to the research question and the researcher’s own interests, we still think there are some approaches and practices that could be helpful and valuable for a broader public. Moreover, we wanted to provide concrete examples of how politics as an activity can be studied.
We also hope to have encouraged students and scholars to reconsider debate as a political activity. Debates, as has been underlined, can take different forms and take place in different arenas, even if parliamentary debate is considered its classical paradigm. They may be either virtual (‘frozen’) or live, and they may occur within a single sitting or be extended over long time periods.
With our theoretical and introductory thoughts and with our exemplar cases, we have aimed to show that the study of the rhetorical aspects of politics, as found in various types of debate, should not be limited to scholars of rhetoric or discourse analysis alone. On the contrary, the case studies are important for understanding aspects of political life itself, including the outcomes of elections or referenda, where quite often the vote is preceded by some form of debate or an exchange of arguments (see, in particular, Chapters 3 and 4).
As mentioned, there are different interpretations in the work of classical and modern political thinkers about the concept of politics and its role in human life. The different interpretations can open our eyes today to a wider range of interpretations as to what is to be considered political.
While Aristotle’s characterisation of human beings as zoon politikon is usually translated as political animal, a closer approximation would be to say that human beings are bound to the polis ‘by nature’ (Politics, 1253a).
However, the ancient Greek polis itself was not necessarily viewed as ‘natural’, for it was a counter-formation to the old despotic regime (see e.g. Finley 1983; Hansen 1998). In contrast, modern defenders of politics, such as Max Weber in his essay on the city (1922, 727-814) and Hannah Arendt (1993) denied that human politics had a ‘natural’ character and, instead, emphasised its voluntary or human character.
A claimed rejection of or disinterest in politics should also, therefore, not be seen as contrary to ‘human nature’, for it might itself be of political significance, especially in participatory regimes with universal suffrage and parliamentary government. In today’s representative democracies, the low regard for ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ is a common practice and seems to be on the rise. Many opinion polls show a low degree of ‘interest in politics’. In contrast to other periods, such as the 1960s and 1970s, the reputation of ‘politics’ seems once again to have hit a nadir (for similarities between the current climate and the period around 1900, see Palonen 2012b). Celebrities in arts and sports, for example, frequently state a disinterest in politics or may even take pride in declaring ‘I know nothing about politics’. Even scholars can be heard to declare ‘I never vote’. While in totalitarian regimes such declarations may have a touch of protest (see Konrad 1985), in legitimate democratic polities with the right to express controversial opinions, they are rather signs of resignation. Political action, even in the minimal sense of voting or expressing one’s opinion in a political conflict of the day, is then abandoned and one’s own political fate is left for others to decide.
But such ‘anti-political’ declarations also refer to the narrow conception of politics as a sphere (as sketched in Chapter 1), that is, as referring only to the deeds or misdeeds of professional politicians. However, when everything—even the denial of being involved in ‘politics’—can be regarded as political, it does not make sense just to declare that something has political aspects or to blame others to be apolitical, unpolitical or antipolitical. To understand such uses, we have to move the discussion to the level of different conceptions of politics. Or they might be a question of political literacy: when someone claims that there is nothing political in a phenomenon, the claim challenges others to invent modes of identifying political aspects in it.
Our book has a normative perspective (Wertbeziehung for Weber 1917a) in so far as it welcomes, so to say, ‘more politics in all our lives’, and as it discusses various possibilities for confronting political (i.e. contingent and controversial) situations. For Weber, ‘all of us’ who may vote, speak in political meetings or write about political issues to newspapers are ‘occasional politicians’ (Weber 1919, 41).
Today, the possibilities for acting as an occasional politician have multiplied due to the numerous internet fora available for expressing opinions. On the other hand, these fora create very limited political spaces, sometimes only reserved for a small public interested in a special question. However, as we have illustrated in this volume, the range of what is seen as contingent and controversial is also expanding. Traditions and conventions have been losing their force. Not only is the vote no longer ‘inherited’ from the family or the home village (in the way that Wright 2012, for example, writes about his ‘inherited’ commitment to the Labour Party), but the choices of life and lifestyle have become politicised in our sense of the concept. The choices of what one eats, what clothing one wears, how and where one travels, for example, have become highly contingent, controversial and therefore thoroughly political.
We would like to offer a political mode of thinking that emphasises the actors and the activity dimension of politics, as well as its contingent and controversial character. This approach presents an alternative to the seemingly ‘unpolitical’ language of markets, businesses, capital and so on that have been metaphorically extended to everyday language, media discourse and even the evaluation of research. Using terms like systems, structures, processes and functions forms a kind of common sense within administrative jargon which they have adopted from the social sciences as they were a half-century ago. If politics appears at all in such languages, it is in the binary codes of government versus opposition and right wing versus left wing (see in particular Luhmann 2000).
In contrast, we have attempted to draft a concept of ‘political literacy’, defined as the ability and willingness to deal with the political in seemingly everyday situations, and to discuss how such literacy may be used for reading and analysing debates and documents. We have also illustrated some of the different ways of reading and interpreting politics and debates, despite some common standards and practices that mark all qualitative and interpretative analyses. As the examples in Section 4.1 have shown, one and the same debate can be read with quite different foci, depending on the research interest and the research question. In order to carry out research, a researcher thus needs to develop a particular and individual research design, going continually back and forth between the sources, the research questions and intermediate findings. The sources (to reiterate the point once more) do not speak for themselves: they must be interpreted by the researcher. But the sources do carry a ‘veto power’: they must be taken seriously, and the researcher must be prepared to have her predefined categories overturned by them.
In conclusion, therefore, we hope to have indicated a number of possible paths and approaches to a broad understanding of the study of politics as an activity, and of debates and documents as an important part of it, in a way that transcends a narrow specialisation into subfields and subdisciplines. Politics has many facets which must be valued in their entirety and in their full complexity.
Metaphorically, politics can be seen as a game or as play, as it is a symbolic form of organising life structured by distinct rules. Politics is also a language-based activity, and the speech acts performed possess a political character. Moreover, to see politics as a human action means to emphasise its intrinsic relation to contingency, just as a politician always faces a horizon of possibilities, not knowing in advance what the consequences and outcomes of her actions may be, as they always depend also on the other actors involved and their moves. Politics relates to human beings and how we interact.