The Political Divide
Over the past few decades, in many of the world’s oldest and most esteemed parliamentary systems, the principles underpinning democracy, have soured. Corruption, populist policies aimed at placating those who feel abandoned by the establishment, and the brazen abuse of power, have all helped warp its moral purpose.[i]One theme remains a constant: the needs and expectations of the community are ancillary to the whims and allegiances of the ruling oligarchy.[ii]
In the tiny pacific island of Nauru, a highly conspicuous breakdown in the rule of law has occurred as judges are sacked and opposition politicians arrested and jailed. In Australia both mainstream political parties have foundered as a direct result of internal strife, intimidation, and vicious personal reprisals. In the US, successive governments have been captive to industrial-military interests whose prime aim is to stoke conflict and sell arms, rather than to grow social cohesion or maintain infrastructure. For at least the past fifty years Singapore has challenged the notion that Western-style democracy is the best form of government. It has done this by achieving incredible material wealth but denying its citizens freedom of expression and beliefs, associational rights, and electoral diversity. Meanwhile incredulity shifts to the UK — a victim of narcissistic nostalgia in what has become a messy, pointless, and most likely protracted, divorce from Europe.
It is possible to argue that the Westminster model, and other pioneering parliamentary systems, such as that which evolved in the US after independence, had the capacity for seamlessly fusing politics with governance in alignment with prevailing circumstances. The visionary American Declaration of Independence, arguably the most inspiring democratic document ever drafted, asserted that the main purpose of government is to establish those conditions in which citizens can best realise their rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This affirmed the promise of a better life for immigrants and quickly became the lodestone for America’s entrepreneurial success throughout the 20thcentury.
So, what has happened in the intervening years that this seems not to be the case today? Is it because the modern sovereign state has allowed its authority to be usurped by large corporations, the media, and the military? Has it anything to do with the inability of elected representatives to comprehend the complexity of issues from within the narrow confines of their ideological myopia? Or is it because we have encouraged a professional class to emerge that is now so smitten with wielding political muscle and, in doing so, fixated on keeping their own jobs, that designing and enacting policies to benefit society as a whole has become a sideshow?
While it would be naïve to suggest there is only one cause, rationality would have us concede there is today a distinct possibility that the role played by the political class is now a burden on society, rather than a catalyst enabling momentous leaps in socio-economic advancement.
When democracy first emerged, it was regarded with scepticism by the elite. Genuine representation was given lip service. Parliament was little more than a debating fraternity where people with similar social backgrounds met to consider the major issues of the day. Those from the highest social ranks controlled political discourse much as they controlled most other aspects of community life. Besides, it was by no means evident that democracy was practicable. Most of society was illiterate, too, which meant that the pool of potential talent was severely restricted.
This snug elitist model was dealt a body blow with the advent of universal adult suffrage. People from different walks of life were now recruited. This was the overture for the rise of the professional class and sowed the seeds for ideological discord. Politics became an extension of deeply ingrained social disparities and cultural prejudices. Representation, and the act of voting, became the manifestation of belonging to a particular social clique. Only later would the axis of political conflict shift from that between partisan factions, supported by different groups of citizens, to one between professional politicians and the people.
We all have our own ideas as to how democracy should work, and does work, even as we participate in the democratic process. To that extent we are all students of democracy — our attitudes shaped by personal experience. Irrespective of our pet theories though, one ingredient remains critical: in a pure democracy governments are elected to enact the will of the people.
Some might also argue that the function of a government is to provide leadership when deep divisions in society get in the way of deciding the most appropriate course of action. In view of the present void in leadership globally, I suspect this attribution has less to do with democracy and more to do with the need for a scapegoat, should decisions prove to be flawed, partial, or even harmful at some stage.
The concept of a professional political class — a small cadre of highly aware, active influencers, from whom the national leadership is largely drawn — is a relatively recent phenomenon.[iii]Initially this elite group of notables was driven by the contribution they felt they could make to the public good. Driven by grand principles, they lived and breathed political theatre without the need to live off it. Political scientists were able to argue, with some conviction, that the democratic electoral system at this time allowed the cream of society to rise to the top in service to the nation.
