POPULAR DEMOCRACY OR DEMOCRATIC POPULISM.
I’m not a hundred per cent sure where I’m going with this one. I’m struggling to form an opinion or reach a conclusion on it so bear with me and if you have anything to add that might enlighten both me and my readers, feel free to comment.
Firstly, I find good definitions helpful in giving an accurate background for anything. So Democracy is literally “rule of the people”. In modern usage it is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament. Democracy is sometimes referred to as “rule of the majority”. Over many decades here I was content enough to believe that this is what was happening in my country as I went about my daily life. It wasn’t perfect of course and there were some corrupt people in power and some evil ones as well. But I always had that blind belief that we were democratic in the main and the will of the ordinary people was being observed.
Looked at more closely, (if I ever had), I could have examined the four pillars of democracy, (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections-√ (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life-√ (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens-√ and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens-√ We elected them every four years, those people who wanted to get more involved did so, the Gardai patrolled the streets and we all relied on the fact that we had our basic rights guaranteed, so-√
But I think it was around the mid-eighties when I sat back and reflected one day that I was paying 60% combined tax on my income and 19% compound interest on my loans. No matter how hard I worked, (and I worked seven days a week back then), I couldn’t seem to get ahead. A civil servant I knew sneered at me one night and said, “Sure you are only working your ass off for the bank.” On television at night you could see the politicians in their fine clothes with State Mercs. waiting to whisk them off. In the bank you were almost invited to genuflect before the manager. The system, as set up in our democracy, was, it seemed, rigged against us getting ahead. The first seeds of my resentment took root then.
However, we are a good natured people mostly and any victory by an Irish team on a sport’s field anywhere was enough for us to forget our troubles and celebrate. But it was a dreary daily grind and we were always busy and under pressure. In the press there often were articles about just how bad things were for the common people under communism and that line in journalism always made one feel relieved we lived in a democracy. You felt as if whatever problems you had, they’d be ten times worse if you lived in Eastern Europe. It was a sort of, “Lesser of two evils.”
I voted against the ‘Nice Treaty’ in 2001 mainly as a reaction to all of the well-heeled politicians urging us to vote for it. But while I had only glanced at the headlines of the Nice Treaty, I downloaded and studied every word of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, (once bitten, twice shy). It troubled me that so much of the wording was vague legalise and was open to interpretation and having seen how the EU could twist any wording to suit their interests, I voted against Lisbon too. Then we was ordered to go back and vote again, and this time get it right. A fortune of public money was spent to scare the shit out of us if we rejected Lisbon II for second time and thus it was passed. We were sold fear instead of the truth.
Then came the bank crash of 2008 and the, ahem, democratic decision, (in Europe), to convert the private debts of the Irish banks into the public debts of the Irish people. The authors of this scandal were the unelected commissioners who warned our feeble politicians that, “A bomb would go off in Dublin if we didn’t accept this obvious injustice.” The so-called bailout was an electronic exercise. The ECB and the IMF just brought billions of imaginary money into existence and did an electronic credit transfer to the Irish banks first. These banks were then instructed to transfer it straight back to the major banks of Europe they had borrowed from. This had the effect of taking bad loans off the books of European banks and dumping them on the Irish ones. But under instruction, our Government also pledged to underwrite all Irish bank debt so the whole lot of it was simply converted into a debt the Irish citizens owed. There followed years of austerity among the ordinary people as a result and many died from lack of medical care or committed suicide due to desperation or homelessness. Hundreds of thousands of our most educated young were forced to emigrate to find work, reducing even further our ability to pay back loans we never took out.
My point is that all of this was done in the name of democracy. The personas and faces of the politicians have changed but they are all still the wealthy secure people today that they were in 2007 even after all of the austerity for the rest of us. The banks are back more arrogant than ever and the EU is now calling the shots in the guise of the more vocal unelected commissioners. My belief though is that the elites in power, both in politics and finance, have pushed too far. They seem to have forgotten the ‘will of the people’ entirely and are doing as they like in their own interests. Any time there is a peep out of us, they create some new law to shut us up. Over the last ten years I have both sensed and heard the whispered frustrations of many of those ordinary people and related strongly to it.
Then came BREXIT in the UK followed quickly by the election of Trump in the US. It seems populism emerged naturally all over the place. There were jitters among the elite over both the French and Dutch elections. This week it continued in the Austrian elections with the People’s party and the Freedom party emerging as the big winners. Populism is a spontaneous movement that champions the common people, usually by favourable contrast with an elite. It is a reaction to the arrogant bullying of the trusted majority by an elitist minority through their mis-use of the powers invested in them by us in a democracy. In other words, I am leaning towards the opinion that populism is the natural reaction to the corruption of a democratic system by the few and it is therefore a mild form of revolution. It is the collective growl of warning rather than the opening shots of all out war. If you think about it, democracy is corrupted if the only choice you are given is two unattractive propositions and you ‘must’ choose one of them. Populism then becomes the third way.
In the mainstream media the word populism is spat out like some poisonous evil practiced by an ignorant few. Our own tax money is used against us to frighten us away from any populist thought. We are, ahem, discouraged from voting for so many independent candidates because, we are told, it destroys the Government’s ability to operate and none of us wants to be guilty of bringing down the country, do we? Of course, this is just more of the tried and tested trick of selling us fear. But I believe too that populism should not be necessary in a healthy democracy. I would prefer if the reasons for this new populism did not exist but I can see too that it is a growing phenomenon. In reality, populism should be the rule of democracy itself, not an alternative to it. At heart a healthy democracy is a populist one by definition. I do not believe that the ordinary people are responsible for the problems populism might bring though. Instead I think it is the powerful elites whom we have trusted to act in our interests who must take the blame if the system is brought down. They had and have the power to make democracy a more attractive alternative but they have not done so.
So there is my dilemma. For the last few years I have gone to the ballot box and randomly given my preferences to anyone but the mainstream parties. In doing so I have been hoping to lessen the ability of whichever party/parties form a Government to abuse the trust we put in them. It is a protest vote against the status quo because there is something seriously unfair and wrong with that status quo. For me that is what BEXIT and Trump was about and the people in those countries now have to think what to actually do with the victories they have won. The Austrians will be joining them soon in that quest. It is an upheaval but without violence and like any major shift or change, it brings with it uncertainty. Trump is an oddity on the international stage and the UK currently is in a purgatory of some kind as negotiations on its future external relationships continue. In this country our elites are once again overheating the property market for their short term gains and a financial bubble is again growing with the inevitable consequence of that not too far down the road again. And yet all we hear is talk of our wonderful stability. This is very worrying.
But I am not sure that populism is automatically the answer either. It is the reaction certainly and in reaction to it, the elites cling to power and become even more cunning. The recent budget was an effort to pacify rather than change anything when change is what’s so desperately required. Moving the goalposts around does not change the pitch we are on. So like I said, “I’m not a hundred per cent sure where I’m going with this one.”