By Leif Thomas Olsen.
Our democratic systems are failing. Not because they do not work as intended. But because they still work as originally intended.
Telling us that democracy equals general elections is nonsense. But it does of course serve our incumbent politicians’ interest. So,it is about time for a new democratic infrastructure. One where elected politicians work for – and report to – the electorate, rather than half the electorate having to wait four years for an opportunity to be at all represented again – the other half simply having to tolerate the fact they did not get what they expected.
When parliamentarism based on elections was invented to replace appointed councils, this was a true revolution in favour of plurality. Even if only a select few could understand the views those standing for election represented, they could at least vote for someone they felt had a link to the subsection of the population they themselves were part of. Maybe a local landowner, or a relative of someone they knew, served or respected? Such links suggested at least some kind of concern for issues the voter in question struggled with. And by electing representatives from across the land, there was always a given individual who to turn to and petition, who had a stronger local connection to one’s own territory than the others.
Then came party politics.
But although the world has developed leaps and bounds since then, our parliamentarian systems remain almost the same. And those countries not yet having them are forced by outside military might to introduce them – e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan – although the system already proved outdated. It is outdated because just as little as it can handle an almost even split parliament, can it handle a more fragmented one. It can only handle an electorate who trust that those they elected will do what they promised to do, and stoically accept what the incumbent parliamentarians deliver instead.
If such electorates ever existed, they are now mostly part of history.
There are three obvious threats to today’s parliamentarism. The first is that of the majority’s tyranny. Most parliamentarian elections in the western world today end in close to a draw. A 52% election victory by either side is declared as a decisive victory. One of the most stunning such is what lead to Brexit. Another is Donald Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton – and more recently Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory over Fernando Haddad in Brazil. No matter how decisive the winner declared it to be, it was basically just over 50% in favour of, versus just under 50% against, ‘the winner’. And the combatants’ ideas are mostly totally contradictory.
This means that almost half of the electorate are losers, whose interests are anywhere from downgraded to something the incumbent simply has to live with, to something that the incumbent will outright ignore. The acid test for any democracy is – or at least ought to be – how it treats its opposition. Neither Teresa May’s Brexit nor Donald Trump’s policies show such concern – although Brexit is on the verge of collapse due to the Irish border issue. Nor is there much suggesting Bolsonaro’s administration will honor his opposition’s expectations.
The second threat is when the parliament is fractionalised, as is now the case in many EU-countries. EU’s refugee-crises -caused by the wars in the Middle East following the Arab Spring, blown out of proportion by western powers’ regime-change strategies, in turn fueling the millennia-old Sunni-Shia conflict – has prompted a surge of nationalist parties taking voters from the since long well-established ruling elites.This has fractionalised parliaments in ways that undo the kind of alliances that used to make do ever since the dream of a single party majority started to elude even traditionally dominant parties.
The third threat is lobbyism.
Lobbyists lobby governments not only during election years, but daily. Their interests are smartly phrased, as to suggest they are of common interest – although their aim is clearly biased. The bigger the stake the more intensive the lobbyist. The most recent revelation of the general public being blindfolded is how the oil and gas industry,from their own research, understood well the consequences of the carbon dioxide emissions already back in the 1950’s, keeping it a secret. Instead they promoted counter-arguments or, at best, instilled uncertainty, while preparing themselves for the consequences they knew were coming, by investing in industry infrastructure able to withstand climate-change. It took environmentalists a generation to catch up, and politicians two or three. This is very similar to how the tobacco industry acted before them, and how other industries – the financial industry on several occasions –acted, and is likely to act, for as long as lobbyists’ access to elected politicians remain unrestrained.
It is time for a democratic infrastructure that takes our modern-day societal structures into consideration. Not one calling people to polling-stations every fourth year while telling them to stay away from politics the rest of the time. In today’s fast-moving societies are four years too long, if one wants to influence any current affairs.And with the overload of information we are exposed to, current affairs tend to drive also our supposedly long-term interests.
Are universities better venues for political debate than parliament? Is large-scale correlation a better basis for decision-making than a majority within a political elite? Is the local-global perspective more democratic than the national-international? Are governments needed in societies with well-functioning parliaments? And are current-style parliaments needed in societies with well-functioning democracies?
Let’s think again!
Leif Thomas Olsen, now a free-lance writer, was for more than a decade a Rushmore University Associate Professor, focusing on cross-cultural interaction and socio-political affairs, living and working in Europe, Asia and the US for the corporate sector as well as for bi-and multilateral institutions. A long-time resident of Thailand, he now shares his time between Sweden and Vietnam.