Only Promises and Orders Left?

After the shutdown of the state apparatus on Tuesday, petty and short-sighted Americans across the country are expressing outrage over a legislature that behaves in a way that perfectly reflects their own irrationality and bigotry. Exasperated citizenstold reporters that it was terribly annoying to see elected officials split by preconceived ideas, old grudges and pathetic partisanship, and noted that this kind of behaviour, that precisely imitated their own, was completely unacceptable.

The superb satire site was spot-on once again. It does not just ‘go with the flow’ and pick up cheap points by berating ‘the politicians’, but dares to rub the audience up the wrong way and point out that it is not only the rulers at fault for the mess that prevails. If people’s expectations were more reasonable and they had a higher propensity to endure plain language, it would be easier for politics to have a balanced approach. It should be obvious that it is impossible to deal with the budget deficit while spending is increasing and taxes are being reduced, but there are plenty of both politicians and voters who do not want to hear in that ear. The people and its elected officials are united in the false dreams that the impossible is possible and the necessary is unnecessary.

Last year, The Atlantic devoted a long article to a revision of the American crisis of confidence, and what the reporters were told by the mayor of Muskie, Indiana, (known as ‘Middletown’ by sociologists) could have come from any one of her colleagues: “Why was I not honest with the voters? Because they did not want to hear it.” The magazine concludes: “It is a vicious circle. Voters do not like hard truths, so politicians give us spin, so we do not trust politicians, so politicians ingratiate themselves and lie to us. Muskie’s story is the same as America’s”.

Confidence in government generally has fallen sharply and support is weak for both the presidency and Congress, although the White House is doing better. In a Gallup survey of November 2013, Congress got its lowest recorded ratings during the survey’s 39-year history. Only nine per cent think it is doing a good job.

In Sweden, the situation is different, but we see more and more exceptions that prove the rule. Problems exist in many more places than in the U.S.. In southern Europe, for example, political trust has collapsed. Five years ago, 36 percent of Italians and 34 percent of Spaniards felt positive. This year, it is 14 and 15 percent respectively. It may seem obvious: after five years of crisis and austerity, scepticism is monumental. On the other hand, it is a dismal thought that confidence was much greater when politicians and voters spoke untruth to one another and the problem was inflated more than it is today, when you at least got some half-truths.

Confidence in President Hollande in Paris is at approximately the same ground level as confidence in the governments in Rome and Madrid. One can only imagine what it will be when he can no longer shirk what has to be done and has to start with real reform policy.

It is a quarter-century since the Berlin Wall fell, and South Africa was liberated from apartheid. A democratic wave washed away the old rubble in Latin America and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the eternal victory of democratic capitalism on the ideological plane. The democracy debate was then full of confidence.

Today, it is far less starry eyed. Democracy as an ideal remains strong, but it has problems with the practical. New democracies are plagued by illiberal democracy: majority rule without much respect for the rule of law and minority rights. Old democracies are prey to increasing short-termism, opportunism and lobbying: powerful voting groups safeguard the benefits for which they neither can nor want to pay.

The consumerist society is evident even in politics. Voters establish the spectator’s and demand-machine’s I don’t know this term.perspective and want quick and cheap delivery, while politicians adapt to mainstream public opinion and demands. Of course, people’s wishes are respected, but the question is how well representative government can work if there is no mutual trust between voters and their representatives. What if there are only promises and orders left?

Not everyone needs to be a politician, but many need to be aware of the common interest and have respect for the fact that difficult trade-offs are required when you lead a country. When a sense of civic responsibility is missing, democracy becomes something else.

PJ Anders Linder

VD och chefredaktör i Axess. 

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