Democratic Dialogue and The Political Art of Listening

Since I was a child my image of politicians has been as greater speakers. Whether they are delivering a speech or engaged in debate, their primary role is always to express positions. This is unfortunate. After all, what they say has to come from somewhere.

Listening, which is every bit as much a political art as speaking, has, unfortunately, not been popularly recognized as such. This is perhaps because it is much harder to listen politically than it is to speak politically. Anyone who knows something about a topic of political significance can make a political speech, however, after the speech, one is faced by overwhelming noise. To know who to listen to, to know how to make sense of what they are saying, or else, if they are not speaking but acting, to hear the significance of their actions, is complex.

Of course, the role of listening has somewhat been professionalized in the form of policy advisors who take in and condense information. In particular, the discipline of public consultation is concerned with listening. And yet, what the policy advisor and consultation listens for is not what the politician listens for. It cannot be because it is not personal for the policy advisor.

The politician listens for a way forward, not the technically best way forward, but the way that can keep together the coalition of disparate actors* sufficient to politically persist.

What then is the function of their speaking? Only the most sophisticated can perceive how the politician has responded to what they have heard without the politician crystalizing it in one form or another (be it a speech or a tweet). Furthermore, even for the sophisticated observer, most actions are ambiguous. The speech, at its best, is an attempt to give it some definite meaning (though it may sometimes be to obfuscate).

You might say this is a highly idealistic account of government speeches and announcements. However, this view is consistent even with the cynical interpretation of government communications. Government communications reflect what the political actor thinks that sufficient coalition wants to hear and in so doing reflects back what they think they have heard. The goal is to simultaneously manipulate the political field and reflect it (in different degrees as an actor is more or less principled or opportunistic). This is the dialogue between the government and the people.

Of course, governments are more or less willing and able to listen both in general and to particular actors. Systems become more democratic as it becomes more difficult for politicians to ignore anyone.

*I say actors and not interests for two reasons. Firstly, actors act based on more than simply interests, whether that be for bad reason such as uninformed knee jerk reactions, or for good reasons such as visions of the public good independent of their interests. Secondly, if politics is fundamentally about living together, the key thing that must be kept together are actors and not mere interests.