Dissatisfaction, disenchantment, disillusionment. Three words that depict voter attitudes. So much has been written about voter dissatisfaction, disenchantment and disillusionment that there is clearly a problem. It appears to be widespread and seems to be getting worse, putting democracy in danger as voters feel increasingly disenfranchised..
You can see this in the USA with the unlikely rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party presidential candidate. By almost any reasonable criterion, he seems manifestly unsuitable for the position. Yet he has succeeded precisely because he has no political credentials whatsoever. Even worse, he has an outside chance of being elected, because his Democrat opponent is the other most unpopular candidate in US history. And the USA is by no means alone.
Here in the UK, we are also experiencing political turmoil. Voters have already voiced their “ferocious dislike of the political establishment, as one former cabinet minister expressed it, with the recent “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union; something which seems to have well and truly thrown the cat amongst the pigeons. This can be considered as a protest vote by virtue of the fact that very few seem to have anticipated its happening – so much so that even the main protagonists were thrown into disarray by the results and shown to have no plan to move forward after the results were announced! Latest indications are that nothing will be done to implement the results for close on two years, with the actions themselves taking a further two years (at least.)
We need to be careful, however, to ensure that we are not misinterpreting and misdiagnosing the situation and seeing scenarios like these as something they are not. Yes, the situation on both sides of the Atlantic is clearly a cause for concern. But the fact that it is happening in two very different political systems, suggests that we are not making that mistake, and that neither problem is a uniquely national crisis, but the common symptom of something more fundamental. So we need to look at the underlying causes that have created – and which are compounding – the situation.
The outcome of the “Brexit” referendum is proof of a divide between voters and their representatives. Remember the simple definition of democracy: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people!” The politicians – the people elected to act for the people – were unable to make their case properly and clearly did not understand what people were wanting, and so were caught unawares and totally unprepared to carry out their wishes. (And are possibly still unwilling?) At best this points to either a massive break in communication. Personally, I would go further and ascribe it to one of the major deficiencies of democracy and our democratic processes: the total lack of an effective communication system. There has to be something seriously wrong if a government can fail to read the voter mood to an extent where, arguably, their campaign tactics fuelled voter dissatisfaction even more.
If you are not convinced, ask yourself, “Why did the politicians hold the referendum in the first place?” You would expect a clear plan of action if you are offering the people a choice. If you don’t have a plan, you don’t offer the people the choice. Either way, it seems abundantly clear that the politicians are (to paraphrase the words of the song), “pretty strong on by but not so hot on for!” This makes the voter dissatisfaction entirely understandable and, arguably, justifiable.
Arguably because, no matter how just a protest vote might be, the outcome, as with most actions taken in anger, is unlikely to be positive or, ultimately, in the voters’ own best interests, and therefore it is very likely to have unfortunate consequences for all. So every effort should be made to avoid such situations arising.
That they do arise, however, is due to a fundamental difference between theory and practice. Our definition of democracy makes government the ultimate responsibility “of the people.” All well and good but the practicalities inevitably and unavoidably result in its execution devolving to a representative few. This, equally unavoidably, results in a structural and systemic division between government and electorate. Again this is fine in theory but not so good in practice, for several reasons.
- Government becomes powerful and this inevitably corrupts as politicians become more self-serving. (The famous quote by Lord Action that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” certainly applies.)
- The checks on this power – an electorate empowered to hold government accountable and to throw the government out if and when they consider they are not doing a good job – are inherently weak. This weakness is compounded by the party system which narrows the options and is distorted by the need for financing and increasingly influenced by large donors who provide that funding.
- There is no empirical means of measuring government performance, which means there is no common basis for dialogue, compounding the communication challenges by making everything subjective.
As a result you end up with an imbalance between government and the electorate, with the former becoming increasingly remote from voters, who, in turn, become more and more disillusioned and disgruntled. It is hardly any wonder we have reached the situation we have and appear to be facing a crisis. To avert the current crisis, or if it is already too late, at least mitigate its effects and prevent future crises, it is imperative to find a way to rectify these shortcomings and restore that balance. Only then can you create a practical democracy.
Ultimately democracy is a system of government. As such it is a model for sustaining and safeguarding the well-being of people. Essentially this boils down to sustaining, and ideally enhancing, people’s quality of life. This effectively entails looking out for their economic interests, something clearly and successfully encapsulated in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And, a closer look at economics indicates that it is economic dissatisfaction is stoking the fires of voter revolt, possibly creating a political time bomb.
This may seem surprising in light of the fact that, after the Great Recession both the FTSE and Dow Jones are trading at near historic record highs, GDP’s are positive and unemployment is shrinking or stable. The fact is, however, that these measures are increasingly being questioned as an effective barometer of the economy. David Korten’s article “How to Break the Power of Money” is a good example of this and illustrates how our economic systems are failing the majority of people. Additionally, there is an awareness that none of the systemic causes of the Great Recession have been addressed, and the behaviours that caused it are, once again, taking hold.
Furthermore, at least in the UK, there is increasing industrial action by the trade unions, with the threat of even more, amidst calls for greater nationalisation. Again these are understandable in light of their perception of the failure of capitalism, but you have to question how returning to a discredited model, is going to improve matters. Rather it is a perpetuation of the ideological divide of the last century that proved so unproductive. In a world on the brink of environmental disaster, where more efficient and effective use of resources is vital, we cannot afford to persist with such ideological conflict.
As Korten says, “Life exists—can exist—only in living communities that self-organize to create the conditions essential to life’s existence.” Self-organization is neither capitalism nor socialism and offers a new way forward that can meet the challenges we are facing. The solutions I propose in “The Democracy Delusion” offer a recipe for self-organization that also creates a model for stronger democracy, with improved economic accountability, clearer measures of performance and stronger communication. All of which will go a long way towards redressing the underlying problems I am describing here.
This is my effort to “speak the truth.” I hope you will recognize it and be encouraged to do the same in order that, together, “we will change the human story.”
I urge you, please, to get hold of my book, The Democracy Delusion: How to Restore True Democracy and Stop Being Duped, read my ideas as to how we could improve our economic systems, and promote discussion and debate around them so that action can be taken to restore democracy and safeguard a better environment for future generations.