The Paralysis of Our Democracy

Apathy, Ignorance and Career Politicians in the 21st Century.

We live in a genuinely interesting and transformational time. Globalisation has irrevocably changed the way we view and understand business, culture and each other. We have never been more interconnected and yet, paradoxically, people feel more alone and incomplete than ever. Humanity stands at the cusp of some truly monumental achievements; over the next decade we will confront the needs of climate change and the challenge of unquenchable consumption in a resource finite world. We are looking at human rights in a way no framer of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could ever have envisaged. Local human rights abuses are communicated and exposed across the globe through nothing more than a mobile phone and an internet connection.

Yet globalisation has given us modern terrorism, and our only institutional response in the West appears to be to sacrifice any and every hard fought freedom to protect ourselves from an abstract danger of incredible statistical improbability. Privacy, due process, even citizenship seem to be on the table when politicians grandstand on the exaggerated risk of terrorism. We aren’t even content with passively sitting by as politicians strip us of every freedom the Western Enlightenment was predicated upon. We fall on top of ourselves to reward politicians who are perceived as tough on security, without understanding the issue or the sacrifices we are making.

 

cause of death
Note: Terrorism figure includes all Australian civilians killed in overseas terrorist attacks, as well as non-Australians killed in domestic terrorist attacks, since 1978. [Figures courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics and http://www.crikey.com.au]

We stand at a precipice in the West. On the one hand, we can choose to push forward with progress in the face of those who apparently seek to enslave us to the romanticised pre-modernity of the Caliphate (ISIS). On the other, we can give in, and allow self-serving politicians to inadvertently return us to fifteenth century feudal servitude by stripping us of all our rights for the sake of our own protection. Personally, I’ll keep my due process and privacy and take my risks with the suicide bomber.

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But what is the real issue here? How did we get to the point where our elected leaders so manifestly fail at protecting our rights as citizens? How did we regress to the point where it was even politically feasible to strip a person of their citizenship? It is fucking outrageous.

Modern politics is a joke.

Sometimes it feels like western politics has become more of a spectator sport than a genuine contest of ideas. The lethally toxic combination of unfettered political ambition and the devolution of political science into the art of winning has turned political dialogue into nothing more than populist grandstanding designed to secure career longevity rather than national advancement.

Think about it – Donald Trump is winning the Republican Presidential Nomination with no more policy than ‘insult every minority in America’. Australia is putting refugee children on Nauru at exorbitant cost despite a standing offer from New Zealand to resettle them there. Politicians would rather line up under 17 Australian flags for a 7 second sniping sound bite at their opposition than propose long term-orientated substantive policy. With respect to Lindsay Tanner’s autobiography, if politics has a purpose, it is malevolent self-interest masquerading as virtue, driven by sociopathic ability to rationalise the interests of self as the interest of others.

flags
Each flag is an indication of just how stupid they think you are. But seriously, be very wary of any politician who believes they need ten flags behind them to sell you their message. [Source: smh.com.au].

In short, the modern politician is a careerist, and their pathological ambition for power means they have convinced themselves that dogmatic pursuit of their own self-interest is in your best-interests. Every time you see a politician backtrack from a previous position, every time they weasel around a question that they are clearly uncomfortable answering, they are leaving you an implicit message. The message is simple – society’s best interests are best served by my re-election and career advancement, even if we don’t act in society’s best interests to achieve that end.

What I detail above is an account of how the nature of contemporary politics actively undermines political decision making. In essence, that politicians use ‘political science’ to win rather than to do what is best for society. I don’t deny that politicians have always been somewhat motivated by self-interest, but it is difficult to argue that the pervasive influence of the 24/7 media cycle hasn’t had an enormously detrimental effect on genuine political dialogue. The consequences are obvious – government shut downs in the United States, coupled with the worst Senate obstinacy witnessed since the Civil War, as politicians increasing pander to their most radicalised constituents. Australia isn’t much better – six Prime Ministers since 2007, and Tony Abbott’s Liberal party won the 2013 election on a platform that was almost exactly opposite to the one that the Australian people elected Labor for in 2007.

