John Keane | Democracies in name, but not in the real game
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-7596,single-format-standard,do-etfw,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.1.2,vc_responsive


Democracies in name, but not in the real game

  |   Articles & Essays JK, Democracy in the 21st Century   |   No comment

The Sydney Morning Herald, July 24, 2006

Disillusionment is becoming the predominant “D” word in the face of political parties’ stranglehold on representation, writes John Keane.

The world’s democracies, Australia included, are sleepwalking their way into deep trouble.

Despite everything they have achieved and stand for, they are bound to feel the ever sharper pinch of deep-seated problems whose symptoms include declining enthusiasm for representative government, widespread public sullenness tinged with fear, new forms of public protest, anxiety about rising tides of anti-democratic behaviour, and a general confusion about what democracy is and what can be done to preserve what has been achieved, and to correct these symptoms.

What are these trends that cut into the bodies of democracies everywhere? The most obvious problem is the inner decay of representative government.

Bellyaching against representative democracy is rising. Growing numbers of people are turning their backs on formal politics; they feel they have lost the means of engagement. There is a creeping sense that not everyone’s vote matters. Why? Trouble arises from deep within the representative system itself. Important factors include the excessive growth of executive power, but arguably the stranglehold exercised by political parties over the process of representation is the principal problem. It seems representative government can neither live with political parties nor live without them. Parties are a necessary condition of democracy: they aggregate disparate interests among voters, but their tendency to occupy the middle ground has a high price. There is long-term evidence that parties frustrate and disappoint the work of representatives and represented alike.

Parties aggregate interests all right, but often it is at the price of blandly stated policies, vague, idea-less visions, and non-commitments. Some voters (understandably) come to feel that they don’t know who they’re voting for, or that those whom they did vote for never deliver on their promises, or that voting once every few years is no good to anybody. Parts of the electorate become apathetic, unimpressed with politicians – they stand for sleazy blokes in suits looking after themselves – or prone to support single-issue initiatives and movements. The manipulation and misuse of parties and governments by corporations adds to the legitimacy problems of representative government. Hence the dramatic decline nearly everywhere of political party membership and, especially among young people, growing disrespect for “politicians” and official “politics”, even boycotts and satirical campaigns against all parties and candidates (as in the Finnish presidential election in January, in which Donald Duck came third).

The foundations of representative government are being disturbed as well by the communications revolution.. Gone are the days when democratic politicians such as John F. Kennedy could keep their private dalliances quiet, or govern with the help of a bunch of guys sitting around a table. Political processes now operate entirely within a media-saturated environment, which has the effect of marginalising representative government: in the era of communicative abundance, a vigorous, inquisitive, 24-hour system of symbolic representation springs up. It runs parallel to, and often conflicts with, the more narrowly political form of representation embodied in the system of representative government. Journalists and the media portray themselves as “representatives” of everything and everybody. Politicians feel the pinch of conflicting loyalties. It is unclear whether they are representing their constituents, their party or themselves, which is why political careers now normally end in failure; why their half-life becomes shorter; and why they are easily jostled off public stages by non-political figures.

The democratic malaise is deepening for another reason: the radical stretching of geopolitical horizons. There were times when representative government was inscribed within a circle made up of households, local communities and national politics. Within this circle, local MPs were the cotter pin linking the family with the nation. They lived around the corner, knew the community and had vested interests. In business, or as members of a trade union, they cultivated roots, and would knock on doors and listen to the voices and concerns of local people. They also spoke in parliament and people listened. The buck stopped there.

No doubt it is easy to romanticise times past, but the contrast with present trends is striking.

So why bother with democracy? What’s so good about it, after all?

What is to be done? Elections could be made more interesting and competitive and citizens treated by parties and politicians with greater respect through moves such as the cultivation of universal citizenship and voting for denizens, lowering the voting age to at least 16, introducing discretionary voting and lotteries for electors, and granting power to representative bodies at the municipal, local and regional levels to issue “yellow cards” – explicit warning notices – to one another. Various means are thinkable and viable: improved citizen representation and citizens’ juries and assemblies within the operations of government, not only in jury duties but in fields such as health and transportation; the rejuvenation of local government and the redesign of town halls, so that they feel and function much more like public spaces; participatory budgeting; specialised elected councils; online deliberation systems; and integrity commissions within the field of media.