Saturday, 9 July 2016

Is Democracy Doomed?

Voters and Politicians

Over the years my wife and I have enjoyed cruising in various parts of the world. Particularly before the Global Financial Crisis, the majority of our fellow passengers were from the U.S. Conversations with them gave us varied glimpses of American life and politics. One theme that frequently recurred was disenchantment with politicians - both Democrats and Republicans. The feeling was that they were all in the pockets of major lobby groups, and were not genuinely interested in the welfare of “ordinary” people.

In Australia we are a cynical bunch and have long thought that too – even when it was demonstrably not true! There was a time when a railway locomotive driver – Benedict Chifley – could and did become Prime Minister of Australia. But we still joked “It doesn't matter who you vote for: a politician always gets elected!”

But recent events have shown this to be far more acutely felt now.

In the 'States the recent campaigns for Democrat and Republican nominees for President have shown extraordinary polarisation.

In the Democratic camp look at the polling by Bernie Sanders. No offence intended, but he is so close to Communist in his policies that his large following in “the land of the free” almost beggars belief. But aside from his economic policies – which have proved disastrous in every nation that has tried them – he had a vision. It would not, could not have worked in practice – but it was a vision. It evoked a utopian longing in (some) ordinary people. My feeling is that his success came because if one did not look too closely behind the smoke and mirrors, he was preaching government “for the people”.

Go back eight years. Barack Obama preached “change you can believe in”. Crown sourcing brought in huge funding for his campaign from ordinary people. Again the dream that a government would care about the general populace. I suspect that history will pass harsh judgement on his presidency, but that is not my interest here. What I am looking at is people's desire for government that does the right thing by the nation, and their feeling of betrayal in this regard.

Donald Trump. The social progressives hate him with such violent passion that I begin to think he must be OK. I read his book, and it says all the right (no pun intended) things. However eight years ago I read Obama's books and thought they were good too! So I had better reserve judgement. But whatever you political leanings you must admit he has been a phenomenon.

Again I suspect this tells us something about the man or woman in the street. Those on the Republican side of politics are also disenchanted with established politics. They too feel betrayed. They too feel political elites are feathering their own nests and in the pockets of wealthy industry groups. They may also be reacting against the failure of the socialist leaning Obama administration by looking for a more outspoken champion.

In the latter regard I am thinking of what Hayek wrote. He maintained that it was the failure of the socialist government in Germany that led to the middle classes feeling disenfranchised and turning to Hitler. He also commented that seemed to be a worldwide pattern that when socialist economic systems failed – as they inevitably did – people turned to a right wing strongman “saviour”. Nothing so dramatic in the US – yet. Nothing so radical. But a little failed swing to the left may be producing a preference for a strong, outspoken leader. As an engineer I know the value of safety valves. Better that it goes off than the boilers explodes! Trump as president may be a safety valve: you may not much like him, but maybe you really don't want the sort of leader people might flock to after another socialist incumbency!

In Australia we have just had an unusual election. The (slightly conservative) government just scraped back in, but both it and the opposition (slightly socialist) party were deserted by voters in favour of little splinter parties further to the right and left.

Naturally newspaper columnists have had theories galore as to why this is so. When you cut out the campaign related ones there is a common complaint. Voter alienation.

The perception among voters that both big political parties are living in their own little dream world rather than looking after the people who have to struggle on in the real world.

It seems to me that voters in both America and Australia (possibly many other Western countries too) have recognised the signs of imminent failure of democracy. Harsh words? Compare what is seen to be happening in our countries with these familiar words:

“… And that government of the people, for the people and by the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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