If 2016 has done anything, it has taught us a lot about politics – both here and abroad. What I have observed is that we take the utterances of politicians too seriously and do not grapple with the underlying ideas or reality of the words they speak. Mainstream media pounces on any undue or politically incorrect statement, but commentary on the underlying premise of utterances is almost non-existent.

Contemporary critique on politics promotes the idea that politics has become a spectacle: just a bunch of nonsense influencing people to say “I want nothing to do with politics.” The problem is not that politics has changed, but that our understanding of politics has.

acropolis-athens-greeceThe word ‘political’ comes from the Greek word ‘politikos’ which means “relating to the citizen”, which is why our public discourse is called politics. However, it runs much deeper than that.

If you go back to the bedrock of democracy and politics – the Athenian polis – men debated problems in open forums and made decisions accordingly. Therefore the debate, or politics, was dependent on the views and opinions of your peers with whom you share the political sphere. Without their support, your ideas would not be accepted and acted upon. Thus, the relationship between politics and popularity has been there since the beginning.

As history progressed, the form of democracy changed. We no longer have direct, participatory democracy, but representative democracy. We choose people who debate the issues in Parliament in our stead. Despite this change, the relationship between popularity and politics has not changed, but reached new heights, for politics is now about the popularity of those who make the decisions, not the popularity of the ideas. This is the reason for political pandering: politicians need popularity to govern, just as in the olden days.

However, with the change of the form of democracy, a slight shift in a politician’s modus operandi had to be made. Where the Athenian politician had to make his ideas popular for the majority, the modern politician must make it seem as if the views of the majority are his own, as he/she becomes their representative. The shift is small, but it has an extensive impact.

This affirms the idea that politics is hypocrisy (from the Greek hypokrisis or ‘play acting’). Politics is hypocritical, and always has been. The Athenian had to make his ideas popular for the masses, and the modern politician must make himself popular for the masses, and whether they actually believe what they say is irrelevant.

The popularity sphere of politics is now stronger than the ideas themselves. Public discourse changes the view of society, and politicians have to adapt or die (in Darwinian terms). It is for this reason that those who view politics as a spectacle or show, are undoubtedly correct.

Politicians pander for public support, and we have forgotten that. We argue about the politicians and what they say, but not about the prevalent ideas underlying their rhetoric. If we want to change the politician, we have to challenge the ideas they play on.

SEE ALSO: Good and bad ideas by Nicholas Woode-Smith.

No spectacle in history shows the nature of politics and mainstream media’s misunderstanding of it, more that the current American presidential election. The spectacle and popularity sphere of politics is so prevalent, that the sphere of ideas has almost become a non-issue. This is true for both candidates.

Donald Trump has made many outrageous comments that attracted a lot of media discourse to speculate on his ‘misogyny’ and ‘racism’, but I believe he realises the role of spectacle in politics, while the media does not.

Take the “I will build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it” comment. Many people laughed and ridiculed him for the comment, not understanding that the spectacle is a precursor to the idea it is pandering for. In this instance it is that a large portion of the American people have a problem with illegal immigration.

Consider, for example, the “ban all Muslims and that they should carry passes” comment. Yet again, it is very outrageous and many a news station reported on the ‘racist’ views and how is it impractical to ban Muslims from the United States, but once again missing the point that he is pandering to the idea of a great segment of the American people, who are afraid of Islamic extremism.

The mainstream debate is about the words uttered and not about the ideas or issues underlying them. The media, and mainstream thought, conflate the spectacle with the political idea, and that is the real problem.

With Hillary Clinton, for example, the spectacle is over-emphasised to hide the real concerns of her candidacy. In her situation, the political spectacle of her being the first female president and the media ridiculing Trump with his comments overshadow serious questions about Benghazi and the latest reveals from Wikileaks.

In both their positions the political spectacle is overshadowing the political discourse amongst the citizens.

We in South Africa have the same problem.union-buildings-east-wing

We have media and mainstream thought that make a lot of noise on what politicians say, but that do not engage in the true political discourse. They do not see the political pandering for what it is. Let me give examples on how this is a problem.

The Hate Speech Bill. We have seen an influx of hateful and racist comments in public, and each political party says the same thing: “we strongly condemn the racist comments and will lay charges against those people.” They thereby capitalize on the moral outrage of society – what more can you expect? But what is the mainstream discourse on it? If you read the news, you only see the politicians making statements of condemnation and the political left saying “it is about time” – not the fact that the Bill is a threat to freedom of speech. The political spectacle is overshadowing the political discourse.

Our most talked-about topic nowadays – the Fallists – shows exactly the same.

Media outlets hold discussion panels with the student leaders to hear their arguments for the fall of education (fees), not realising that they enter the spectacle of those politicians (for that is what they are). They pander for popularity on dominant ideas. You never hear the media questioning whether fees must, indeed, fall. Instead, they just schedule more interviews and run after fleeing students to safety, while stopping for a quick interview. With public discourse, the press media is specifically (and unfortunately) just a platform for political spectacle, instead of informing balanced political ideas.

Whose fault is this misunderstanding? It is not the politicians’ fault for pandering for popularity, as you would not scorn a cobbler for making shoes. All politicians are hypocrites, as it is their job to play public opinion. We must blame ourselves for playing into the politicians’ hands and not realising that there is a difference between the political spectacle, and political reality.

How do we change this? Do what the title says: take the words of politicians with a pinch of salt. Ignore what they say as they whisper sweet nothings into your ears. Rather grapple with the underlying ideas they are pandering support from. If we remove mainstream bad ideas, we automatically remove bad politicians.

Johan van der Merwe is a final year law student at the University of Pretoria. He will practice law, but also pursue a master’s research degree on the topic of constitutional interpretation and the rule of law.