Is democracy working for you?

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Is democracy working for you? I know what you’re thinking; and, yes, it is a serious question. I ask this question of many people, and the most common response, at the least in Australia, is that they haven’t thought about it. It seems most people are caught in a pervasive state of submission to the idea that democracy, as practiced in the West, is the high point of government, where the will of the people is exerted through the ballot box, and the outcomes of government are a reflection of the will and collective wisdom of the majority. But what if that is no longer, and perhaps never was, true; because government has become not only an end in itself, but unaccountable and, worse, intractable and immune to the influence of the electorate? What if the politicians, who we routinely and mindlessly elect every 3-4 years, have evolved from the representatives of the people sitting in Parliament to reflect the views of the electorate in public policy, to actors who prefer either their own interests, or the witch’s brew of the interests of corporate and influential groups, or both, to those of the polity at large? What if it no longer matters how you vote, because you won’t get the outcomes, changes in direction or policy that are necessary, and that you were promised, or worse, you are simply not offered any prospect for change? Today even the idea that you will get the leader who stands at the head of a political party seeking election is increasingly fraught.

Take a moment to think about it, and if, upon reflection, you come to the unsettling realization that democracy, as it is practiced in Australia and in the West, is increasingly failing all of us, but particularly the young and the future generations, then you will be relieved to know both that you can say it, and more importantly, that you are not alone. The European Union recently surveyed 580,000 people in 35 countries seeking to ‘better understand what young people are optimistic and frustrated about in Europe’. The fact that they had to ask is startling enough, but one of the key findings is infinitely more troubling. More than half of 18 – 34 year old respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘Would you actively participate in a large-scale uprising against the generation in power if it happened in the next days or months?’ Broken down by region, Greece, Italy, Spain and France all recorded positive responses between 67% and 61%. The Czech Republic, Wales and Ireland recorded positive responses between 59% and 54%, and the first country to record a negative response is Luxembourg, 8th on the list, where only 45% would support an uprising. The lowest level of support for insurrection is the Netherlands at 33%, and all other regions recorded support between 45% and 33%. The survey also charted dramatically increasing voter apathy in the young; for example the rate at which young voters turn out to vote in the UK has fallen from 66% in 1992 to 38% in 2005. The picture is no better elsewhere.

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An animated discussion in Greece. Photo by PIAZZA del POPOLO

The obvious question is why, but in Europe at the least the immediate answer isn’t hard to find. The highest positive responses are from those countries in the South where joining the Euro has crushed the local economies, and sent the countries spiraling into crippling debt which the wealthier North should never have provided, and now stubbornly refuses to forgive, and that can never be repaid, no matter how many times it is rescheduled. If you are one of the more than 51% of young people in Greece who do not now, and may never, have a job, then it isn’t hard to see why you might think that Greek national governments of all political flavours, subservient to Brussels, don’t care about you at all. In Spain you might fare slightly better, where youth unemployment is currently about 49%, but has recently been as high as 54%, but it is doubtful that you would feel any more valued.

The travails of the young and unemployed in Europe are simply one outward manifestation of the failings of ostensibly democratic political systems that are increasingly resistant, if not immune, to any form of pressure or control by the electorate. The essential cause of the dissatisfaction among the unemployed youth of Europe, and the reason that so many have concluded that insurrection might be the way forward, is that they cannot see any path to change or a better life within the current political system. The Greeks have voted for governments of many different political colours, but none have been able to overcome the influence of the European Union and the moneylenders, which won’t allow them to leave the common currency, and insists on economic measures that are causing penury among parts of the population. If you cannot vote for change, or you don’t get the promised change for which you do vote, then the conclusion that democracy doesn’t work is quite rational. Of course the Greeks face a multi-layered problem in that they can only elect a national government, which irrespective of what they say in seeking election, may or may not stand up to the European Union and the European Central bank, and they have no effective democratic process to effect change in the European Union itself.