What we are seeing is that meaningful discussion in politics; the art of compromise and judging proposals on their merits, has been rendered entirely subservient to the art of winning, and we are the losers.

But who is to blame?

Well, in a way, we all are – the apathetic approach to politics most Australians proudly confess to has created an environment where radical and/or ignorant views dominate the political landscape. People refusing to take the time to understand complex issues before voicing an opinion have created a lucrative vacuum for alarmist and jingoistic commentators; a vacuum the likes of Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley are more than happy to fill. Dog-whistling or ‘tell it like it is’ media creates over-simplified narratives which are conveniently exactly the way the listener thinks about an issue; it delves the depths of human ignorance to construct an account of facts or a situation in such a manner which in no way challenges people to think about a position they already hold. To put it simply, people like being told they are right without having to think about it. Consider it an industrial-scale feed lot for the brain.

And it is killing us.

It’s actually rather sad. Enlightenment philosophers, for all their talk about liberty, were absolutely dismissive of universal democracy because they believed the majority of people to be too idle and too stupid to act in the interests of self and society. Voltaire distrusted democracy as propagating ‘the idiocy of the masses’, Diderot called the general populace ‘la canaille’ (the rabble) and said “distrust the judgement of the multitude in matters of reasoning and philosophy; its voice is that of wickedness, stupidity, inhumanity, unreason and prejudice… the multitude is ignorant and stupefied…”.

Look at Donald Trump, and one begins to wonder if they were right.

trump

 

For those of you who point out that continental philosophers were more concerned with reason than liberty, consider that even John Stuart Mill, probably the most prominent British libertarian philosopher of the 19th century, expressed detailed concerns about the dangers of ignorance in a democratic system and urged that better educated constituents be given more votes. Mill, John Adams, Alexis De Tocqueville and Thomas Jefferson all spoke clearly on the need for systems of government to protect society from the ‘tyranny of the majority’. The political thinkers who laid the very foundations of modern democracy were terrified of the pervasive capacity of social prejudices and ignorance to undermine good governance.

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You elitist! You just think you are better than everybody else – you should have your say and everyone else should just shut up?

Before I am lynched and set alight in the back lot of some suburban strip mall like a garbage bin by errant teenagers, allow me to clarify some things. I absolutely support universal suffrage; I vigorously argue in favour of mandatory voting. I believe democracy is the absolute backbone of Western society. But that does not change the fact that generally the only people who don’t express concern about the danger of ignorance in democracy are those trying to win the support of the ignorant in a democracy. It does not change the fact that there is something seriously wrong with our contemporary democracy. Indeed, if it is the spine of Western society, we definitely have a couple of slipped discs.

The slipped disc analogy works on multiple levels. It is an accurate descriptive of our myopic political stagnation. Much like a back injury, our parliaments have been rendered impotent by an aversion to robust and vigorous debate and have been confined to yelling at each other from chairs until a person in a different chair tells them to stop. Our slipped disc democracy makes it easier to engage in the rhetoric of fear than sensible and well considered debate, because this is exactly what the electorate rewards. The election of the Abbott and Rudd governments are both testament to this. The passing of the myriad of severely restrictive and invasive security laws with bipartisan support reflect the fact that both major parties see a significant benefit to fear politics even if it is at the expense of our hard fought human rights. They have re-election to consider; their now is more important than our future.

Anyone who has ever had back pain understands that mentality.

Funnily enough though, the analogy offers us a prescriptive solution. If our democracy has a slipped disc, it is because we – the constituents that make up its body – are not lifting properly. A visit to a physiotherapist after back pain will generally focus on two things – proper lifting technique and strengthening the support muscles.

Lift with the legs and crunches for a robust democracy? You’re an idiot.

As a history fanatic, it is incredible how voices of the past can come back from the grave to offer solutions for a world radically different from when they were alive. Adam Smith is widely considered to be the father of political economy and wrote his magnum opus ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in 1776. His work on the ‘invisible hand’ – the unintended social benefits of trade and production, has, along with Marx, probably been the most discussed and debated concept in economic theory. Yet, despite being parroted as the ultimate proponent of free markets and laissez-faire economics, he had some rather interesting views on politics and society.

