If you believe that our political system is failing dismally, you are not alone. Leading thinkers like Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum are trying to alert us to this fact. Not only that, they are also stressing the need for urgency. In their recent book, ‘That used to be us’ they state, “Our sense of urgency also derives from the fact that our political system is not properly framing, let alone addressing, our ultimate challenge.” (P10.)
Their book is focused on the US political system, but the problems it portrays, and the fact that many of us are sleepwalking through them, are not unique to the United States; they are phenomena that are endemic throughout the developed world today. Friedman and Mandelbaum bemoan the failure to reap the dividends of “winning” the cold war, the rapid decline and the threat to the country’s “exceptional nation” standing, but the issues they describe are by no means unique to that nation. Unfortunately, US dominance of the world economy compounds the problems for the rest of us, and we therefore are as dependent on their ability to address their own problems as they are.
Unfortunately as things currently stand the omens are not good. As Friedman and Mandelbaum say “Faced with era defining challenges, the country has responded with all the vigour and determination of a lollipop. It has no concerted, serious, well-designed, and broadly supported policies to prepare America for the jobs of the future, or to put the nation’s fiscal affairs in order, or to hedge against dangerous changes in the planet’s climate. How to explain our failure of will? Our political system has gone awry, so cannot produce the big, ambitious policies the country needs. And the American people have not demanded that our leaders tackle the challenges we face because they still have not fully understood the world we are living in.” (P27)
This means we are all in BIG trouble. For not only is the political system failing to properly frame the ultimate challenge, but it is part of the ultimate challenge. This is something that even these two luminaries have failed to fully recognise: the issue of whether political leaders are leaders or followers that I raise in ‘The Democracy Delusion’. Winning elections necessitates appealing to the majority, which means saying what they want to hear. This not only reduces the chances of conveying new ideas and devising innovative policies but it also costs a great deal to reach the electorate. Thus you have a vicious circle, whereby politicians have to raise considerable campaign funds in order to be elected. In our technologically age this outreach is increasingly difficult to do across all the different media, and so those costs have multiplied drastically.
So much so that I recently read of a politician who started his re-election fund-raising campaigning the night after having won the election. Apart from anything else, how can politicians keep their eye on the ball if they are spending a large proportion of their time raising campaign funds. You only have to see the empty debating chambers in the legislatures to see how little debate actually goes into the passing of laws! Worst of all, however, this creates a vicious circle, because it effectively means the politicians are obliged to “repay” their sponsors and thus more and more political actions are dictated by the sponsors and wealthy “special interest groups.” While this is universal it may be worse in the US than anywhere else. In any event, it makes it less likely that politicians are always acting in their electorates’ best interests.
If you doubt that, just ask yourself what consequences there have been for allowing the banks to regulate themselves or for the massive financial mismanagement that led to the economic crisis of 2008.
There are no simple answers to these issues, but at least in the ‘The Democracy Delusion’ I have tried to come up with some practical solutions which will provide a platform to make a start.