Democratic malaise and the professional political class

We’ve looked at voter frustration and the structure of our democratic institutions as reasons why people all over the world have lost interest and faith in democracy. So far, many of these ideas have been drawn from the pages of Richard Swift’s book The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy.

“But democracy’s malaise,” Swift says, “goes deeper than the decline in voting and the manipulation of electoral arrangements by a self-serving elite. It stems from the very depths of what we imagine democracy to be.”

Here, Smith refers to the gap between direct and representative democracies; between our system of “highly centralized governments in which we are ‘represented’ by a class of professional politics, in other words, and the democratic notion of self-rule.

“If this is the central criterion of a democracy,” he argues, “we are a long way from it now. This sense of a failed promise to actually achieve a democratic life is perhaps the underlying reason for the groundswell of discontent.”

Why? Because democracy is all about “rule by the people,” but the practical structure of our democracies has a way of separating our representatives from the rest of the population they serve.

“The system of centralized state power seems increasingly remote from most people’s lives,” Swift explains, “and it becomes difficult to believe that politicians (no matter what their views) concerned with the macro-management of society and economy have any real interest in what is important to us. This view is reinforced every time a politicians tells voters one thing to get elected… and when they are in power does the exact opposite.

“While this is often put down to the typical hypocrisy of politicians, it is more than that. It is a go-with-the-flow, do-what-powerful-business-interests-want and don’t-rock-the-boat kind of ethos that glues political life together.”

Not only does this contribute to “an extraordinary popular hostility to not only the political class but government per se,” but it also contributes to a cycle in which cynical governments exploit and increase that hostility.

Swift argues that “Conservative politicians have proved the most adept at harnessing this hostility” and “using anti-government rhetoric to achieve, paradoxically, the very positions of power they are attacking. They are even prone to attack ‘big government’ at the same time they are cynically using the powers of the state to reward their friends and vanquish their enemies.” You may remember the same argument being made in a more current article or two that I quoted in another recent post.

This centralization of political power can be found at nearly all levels of government. “The big political parties are increasingly remote from the voters… The rank-and-file backbench representative who sits in a parliament or national assembly has little control over the cabinet, or if in opposition the shadow cabinet. The cabinet has less control over the increasingly large office of the chief executive, be they Prime Minister, President or Premier. ‘Don’t tie our hands’ is the cry used all down the line to drown out the sound of breaking promises and abandoned commitments.

“We are left,” Swift concludes, “with a series of puzzling questions as to why government isn’t better at representing the public interest and who is really setting the agenda.”

Posted in Democracy