Language of Democracy and Inability to Talk to the Youth

Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.

-Paul Valery

A friend of mine recently remarked that while he agreed with the idea of the struggle of democracy in its present avatar, he also failed to understand why the youth, the catalyst of change, talked in the language that they do with respect to the political space. He expressed his concern on the short memory and confrontational attitude that the youth possessed with respect to the ideas and issues that affect everyone. In my opinion, much of this has been due to the failure to incorporate the youth into the mainstream. It also has much to do with the failure of political language used to converse with the youth.

Arnold Kling has recently written a book called the ‘The Three Languages of Politics’, which offers some interesting perspectives as discussed by him here. Kling has stated that the three schools of American politics – republican, libertarian and democrat all have common characteristics to them. The vocabulary used is meant to address their core bases, and is peppered with the wordings that only the core base can understand. There is no attempt to understand the opposite view for convincing those voters beyond the core bases, and the only way to interact with the ‘other’ camps is through beating them hollow into submission by always attempting to play the masterstroke argument without taking in to consideration what the ‘other’ has to say.

Much of this attitude is seen in other democratic political spaces as well. Additional to it, the language of politics today is confrontationist and is short in every sense – longevity, consistency and the universality of its appeal. Even as people may talk much about the irrelevance of the ‘politics of exclusion’ but the fact remains that mainstream has co-opted the very language of exclusion that it claims to not speak. There is also the problem that today’s politics is one of the aggrieved, the wronged, the identity or the secularism that are divisive social issues. Instead of that, there is lack of a construct that talks again of reforms, jobs, healthcare and growth for all. In order to appease our core voters we have begun to discuss issues that we think are more important instead of finding answers to the problems that need to be addressed urgently, particularly economic issues.

While most democratic nations of the world see a duality or triumvirate of political voices, India by many may be seen as a different case due to obvious reasons. We have voices ranging across a plethora of ideologies, which sometimes can be very difficult to identify due to the shifting goalpost game played by Indian political parties. Sure, coalition and realpolitik does play an important role in defining the fluidity of stands. The easiest one is not to take a stand at all. Many prominent political personalities in India perfected, over a period of time, the art of pusillanimity and vacillating over important decisions that can considerably alter the path to improving administration in all aspects. However, distilling all the talk these personalities discuss, we see that the basic three languages axis put forward by Kling fits in perfectly. The languages are meant to convince party cadre and people who are sympathizers of the ‘party’ and ‘ideology’. The international trend is also amplified in India by the fact that the economic discourse, one of the major factors that defines the three axis theory, is absent in Indian discourse, while other factors have long dominated the public discourse.

One important consequence of all this ideological bluster has been the alienation of youth from the democratic process by the mainstream parties. Globally, the people protesting at the drop of a hat, be it Italy, US, Egypt, Bangladesh or even Singapore, the commonality, as I discussed earlier, is the absence of political alignment amongst the youth. The response of the political parties, stuck within the language paradigm, has been abysmal for them. Clearly, they are not being reached out to in the language of the youth. Rather, the parties are increasingly isolating themselves from a demography that today holds the key to political power.

In such a scenario, political groupings threaten their own existence by shrinking their vote base. The conservative polity in particular is believed to be threatening itself across the world by their marked inability to make itself relevant to a new set of voters. However, this is highly overrated as a phenomenon. While it is true that the Republican Party of the US is increasingly become isolated, identifying the significance of the language axis is important to keep them relevant. The absence of meaningful deliberation in their political language and the presence of increasingly cadre-targeted bluster have ensured the increasing disaffection of the new electorate. After all, the language that makes the Conservative element most relevant beyond their status quo approach to society has been of impacting economic growth and administrative reforms. This is increasingly justified by the revival of the Conservative segment in Japan led by Shinzo Abe, where the sole vote catcher was the promise to revive the economy. This very platform is the reason why Angela Merkel in Germany has managed to almost ensure a third successive term for herself as the Chancellor.

The Democrats/socialist element of society has been unable to discuss the social issues convincingly enough. Even though the youth tends to see themselves as natural allies in most cases concerning the make-up and order of society, there is a major problem when it comes to advocating these problems on a political canvas. Evidence of this disaffection has been seen on several prominent issues, e.g. the assertion of civil rights. The left leaning elements of the political dispensation has been unable to communicate the stand of the youth in particular in a language that is not confrontational without surrendering much of the ground or trying to address apprehensions of those opposing these civil rights issues. It is made difficult to gain greater support but for the inability of the socialist element to ‘talk the talk’ even if they walk the walk. Classic examples of this failure are the protests against legalization of gay marriage in France or the anti-immigration rhetoric in United States. Even though there is significant support, it never translates into equally wide social acceptance.

The political dispensation has to try and bridge this gap. It is important to engage with the youth as I have repeatedly written, and the inability of co-opting their concerns is a glaring failure of any democratic dispensation.


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