The growing disenchantment with our political leaders, political parties and system of representative democracy merits reflection, not just by the specialists, but by all of us who have an invested interest in such matters.
The 2018 Trust and Democracy in Australia survey found that only 41% of voters were satisfied with democracy – down from 86% in 2007 and 72% in 2013. Federal government is trusted by just 31% of the population while state and local governments perform little better with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21% while more than 60% of Australians believe that the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.
Trust is lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%).
The situation is very similar in the US. The 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll found that only 40% of respondents say they are "somewhat" or "very" satisfied with "how democracy is working in the United States". Political parties and congress come at the bottom of the list of the 20 US institutions in which respondents declare they have confidence.
Other countries with a low confidence rate in democracy include the UK and Poland (50%), France (34%), Italy (25%) and Greece (21%).
The Pew Research Centre's 2018 Liberal Democracy's Crisis of Confidence report makes a valuable contribution in helping identify some of the problems. A survey was conducted in 2017 in 38 nations on five different approaches to governing: representative democracy, direct democracy, rule by experts, military rule and rule by a strong leader who "can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts".
The findings were eloquent. While it was generally considered that representative democracy was a good thing, there was also considerable support for direct democracy. A median of 66% across the 38 countries believed that "a system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law" would be a very or somewhat good way to govern their country.
The authors of the Pew Research concluded:
People generally like representative democracy in theory, but many are frustrated with it in practise. In surveys, many say that their vote does not give them an adequate voice in national politics, that elected officials do not care what people like them think, and that average citizens could do a better job than elected officials of dealing with their country's problems.
Representative democracy is a hybrid political system that combines characteristics of both democracy and oligarchy. While party candidates are democratically elected by the dêmos (people) to be their representatives, they continue to owe allegiance to their political parties and are held to toe the party line at the risk of exclusion.
Party line is a question of political ideology, but it is often influenced by the economic elite and special interest groups operating behind the scenes, when it is not simply promoting its own agenda. The vox populi is rarely audible and usually disregarded between elections. As a result, representative democracy tends to operate more as an oligarchy than as a democracy.
The fact is elected representatives have very little power individually but considerable power collectively. Hence the importance of respecting party discipline and toeing the party line when voting.
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