Who gets to the top in our democracies?

Let’s pick up where we left off a while ago in Richard Swift’s book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy. At the time, we were looking at the gap between the professional political class and the democratic notion of “rule by the people.” The main question we haven’t asked yet, however, is “Who are the people who make up the professional political class?” Naturally, Swift has an answer.

“The kind of people who have already accumulated a high level of economic and social power are usually over-represented in the political class,” he says. “Lawyers and those from the corporate boardroom tend to predominate. Other professionals are not far behind.”

And who’s largely getting left out? “Groups that are on the ‘outs’ – blacks in the US, Dalits (untouchables) in India, many types of immigrants, tribal peoples everywhere – tend to be greatly under-represented. Women have traditionally been excluded and although there is some change here… they are also grossly under-represented.”

These demographics alone, when counted together, represent a majority of the public being routinely excluded from the political class. Indeed, Swift argues that our political system “forms a more or less permanent – if sometimes rotating – government elite. The same faces pop up over and over again. The frequency with which we hear about the phenomenon of the ‘political comeback’ is a good indicator of how difficult it is to get rid of them…

“Perhaps in no other human endeavour,” he adds, “is the octogenarian male so prominent. Men in their late 70s and early 80s play a disproportionate role in the governing of many nations.” At the time of the book’s writing, as Swift noted, the late US senator Strom Thurmond was over a hundred years old, and still in office.

“Politicians from the governing culture tend to form a seamless web with those who hold power in the economy and society more generally,” he adds. “They are on the same boards, live in the same toney neighbourhoods, are members of the same clubs, have their kids in the same private schools…

“There is a shared ethos of doing things ‘properly’ – which usually means doing things in ways that do not threaten and if possible enhance the interests of that world.”

Nor does the relationship end when one leaves office. “A kind of ‘revolving door’ often operates between the political and economic √©lites,” Swift notes, “rewarding the former for their services once they leave office.”

Posted in Democracy