Political persuasion, personality and society: its all in the mix

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The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben

We are all a curious mixture of personality traits, beliefs and values. When it comes to politics, one of those difficult dinner-party conversation topics that is often best avoided unless we are among those we know share our affiliations, we all tend to likewise hold such a mixture of viewpoints. While in the UK of today, some of us are lifelong voters for one particular political party, many are floating voters, with no strong affiliation, and targets for those who would weald power in government come an election.

In terms of personality and political views the floating voter may hold a range of opinions on politics, supporting policies coming from a range of parties. We may favour government support or regulation in some area of society or the economy, and its withdrawal in others. We may favour change in some aspects of life, constancy in others. These attitudes may themselves change over time. We may be part conservative, part liberal, part progressive and part radical.

Political parties also tend to be coalitions of members holding differing sets of beliefs. They are often held together by the desire to hold power. Here in the UK the right-wing Conservative Party has its socially liberal and its more right-wing MPs. Some support membership of the EU, others vehemently oppose it. Conflict over Europe has been a problem for party leaders since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Similarly, the left-wing Labour Party has its socialist and its social democratic wings. While its period of office under Tony Blair saw him attempt to occupy the political centre ground, its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, comes from the socialist wing, and recent attempts to cement loyalty and create party unity have proved difficult.

Among ordinary voters, political views can change with changes in society, as we revisit what we perceive should be the priorities of government. If we are searching for work, we may welcome economic change that results in the creation of suitable new jobs in our region. However, if this was a consequence of a business closing elsewhere with a close family member or friend losing their job, we may be less pleased with the change, and end up holding conflicting viewpoints.

National economic decline and mass unemployment, following a boom and a period of prosperity, may well lead to changes of government, from the incumbent to a ruling party which has persuaded enough voters that it can enact policies to improve things. Subsequent failure to do so may lead to unpopularity and, depending on the political system, a swift removal from office.

It is arguable that while our political masters can influence economic development, they are not all-powerful. They may take credit for the good times and flak for the bad, but there is more to economic change than state intervention, vital though this can be. There are economic forces and institutions which empower or constrain us as individuals, social groups and classes, and businesses and nations. There are inevitably good times and bad, and while I would argue that the state is a powerful actor in shaping these, ordinary citizens are thankfully also very much a part of historical and social evolution.

Marx argued that economic and material change influences our consciousness and ideology, or our beliefs about society. While his view on the direction that society would take is more controversial, this philosophical idea is persuasive. We may well be unaware of the causes of our beliefs and values. They can act on an unconscious level. This idea finds support in both Freud and Marx. But both of these thinkers suggested that once we become aware of our beliefs and their causes, we can act to change them, and thus society. This could be at the individual or social level, and the two necessarily interact to create the social world throughout history.

Politics and the society of which it is a part, can be seen as complex, dynamic, ever-changing forms, existing alongside institutions which are relatively enduring and provide us with some stability. These interact with the beliefs and actions of individuals to create our evolving history. The future may be uncertain, and as a result it is well worth trying to explain the past and present as a way to inspire our actions and help to positively shape our journey through life.

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