That is no longer the case. Indeed, some politicians, driven by raw passion, appealing only to a few, and apparently undeterred by their inability to grasp the simplest policy issues, stay in office for as long as possible by doing as little as possible. Others regard their commitment as a life-long calling, rather like the priesthood. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that an intense sense of self-entitlement has grown stronger, while self-righteousness proliferates like a contagion.
Locked within arcane routines and rituals aimed at fine-tuning the status quo, competing with other individuals, states, and belief systems, and constantly patching up the present rather than imagining new or aspirational developmental leaps, parliaments can be so easily lulled into a psychotic state where individual members start to believe in their own wisdom and infallibility. Unless they take steps to remain in close touch with the general public, politicians can easily convince themselves, and each other, that they know more, and are far wiser, than ordinary citizens, and should consequently determine and shape policy unilaterally.
Unfortunately, this delusion is strengthened by an inexplicable assumption that citizens would prefer not to become involved in policy formulation and decision-making and are only too happy to delegate everything in that regard to their elected representatives. Most politicians probably start off with the best of intentions. But once they become part of the political system they are somehow persuaded that the public trusts their professionalism and wants them to get on with the job of governing the country without constant public consultation. When, with appropriate humility, I dare suggest that the core of democracy is to enact the will of the people, but that the people need to be asked for their opinions, as the basis for policy development, the predictable answer is “we have moved beyond such a model”.
This is tantamount to suggesting that true democracy is no longer necessary, or that we have evolved a more effective form which does away with the need for involving the voting public. This absurdity occurred alongside the emergence of a professional class of actors — a group bound by a vocational bond and common interests, a shared agenda, and its own particular philosophy of democracy. This perspective seems to have become the hegemonic consensus among most politicians regarding what constitutes a modern democracy, and is thus never challenged from within the halls of power.
If we examine this consensus closely one theme becomes apparent. The political class is less divided along ideological fault lines these days. Instead, other divisions have opened up. Two are of concern.
As my colleague Adam Jacoby[iv]recently reminded me, the electoral frontline is no longer the centre, a fluid concept at the best of times, requiring continuous calibration, but an intergenerational theatre where the main contest is played out between younger people intent on making decisions that secure their future in ways that provide them with opportunities at least comparable to those enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, and those same, older, family members, battling to keep the benefits they extracted from the system over time.
But even intergenerational equity no longer totally fuels the electoral combat zone. An additional, far more fundamental divide has opened up between citizens and those whose job it is to represent them. Paradoxically, we see a polarised political class competing for the allegiance of a much less polarised electorate, albeit at odds generationally speaking, demanding that their governments tackle the most existential issues of our time — the big issues that are avoided by most parliamentarians — while providing assurance that the future will not be entirely dystopian.
If we are to understand and address these two divides, we will need to find answers to several vital questions. In the mind of a politician, what essential axioms shape their self-perception? What beliefs set them apart from their constituents and their political opponents, and why have these developed?How do they perceive the nature and structure of political rivalry and opposition?And finally, how do they interpret their relationship with the voting public, particularly in terms of their influence and the use or abuse of power?Answers to these questions are necessary if we are to resolve defects inherent in political professionalism.
Nobody can claim people go into politics to become wealthy. Such a suggestion is clearly absurd. Nor can we assume that people enter politics to satisfy a craving for power. But whatever the motivation to enter and remain in politics, however principled that initial impulse might be, professionals in any industry must invariably ensure they have a reliable source of income, a realistic chance of remaining in their job, and opportunities for career progression.
Herein lies the crux of our problem — one that is unique to the political profession. For these three, fairly bland considerations, have irreversibly warped the intentions and behaviours of politicians — both individually and collectively. Like any other occupational group, politicians have acquired an overwhelming self-interest to stay in office. Unlike other occupational groups, they are actors in an electoral system that can kick them out of office at a moment’s notice.