Nigel Farage likes to say that the European Union is not un-democratic, it is anti-democratic, by which he means that people within the EU cannot vote for change, and even if they try, the system finds a way to continue unabated. In the European Union, most laws and rules in force in member states are made by the European Commission, the executive body of European Union, and not by the European Parliament. The members of the European Commission are not elected, they are appointed upon nomination by member states. The frustrated Greeks get to vote for the national government that makes the nomination, but in the end that person is 1 of 28 members of the European Commission. The Greek people cannot vote for change, and if that isn’t democracy failing, then I don’t know what is.

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Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore

The essential problem is no different in Australia, the US, the UK and other western democracies. Trump was elected on an express and very specific platform of bringing cultural and political change to Washington D.C., and while he has achieved the occasional win, the truly startling revelation from the first 6 months of his presidency is the unconcealed and unrestrained resistance to any meaningful change of the kind for which Trump advocated by the Executive, the establishment politicians of both sides, and the MSM. The US currently owes more money than any entity in history of the world, USD$20 trillion, but it seems even the President armed with the authority of people simply cannot alter the trajectory of tax and spend, debt and deficit style of government that is pushing many Western economies to the brink of a debt-fuelled catastrophe. Governments all over the Western world seem to have lost any sense of proportion and responsibility, and largely abandoned any imperative for sound economic management. Ordinarily, and in saner times, you might expect the opposition to oppose unprecedented levels of debt-fuelled spending but not so today.

Winston Churchill famously said ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ The statement is frequently misinterpreted as an endorsement of democracy, and quoted in support of contentions that democracy as practiced in the West is the optimum form of government, that must be preserved and spread to other parts of the world, if not by consent then by force; but properly understood, is no such thing. Churchill recognized the flaws in democracy, and what it might become, and his praise for democracy was, if nothing else, feint and damning in a backhanded way.

Not that the thought was original to Churchill. Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville wrote in 1835:

‘Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd’.

The insight stings simply because it is an accurate summary of the position we have reached 182 years later. But de Tocqueville apparently didn’t foresee the ultimate progression of the process, where the ‘network of complicated rules’ is increasingly used to belt the people into compliance, not for their own or the common good, but in the service of the interests of government itself, the politicians and the people who have captured the political process. Fewer and fewer people are getting the benefits, while more and more people are coerced into paying for it.

Alexis de Tocqueville.

Which is not to say, and I do not argue, that the electorate is not in many ways responsible for the growing failure of democracy. Voters have short attention spans, incomplete and unreliable information courtesy of the vested interests and comprehensively captured MSM; and often votes for short term personal gain, rather than the long-term interests of the country as a whole, and future generations; and they largely forget or ignore the fact that promises are broken by politicians, who clearly feel licenced to ignore the electorate and are insulated from any consequence of having done so. Joseph de Maistre wrote in 1811 ‘Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite’, (Every country has the government it deserves)- Lettres et Opuscules Inédits (1851). The same point was expressed by de Tocqueville, who wrote ‘A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.’ Very prophetic, for a man writing in 1840.

Now take a moment to consider the state of politics in Australia today, and its immediate and likely long terms effects on you and you family. Are you freer and wealthier than your parents? Can your children expect a better life than yours; or will they suffer declining living standards as they work to pay off the $490 billion that the Federal government owes today or the $649 billion that both the Liberals and Labor are happy to borrow to fund future recurrent spending? Is the government behaving responsibly, doing what they said during the election that they would do and therefore matching your expectations in governance and public policy outcomes, or is everything continuing as if you had not voted? And if you don’t like what is happening, can you see a political path to bring about change within the current system? The choices are pretty grim, as the Liberal / Nationals have abandoned many conservative values and principles, and become only a slightly less economically irresponsible than the appalling alternative. And even if Turnbull were to have an epiphany today and say that he will behave more responsibly, could you vote for him safe in the knowledge that there will be meaningful change.

To me the answer is clear; if you can’t vote for change, and get it, democracy has failed, because elections are meaningless. So, would you actively participate in large-scale uprising against the generation in power if it happened in the next days or months?