One by one, rich Western democracies have been undergoing voters’ revolts against the status quo: populist insurgencies overturning party political norms and taking bites out of allegedly uncaring, washed-up governing elites. From Greece to Spain, from Ireland to France and Denmark, and many others, out-dated social, political and cultural paradigms totter.
Citizens have been lining up to punish their governments for their worn-out assumptions and perceived betrayals. They demand change. Sometimes they get it, or think they do.
Business as usual is not an option
Governments persist in managing business as usual while nothing seems to get any better, particularly the economy. The disjunction between normal metropolitan politics and what citizens expect their governments to fix – jobs, for a start – grows ever wider. In that gap, information and trust attenuate and realism loses its way. Hence the Trump-Sanders phenomenon.
However unrealistic – and incoherent and unfocused – insurgents’ expectations are, they gather fuel from the media and ignite it, spreading rage online from the campus to the city squares and streets and so on into the ballot box.
Here, voters take the opportunity to take it out on the national or local issue of the day. These vary from country to country but all these insurrections, whether they come from the Left or Right, do have something else in common.
A world perspective
It’s striking that the root causes of voters’ discontents are to be found, not so much in their governments’ performance as in universal factors: globalisation, jobs attrition, neoliberalism, ever-increasing inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, water and energy shortages, migration, national security requirements, the postmodern states and ‘failed state’ phenomena, cultural identity and colonisation, and the communications revolution.
Over all of these, governments have less and less control. Lost in the complexities of modern government, and unable to explain to the public the limits on what it can do, the establishment falters. Falling back on the aphorism ‘politics is the art of the possible’ leads only to further caution and complacency. What people want is leadership, attention to their needs and frankness.
“Why do the people imagine a vain thing?“ (Psalm 2:1) Perhaps because they lack information. In this day and age, so rich in information, that seems a strange conclusion to come to. But establishments are learning the hard way that information in itself is not enough; it needs to be put across as convincing explanations of what has gone wrong and how it can be fixed. New problems (eg cyber subversion) need new solutions as well as new ways of communication.
This is not a task and challenge for politicians only. The media, social and otherwise, have responsibilities arising from their ‘mission to explain.’ Isn’t it about time, for example, that the media recognise that shared sovereignty has been around for years, in NATO and similar institutions?
We live in postmodern states that already have perforce to lend some of their sovereignty to supranational bodies such as the EU, and arrangements for joint action on carbon emissions and so forth. Politicians have known this since 1919.
They know that global problems need global solutions. The restless public deserves to be assured, in truth, that something effective is being done. If government cannot tackle this requirement alone, then it must do so in concert with, and co-operating with, others.
Brexit, feeding on successive UK governments’ failure to sustain a convincing and politically responsible narrative of what ‘Europe’ is all about, is not the answer.