‘T is the season to be … elected
With election season coming up in Belgium – local elections in October followed by regional and national elections in May 2019 – the Belgian roads and people’s front gardens are transformed by forests of flyers with faces of ambitious young and older hopefuls adorning them. These are those people who are, or want to become, politicians. And for quite a few of them, politician is all they’ve ever been.
For most of the Belgian population, the non-politicians, the common woman and man, this is likely to be the first and the last time they will see these faces … or at least until the next election, whether the person on the flyer was elected or not. The noteworthy exception will be the national or regional politicians that make the news on a more permanent basis, and some parliamentarians that manage to get the press, the cameras and microphones focused on them. Or perhaps, in the current landscape, one or two that are extremely social media savvy.
With the level of distrust in politicians remaining as high as it ever was – politician remains among the most despised professions – it’s quite interesting to listen to the people who will be casting their vote. To understand whom they are casting their vote for and why. Most of them do not trust politicians or political parties.
The trust gap appears to push politicians to keep content messaging to a minimum. The level of information on the flyers and placards is as low as it ever was, if not worse. « Just do it » (Open VLD), « Do it better » (Sp.A), « More taste » (CD&V) … there is just so little information on what a specific party or a specific politician stands for. Yes, I can find some alignment with the core values I believe a specific party stands for, but that is based on my perception of the party, not on what the party told me.
And why would political parties or politicians themselves create any clarity … if confusion, if lack of an explicit position is more likely to win you votes, because people will look for other areas of connection, by all means, as a politician you should stay away from anything which is a little bit nuanced. I don’t like it, but nor citizens nor the press appears to provide an adequate challenge. Have we become too afraid, or simply too complacent?
Someone you … like?
Perhaps we can get some more clarity by looking at what people vote for? There is some circumstantial evidence people are more likely to vote for someone they feel looks the part or whom they feel they could relate to, someone they look up to but who is not too far removed from them … Someone who, to them, represents stability and quite often remains close to what they believe their values are. Bottom line, people are more likely now to vote for someone they think they like than ever before. We vote out of existential anxiety, as this article in the Atlantic that analyses Trump’s win in the US points out.
Some politicians are quite good at channeling this need where a lot of people seek someone to like, someone to protect them and they are very good at connecting it to their need to be liked. Yes, Trump is a good example, but look at whatever recent extreme right breakthrough we have seen in Europe or even in the former Soviet Republics.
Douglas Adams was right … in 1984
There are likely some readers that have never heard of the “parable of the lizard.” Douglas Adams wrote this, almost as an afterthought, in his 1984 novel « So long, and thanks for all the fish », one of the five books in the Hitchhikers’s Trilogy (yes, I know). It is probably the most brilliant commentary on liberal democracy I have ever read … so, without further ado …
The parable of the Lizard
(An extraterrestrial robot and spaceship has just landed on earth. The robot steps out of the spaceship…)
“I come in peace,” it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, “take me to your Lizard.”
Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.
“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
So yes, we are voting for lizards
It is about time we figured out that we are all voting for lizards. But this is not just something you are required to do – Belgium, remember? Obligation to vote. No, it is about very important things. This is about choosing people who will make choices that will impact our lives now, tomorrow, years from now. This is about how our future will be shaped. This is, in other words, important.
And we do seem to be afraid the wrong lizard might get in. But think about that for a while. Democracy as a concept is not wrong. We are just not at the end of the evolution of the system itself. Brett Hennig, in the excellent book “The End Of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy” states : “Electoral democracy is not a terminus. The struggle for more legitimate forms of government will continue.”
And I believe he is right. We have allowed a ruling class of career politicians to establish and to maintain itself. With a few noteworthy exceptions (I used to work for one of them), our current politicians are career politicians. Politics is their job. That is all they have and ever had. They have very limited to no relevant experience in the real world, because they never really operated in it in a non-political capacity, yet we allow them to make decisions about that real world.
Oh yes, it is our common responsibility. No hiding.
Now think about this for a minute. We expect our politicians to be capable to understand a world in all its wonderful complexity without having had any real life experience in it. But that is just not possible. It is not realistic. Deep down, we understand, and we intuitively distrust them and we disconnect. But this is not only their fault. It is our fault as well for not being more responsible with our vote.
We do our current politicians a disservice by this disconnection … we deprive them from the input necessary. Hennig again: “this retreat of ordinary people from formal politics has made it even harder for politicians to make the difficult decisions required to address the multiple economic, climatic and social crises afflicting our times. Reduced public participation increases the sphere of influence of special-interest groups, corporations and their paid lobbyists, the mainstream media and highly ideological party activists.
The result? Politicians often shape policy under the influence of lobbying groups and try at the same time to package that in 280 characters or less. Now, our current social media have exacerbated the problem. The 280 character limit imposed by Twitter requires a short and enticing message. As the number of likes or retweets a message gets determines the visibility and the popularity, the content of such messages tends to be simplistic. This leads quite often to – in the best case – imbalanced policies or – in a worse case – to policies which are overly simplistic and completely unreal. And politicians often don’t understand all the implications of the policies they write themselves. They are not really aware of the complete impact of their actions.
So what? Motivated politicians then, with business experience?
Should we just throw out everything we have and run a country as a business, as I hear some people sometimes say? Short answer: “no.” Slightly longer answer: “No, look at Trump.”Still lower than the 280 character limit, right? Real answer … it is complicated, but it will take more than 280 characters.
Hear the voices
One of the bigger mistakes we have made in Belgium is that we have devalued our civil servants, which a lot of other countries have not done. And we have very capable, very motivated civil servants. I have a lot of admiration for the civil servants I worked with in the past and am still working with today. There is real vision, real commitment there. However, much too often, these voices are not heard. Such voices tend to turn into a whisper. Just bringing in business experience will not be the solution. Which does not mean business people cannot play a role. But it is a complementary role to one pillar that needs to be reinforced, refocused on, which is our administrations. Investment, not to bloat, but to optimize.
Strengthen the foundations
Even during a phase of administrative wptimisation, we need to make sure that politicians get access to the insights and the knowledge they need. Business and civil servants need to work together on this. Again, as per Brett Hennig, this knowledge needs to be “on tap”, but not “on top”. There should not be dominance by the stakeholders, as can happen with isolated politicians at the “mercy” of lobbying efforts, but politicians need to be able to get access to an as complete and as objective set of information as they can, via their administrations, which should be working together with businesses and representative organisations for all stakeholders in the area they are working in.
Evolve our democracy
The next step, and here I refer to Brett Hennig again, is to evolve our parliamentary, liberal democracy to a real system of representative democracy. And Brett’s idea on replacing politicians by random people is an interesting experiment that may actually work. You can listen to his TED talk about this interesting idea here. That is, by the way, not even a new idea. Ancient Greece had a similar system. There are other ideas out there, but this is one of the more enticing ones, as I can see it actually working out. However, in order to do this we need to put in motion the evolution of the current system. Again, a change which is likely to come hard for the current incumbents.
Our current democratic model is approaching obsolescence
Let’s face it, our current system of parliamentary democracy is maintained while in essence it is approaching obsolescence of not already obsolete. The age of the internet has given us the tools to be a lot more direct in our democratic endeavours as well as an appetite, especially by the younger people, to use these tools. Yes, security is and will remain an issue. But that is, fundamentally, a solvable problem. However, that is subject for another blog post.
I believe that systems such as the one Brett describes are likely to make the quality of our decision processes better … and it would also entail each and every one of us to take full responsibility for their choices, to participate, to actively engage in the “affairs of the cities” … politics, that is.