When Politicians Desert Their Voters

Written by:
14 December 2018
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These days much is made of the so-called “crisis of democracy” in the West. At one level it’s hard to disagree with the view that even if democracy is not in crisis, at a minimum it is facing some not-insubstantial challenges.

That yesterday in London 200 Tory MPs could vote to keep in power Theresa May, a Prime Minister who is implementing Brexit in a way clearly contrary to the wishes of the British people as expressed in a referendum, is reasonably clear evidence that something somewhere isn’t working.

Brexit itself, Donald Trump’s election and the implosion of politics in France, Italy and potentially Germany are all assumed to be examples of the “crisis”. Certainly one way of viewing what’s happening in many countries is as a challenge to democracy.

It’s not democracy that’s in crisis – it’s politics in crisis. The two are very different things.

Democracy is an idea. Politics is the putting of ideas into practice. The concept of one person one vote, of self-government and of the right to remove and replace those who rule over us is as powerful and as relevant as it’s ever been. In Venezuela people are willing to die for democracy.

When politicians and the public agreed with each other on the main issues relating to economics, politics and culture, as they did in Western liberal democracies for most of the second half of the 20th century, the process of government was relatively straightforward.

Over time the inevitable happened. The major political parties came to resemble each other, as did the politicians representing those parties.

David Goodhart, the British political analyst, describes this process brilliantly in his 2017 book The Road to Somewhere – The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. As Goodhart analyses it, politics in countries such as the UK (and by implication the United States and Australia) looked increasingly like a contest between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and “conventional party politics has become narrower, less ideologically distinct, more insider dominated, both in personnel and also in the interests represented”.

The problem for the major political parties is that on many issues the politicians and the public no longer agree with each other, and parties have no way of responding to this change. On free trade and immigration, for example, the gulf between elite political opinion and that of the average voter in the average Western liberal democracy is growing, partly because political elites have always assumed the people would always agree with them and so have stopped making the arguments for their position.

And instead the frustration of voters has been expressed through support for the minor parties.

Licensing of religious practice

At the same time as the major political parties became more alike they came to see politics as merely, as Theresa May famously said, “getting the job done”. To be successful a politician had only to display technical competence.

Sometimes, though, reconciling different values and beliefs doesn’t lend itself to managerialist solutions.

So, for example, yesterday in an attempt to protect “religious freedom” the Morrison government announced it would legislate to prevent discrimination on the basis of religion. In essence what the government proposes is that, to remedy the problems of existing state-based anti-discrimination law interfering with the exercise of religious beliefs, it will introduce its own additional federal anti-discrimination laws.

There are numerous problems with such a proposal, including the fact the federal government would be engaging in the de facto licensing of religious practice.

Despite what Liberal and Labor politicians believe, energy and climate change policy doesn’t lend itself to a managerialist fix either. The choice between lower carbon emissions and lower energy prices is ultimately determined according to the principle of what subjective value is to have priority.

In America, on the right Donald Trump blew up the Republican Party after he realised (by accident or design) that what Republican voters wanted was different from what their party was offering. On the left Bernie Sanders nearly blew up the Democratic Party. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn is doing something similar to the Labour Party.

In Australia it remains to be seen whether our system of compulsory voting can continue to temper the Trump and Brexit-like convulsions of other countries.


This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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