Democracy at a crossroad

In the last few weeks in Britain, members of parliament have been subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse in public and in the press. Some have even been threatened. Many voters say that they will vote for small parties in this week’s Euro-election, so as to punish the larger ones. All of this stems from revelations that some members of parliament had been overly-inventive or cavalier in the amounts they charged the taxpayer for second-home expenses, with items ranging from the ludicrous (a floating duck house) to the fraudulent (charging for the interest on a mortgage that had been paid off). Such is the rage, that some are talking about a revolution. Michael Martin became the first Speaker in 300 years to be forced to resign – and at least another 10 MPs say they are abandoning politics. In a panic, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron are talking about making radical changes to the political system. The British politicians are indeed responsible for provoking the public, but it is obvious that such rage must have deeper roots. As our societies (and the individuals within them) confront a mounting number of problems, citizens’ anger grows and their demands for solutions become increasingly pressing. Because these solutions cannot be painless, this creates further tension, with outbreaks of rage over political decisions or over the behavior of a certain segment of society – whether it be CEOs, as we saw a few months ago, or MPs now. This is probably what is fueling the mass hysteria in Britain today and perhaps also suggests that today’s democracies are at an impasse: When members of parliament and governments lose the people’s confidence, who will solve the problems? In Greece it is clear that our politicians are at a loss about how to deal with the great problems that have accumulated over the past years. Our small political scene and the citizens’ keen interest in politics result in a climate of familiarity between voters and their representatives. We know our MPs, we evaluate them instantly and we have expectations of them. But, as the English say, familiarity breeds contempt: While voters believe that their representatives can do anything (if they choose to), they just as easily believe that politicians are all crooked or incompetent. We have seen enough scandals and cover-ups to understand why there is a general feeling that they’re all «on the take.» This charge is obviously an exaggeration. But it is also extremely dangerous: On the one hand, it creates a climate in which anyone who is not corrupt feels isolated (and perhaps foolish) and may at some point give in to temptation, while on the other, a pervasive sense of rot keeps away from public service people who might have had something to offer. Politics are then left to the mediocrities or those with a certain «charisma» (with all the dangers that this entails). Our societies are facing massive problems at every level – from climate change to the consequences of the global economic crisis. Tensions are rising within borders, but also in relations between countries as competition for resources intensifies and protectionism returns. The challenges demand steady hands. But, at the same time, our politicians – whether able or incompetent, selfless or selfish – are continually exposed to the judgment, the mockery and the rage of citizens. In the old days, before mass communications and the Internet, politicians were at a great distance from the electorate and did not have to justify their every act or omission. Today voters are part of the endless news cycle: They know everything about their representatives and demand everything of them. They do not accept decisions or behavior that they do not like. But because there is no other option for society than to have a government, the choices are limited: We can come to terms with the system that we have now, with politicians and voters working toward a new modus vivendi; our political scene may dissolve into a Babel of warring, incompatible groupuscules, making government impossible; we may return to more autocratic forms of government; or countries may relinquish part of their sovereignty to larger, regional organizations which will make decisions that local politicians dare not. Faced with these options, it is clear that the best way forward is to fix the current system. But first our politicians will have to win the trust of their people – and the people, will have to cut them some slack. Democracy will either get better or we will all be worse off.