Despite coming from the horrifically stratified society of 18th century Britain, Smith departed from the view of most of his contemporaries that a class of the (self-appointed) wise and virtuous should rule over the ‘common herd’. Although not a proponent of universal suffrage (it was, after all, 1776), his economic philosophy certainly provided the impetus for the suffrage movement which followed. What Smith recognised, however, even in relation to economic liberty in isolation, was the importance of education and knowledge in wider society in ensuring the protection of the individuals’ economic interests.

Perhaps recognising the observation of his friend, philosopher David Hume (“How nearly equal all men are in their bodily force, and even in their mental powers and faculties, till cultivated by education.”), Smith proposed a series of education reforms towards the end of The Wealth of Nations. He argued that the Industrial Revolution would result in most people’s employment being of such a tedious and repetitive nature that it would render them “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. What he was at pains to explain was this employment induced torpor posed an enormous risk to social and economic stability.

Transposed onto the modern day (bear with me, I’m still not calling you stupid) and parallels emerge. Although physical drudgery has been replaced by service orientated employment, very little of our work challenges our brain. Moreover, our brains are exposed and overwhelmed by an incredible amount of ‘mindless information’ – television, Netflix, social media. Although we are not stupid, the vast majority of us have inadvertently retreated from confronting complex and challenging problems out of convenience and a lack of necessity.

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But herein lies the problem- our hard fought freedoms and liberties are historical anomalies. It is difficult to argue that democracy is a natural condition inevitable with progress because so few people in human history have enjoyed it. Even today, only 13% of the world’s population are fortunate enough to live in ‘full democracy’, and even fewer live in countries with fully fledged and enumerated rights (Australia is not in this category, for instance). In fact, history stands as testament to the fact that human rights and democracy are rather whimsical propositions when confronted by the power of an unconstrained state. Nazi Germany, Robespierre’s ‘red terror’ following the French Revolution, the Armenian Genocide and atrocities the world over have all involved an element of the wider-citizenry being apathetic about the erosion of their rights before it was too late.

The rights and freedoms we enjoy only exist to the extent to which we are willing to protect them, and to protect them we need to understand what they are and, more importantly, how government policies and proposals impact them. In 1660, following the Restoration, John Cook was hung, drawn and quartered for his prosecution of Charles I, who had committed high treason by failing to act in the interests of his Kingdom. For the first time in history, a monarch, who ruled under the authority of God, was held to account by the people he ruled over. A monumental achievement soaked in the blood of two civil wars and vindictive revenge upon the restoration of Charles II. Millions of people have died throughout history to create a precedent for rulers being held accountable to the people they represent.

Our rights and freedoms were not free; people throughout history have fought off tyranny, oppression and persecution to establish them. Despotic monarchies, tyrannical regimes and corrupt churches did not retreat gracefully.

ISIS is pretty tyrannical, but it is not the Spanish Inquisition.

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I say this not to guilt people into feeling unintelligent, but rather to establish a historical understanding for why you have an obligation to your society to understand the policies you are voting on. I have never understood why people feel so inconvenienced by voting – it is half an hour of your time every couple of years. Compared to the sacrifices of those who won us our freedoms, the price is a pretty low one. But our understanding of our civic duties has to go deeper than that – it is not enough to vote on how you feel, but rather how you think. Your right to vote comes with an attached responsibility to actually understand the issues you are voting on. It requires you to judge the quality and credentials of a candidate. We have to move past this dogmatic and narrow-minded belief that one party is always right and the other always wrong – such simplistic reductions of complex issues are for the simple minded, and when simple minded people vote on mass you end up with Donald Trump being your nomination for President of the United States.

