VIC ROWLANDS. Reclaiming Democracy

Apr 27, 2018

Liberty and Equality are simple characterisations of the right and left in politics and Fraternity is what enables the two to co-exist productively. A substantial moderate centre still represents the best chance of resolving difficult and contentious issues, and achieving a consensus. 

In a world with seemingly intractable global and national challenges, fuelled by the communication revolution, fraternity has fractured and people have retreated not only to the extremes of the political spectrum, but to the underlying safe havens of ethnicity, culture and religion which have always been present, but which have in the past been more successfully integrated into the unifying commonality of national aspirations. 

The politicians’ failure to recognise voter disillusionment and anger with the performance of government has continued to exacerbate the situation. 

“Strangers In Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell Hoschchild and “Political Tribes” by Amy Chua are two books analysing the disconnect between government and the electorate in America. Although very different studies there is a congruence in the factors they identify as contributing to the situation that brought Donald Trump, unexpectedly and alarmingly, to the U.S. presidency. It could happen here if the level of voter alienation is not addressed. The questions raised here as they are now in America, will be: why didn’t anyone see it coming and what can be done about it? 

Hoschchild bases her analysis around what she calls the Deep Story. “A deep story is a feels as if story – it’s the story feelings tell of the political spectrum, in the language of Symbols. It removes judgement. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left without it. For we all have a deep story.”

Chua diagnoses the cause of our current political discord as political tribalism. She argues the group identities that matter most, nationally and internationally, are tribal. In reviewing the book author Tim Wu says that Chua shows us “That when people are defined by their differences to each other, extremism becomes the common ground, and the ideals of democracy have a hard time competing with a more general need to belong.”

Both Chua and Hoschchild believe both right and left are to blame in their failure or unwillingness to recognise the causes, which, when combined with the whatever it takes-no compromise-winner-take all-oppose-everything attitude of politicians, produces the disenchantment and alienation now present in many countries.

From very different starting points it is remarkable how both authors see what needs to happen in broadly the same light – encourage people to listen and talk to each other. Chua says,(post-Trump), “if you look beyond the headlines, and past the loudest partisans, you’ll find something quite remarkable. All over the country, ordinary Americans are making heartfelt efforts to reach across the aisle, understand the other side and empathise with each other’s humanity. This may all seem pie-in-the-sky or like a band-aid for bullet wounds – but a prodigious body of evidence shows that when individuals from different groups actually get together to know one another as human beings, tremendous progress can be made.” 

At the end of her five years research Hoschchild says: “If I were to write a letter to a friend on the liberal left I would say: “Why not get to know some people outside your political bubble? Set aside Ayn Rand, she’s their guru, but you won’t find people personally as her words would lead you to expect. You’ll probably meet some very fine people who will teach you volumes about strong community, grit and resilience.”

If I were to write a letter to my Louisiana friends on the right, I might say: “Many progressive liberals aren’t satisfied with the nation’s political choices any more than you are. And many see themselves in some parts of your deep story.”

In times of national emergencies and crises, people who don’t know or barely know each other, and who may have very different beliefs and lives, are able to set aside differences in the blink of an eye to support and help. We need to look for a process to adapt democracy to the needs of today, and which taps into the innate goodwill in people (what Chua calls “yearnings”). 

Politics has always been combative and it is now relentlessly so, but the drift to the extremes and the shrinking of the moderate centre is the outcome of politicians simply not being able to hear what people are saying, and the loss of fraternity. Trying to restore a strong, moderate centre will not mean a fixed position for every issue, it may be centre left or centre right according to the issue. If there was a mechanism for establishing high consensus on issues, parties could adjust to the concept and how they would best be able to accommodate it. The process might also provide the means by which destructive wedge issues such as refugee policy and climate change could help those uncomfortable with party policy to be able to achieve better outcomes.

Re-engaging with democracy should start with the next cycle of young voters. Each election cycle adds about a million new voters. Their memory of politics as they were growing up in this era will be the low standing of politicians, and their alienation from voters.  

We are bequeathing young people some seriously destructive future problems and not doing enough about them. Depressingly, what they are facing are issues such as the effects of climate change, affordable housing, the rising cost of medical attention, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and permanent full-time employment in a job market with little to offer to a substantial cohort of 18-25-year-olds. We have to give them hope the system can do better.

Surveys suggest older people represent the group most resistant to change. If talk-back radio and press reports are any guide, an increasing number of them are worried about the future they are leaving to their grandchildren and posterity, but with the encouragement and greater knowledge, they may not be as intractable as it seems. 

The regenerating of the true spirit of democracy is everybody’s responsibility. One person one vote means every voter needs to be considered and as many as possible involved. The first step is for the polity to recognise there is a problem and their culpability in producing the current situation, the second is to analyse the factors contributing to it, and the third is to devise a plan to counter it. 

Vic Rowlands is a former teacher and secondary school principal. 

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