On the other hand, conditions for sitting members have improved considerably, to a point where many simply can not be voted out of office anymore. Consequently, real intellectual opposition is anaemic, long-term solutions are often evaded in order to avoid risk, and accountability is undermined. These trends, together with others like dynastic succession, all contravene the imperatives for democracy to work.
And so, in spite of increasing education levels, and more expansive recruitment of talent, politicians are, once again, becoming members of an oligarchy that has all but disengaged from the community it is intended to serve. This dilemma has not altered one iota since politics went from a vocationally-based public duty to a career-based profession. There is one substantial reason why this is the case.
Electoral vulnerability is a crucial element in any vibrant democracy. The notion of accountability, so central to the philosophy of representative government, rests solely on the ability of voters to oust incumbents — for any reason whatsoever, or even for no reason at all. Thus, professionalisation of the political class and electoral accountability must remain in conflict until this matter is resolved.
The most popularly canvassed proposals for resolving this predicament entail eliminating electoral accountability (by shifting to an autocratic style of government of the kind existing in Singapore) or abolishing the possibility of a professional livelihood (by reverting to an ethos of civic responsibility).
This creates a false dilemma. For a third possibility is feasible — one that preserves the sacrosanct nature of electoral accountability while dealing with the problems arising from professionalism. This solution would not eradicate professionalism but seek to elevate it to higher ethical and operational standards.
There is no doubt that electoral accountability is best secured through the evolution of mutual trust and community engagement. That entails providing voters with wide-ranging, unbiased information concerning contradictory policy options; objective analyses of any intended or unintended long-term consequences likely to flow from differing policy positions; and making sure that every citizen has their voice heard on every matter that concerns them — at any time, not just every three or four years.
The role of the professional politician in this new landscape would be to assure such demands were met, while drafting legislation that accord with the wishes of a majority of citizens — uncorrupted by personal inclinations, ideological leanings, or party interests. I am convinced that trust in politicians and the political process would gradually resurface. Citizens would feel empowered to contribute to the future direction of their society as never before.
There is, however, a slight catch. The prospect of a lengthy career in politics would cease to exist. There would be no vocational ladder to climb. Indeed, traditional party structures would collapse under the yoke of inbuilt obsolescence.
Compensation would have to reflect new circumstances where elected representatives are contracted for a limited tenure of possibly five years. They would then be given every encouragement to resume careers outside the parliament as active members of society — including as mentors to new generations of elected parliamentarians.
They could expect no special perks. No honours would be conferred on them for services rendered. Instead, exposure to an incomparable professional program of advancement would equip them with a treasury of knowledge, new skills, international networks, and mastery over a diverse range of new practices.
In essence they could assume this developmental pathway would equip them with a lifetime of valued activities, including new career options, and the potential to achieve in almost any venture they chose to undertake after the completion of their service to their society.
[i]My understanding is that the purpose and art of politicsis to enable the citizens of a country to collectively achieve vital goals they would not otherwise achieve individually. Through negotiation, debate, legislation and other politicalstructures, politicsbrings safety, social order and general wellbeing to the community.
[ii]There are many ways to define the differences between governance and politics. For the sake of coherence in this essay I refer to government as the group of individuals elected by citizens to govern the country on their behalf; governance as the system of laws, structures and procedures used by a government to administer the country, and politics as the processes used by the government and citizenry collectively to make policy and take directional decisions concerning the national interest.
[iii]The German sociologist Max Weber was the first to point out the consequences of a professional political class in his famous Munich lecture on ”Politics as a Vocation” in 1919, in which he describes the transition from political institutions dominated by notables being economically independent of politics to institutions being peopled by professional politicians living off politics.
[iv]Adam Jacoby is the principal co-founder and Chief Steward of the MiVote participative democracy platform and movement, the model and Constitution of which make explicit the flaws in conventional approaches to representative democracy.