I take this position on personal responsibility of the voter because the nature of representative democracy attracts a plethora of candidates whose only attributes are ambition, egotism and cunning survival. Our legislatures are infected by them, and it is our job to weed them out at the ballot box. Let’s stop electing unqualified 25-year-old parliamentarians, let’s stop electing megalomaniacal billionaires whose only contribution to public life have been to have a schnitzel-eating challenges named after them. The Wyatt Roys, Tony Abbotts, Clive Palmers and Steve Ciobos of the world have to be stopped – not because they are bad people, but because they are wholly unqualified for public life. Further, with the exception of Clive Palmer, they have no skills outside of politics, and hence rely on their re-election as continuing their only avenue for earning an income.

When you combine financial necessity and ambition in an elected representative, the only thing you can be sure of is that their policies are going to be populist and engineered precisely to secure their political future. It is the reason why we can’t have a mature discussion about taxation policy in this country, the reason why asylum seekers are a political football everyone wants to kick and why marriage equality is a football nobody wants to touch.

Please Australia, find the time to be informed about your political views. Read newspapers, read books. Think critically. Debate informed people with conflicting views, and get across the whole of the argument, not the 7 second soundbite you heard on The Project. The great incentive in this race to the bottom of the barrel is us, the impetus to end its trajectory must lie with us.

Or this is our future.

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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

3 thoughts on “The Paralysis of Our Democracy

  1. I agree with you that terrorism is a non-existent threat. You could have restricted examples to those only within Australia (arguably 1), and then placed terrorism second on a list, with “refigerators falling out of helicopters and killing pedestrians” in the top position.

    But, seriously, you make the common mistake of mixing policy outcomes with politicians’ motives. It’s very easy to be cynical about the political process when one does this. “They’re all the same” becomes an ill-thought-out refrain.

    Until the “system” changes, we have what we have. And there are still valid criteria for voting for one party rather than another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did consider that, however, I felt it would be disingenuous of me considering the number of Australians who died in the Bali Bombings. I think the fact that, even including overseas incidences, death from terrorism is still such a statistical rarity only goes to illustrate the absurdity of terrorism as a threat.

      I am intrigued by the way you seek to distinguish policy outcomes with politician’s motives, could you expand on that? My position is that the mechanisms required to be navigated in order to be an elected representative of a major party are such that only the most ambitious succeed, and hence survival is the most important attribute for a career politician. The consequence of this is that, irrespective of ideological background, politics is in stasis because policy outcomes are being subsumed beneath career considerations.

      Like

  2. I think a large part of the reason people are apathetic about politics is the separation between voting for a candidate and affecting policy (and, in turn, our own lives).

    Before each election is a pre-selection exercise carried out within each party. The candidate is chosen by a process which may or may not be democratic (if it survives branch-stacking the result may be overruled by the party executive if it doesn’t reflect their wishes). Voters, in theory, then select the candidate they prefer to represent them. In practice though voters generally select the candidate of the party they prefer. Occasionally a particularly high-profile independent may be elected, but not often. Most independents are ignored due to their low profiles.

    So in the vast majority of cases we have a politician who is beholden to the party, not the electorate, for his/her result. Assuming they haven’t done or said something to make them unelectable their fortune rises or falls with the party’s polling, so as a voter those hours of researching candidates’ backgrounds and history are largely wasted – unless the MP is far out on the leading edge of the bell-shaped curve, they aren’t going to sacrifice their political careers for their principles. They know that they’re expendable. If the party executive isn’t satisfied with them, they lose pre-selection. Note, too, that “satisfaction” isn’t measured by competence or any ability that their electorate would consider relevant but revolves instead around coaxing donations and following orders – because donations pay salaries back at HQ and following orders to vote in the best interests of donors keeps the donations (and therefore salaries) flowing.

    What we have ended up with is a system where voters see voting as the main game whereas political parties see it more like the old TV ratings system, where the results aren’t intended to benefit the viewers: they’re there to attract sponsorship. Just as the programs are only shown to keep the viewers watching the ads, the policies are only really there to attract enough votes to impress the donors.

    People see politicians as “all the same” because in terms of results they (largely) are. We’re divorced from the process because, while we get to choose the newsreaders, they’re only there to read the script in a reassuring voice.

    Liked by 1 person

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