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Varadkar’s speech, and the delusion gap

An under-discussed phenomenon in politics is something I’d call “the delusion gap”. What is the delusion gap? It’s the gap between how the average person thinks things are going in the country, and how a politician says things are going in the country. If that gap gets too big, the politician starts to look a bit delusional. On that note, have a listen to this forty-eight second clip from our once, and future, Taoiseach:

Nothing that Varadkar said there is, necessarily, untrue. Incomes are up. Income taxes are, very slightly, down. Pensions, sick pay, paternity and maternity leave, have all risen over the Fine Gael era in Government. None of it is a lie, but all of it is a form of gaslighting, because despite all of that, the average family is indisputably worse off today than they were just a few years ago. Costs have risen faster than wages, bills have increased faster than pensions. Demand for housing has outstripped new home construction. The speech is the equivalent of a team that’s lost 5-1 in a soccer match spending the post-match interviews talking exclusively about how brilliant their goal was.

Politics is, to a very large extent, tribal. By that I mean that it is a statement of fact to say that if Fine Gael, or Fianna Fáil, or Sinn Féin were to announce tomorrow that the only solution to Ireland’s problems was to detonate a nuclear bomb over Athlone, there would be some portion of their supporters who are so devoted to the party that they would immediately rationalise it in their minds as not only a good policy, but the only policy a sensible person could support. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not much of one.

This was a speech for those people.

It was a speech for the hardcore Fine Gaeler, the kind of person who looks at the party’s record in Government and wonders why the rest of us seem so bloody lacking in gratitude.

And it was a speech belied, just moments later in it, with this passage:

Whenever I meet young people, and not so young people, across the country, I am often asked the same question.

Will I ever have the chance to own a home? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Should I give up and go abroad?

It’s a crisis that cuts across all age groups and is one that demands results… as well as actions.

When you have been in power for a decade, and you are standing up giving a speech that admits that your own people are asking you whether they should give up and go abroad, well, what does that say for your record?

The speech contained the usual attacks on Sinn Féin. Varadkar claimed that Sinn Féin are radical, much more so than they even admit; that their solutions are simplistic and unrealistic; that they offer easy solutions to complex problems which, if implemented, might make things much worse.

But that analysis misunderstands the very point of democracy.

The problem for Fine Gael, and its partners in Government, is that people didn’t fight through history for the right to vote so that they could make a choice between competing visions for a country. The point of the vote is, and always has been, primarily to give people a power that those living in monarchies and dictatorships lack: The power to get rid of their Government.

That’s what a vote is, first and foremost. It’s a basic power that most people in human history did not have. The power to push the ejector seat button on the people making your laws.

When the voters get angry enough, the alternative Government really ceases to matter. Votes for Sinn Féin, or whoever else it may be, are simply votes against the status quo.

This is why I think the delusion gap matters: People are more likely to stick with the status quo if they think that the people running the country have a handle on the problems in the country. That is to say, if they think their leaders understand their lives.

When a politician stands up and says, to a people struggling with the cost of living that, actually, they’re much better off now than they were before that politician took charge, that does not inspire confidence. The politician sounds deluded.

Mary Lou McDonald, by contrast, does not sound deluded. She might sound radical, and edgy, and even slightly dangerous to some ears. But she sounds like she understands what the problems are.

That, to my ears, at least, is the difference between Government and opposition. Varadkar’s speech this weekend, made that difference a little larger, at least to my ears.

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