With a General Election rapidly approaching in the UK, it’s easy to get locked into a set of perennial debates concerning electoral registration, voter turnout and candidate selection. In the contemporary climate these are clearly important issues given the shift to individual voter registration, evidence of high levels of electoral disengagement and the general decline in party memberships (a trend bucked by UKIP, the Greens, and the Scottish National Party in recent months).
My concern, however, is that democracy has to be about far more than a vote. It’s not just about elections; it’s certainly not just about political parties and the risk of the 2015 General Election is that without being embedded within a range of more creative and engaging forms of political participation it’s just… another election.
Politics therefore has an important challenge in terms of ‘brand management’. Not of the vacuous form of ‘Russell Brand Management’ but of the challenge of re-imaging, redefining and re-connecting with a public that has (and is) changing rapidly; a mass social frenzy around the General Election risks creating a situation of boom-and-bust in terms of the public’s expectations and the subsequent results in terms of governmental performance in an increasingly complex world.
I can’t help wondering if democratic politics even has the capacity anymore to produce those social highs of yesteryear — the ‘Obama effect’ or ‘Blair effect’ — where there was a real sense that positive reform was both possible and on the horizon. Could it be that democratic boom-and-bust (a largely inevitable element of democratic life) has been replaced by the dull thud of bust-and-bust politics?
The General Election risks becoming part of the traditional life-cyle of politics that seems to be turning an increasingly large slice of the public away from ‘conventional’ politics. But, then again, does UKIP in the UK — or Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the National Front in France, or Syriza in Greece — really offer a rejuvenated model of democracy or (and this is the critical point) simply a thinner and more dangerous form of exclusionary politics? Is the boom-and-bust of populism not potentially louder and more destructive? In many ways the populist parties are a legitimate ‘challenger brand’ but they offer democracy a potentially dangerous dilemma.
In an excellent recent essay on democratic discontent Claudia Chwalisz highlighted that two decades have passed since Arend Lijphart famously identified unequal participation as ‘democracy’s unresolved dilemma’ and this dilemma has intensified rather than diminished in the intervening years. Why? Because the correlation between voting and policy-making has eroded to the extent that the public now question whether voting actually matters. To some extent this is an issue of perception as much as reality — a perception reinforced by the ‘Russell’ approach to Brand Management. It is also, to some extent, an inevitable element of democratic politics that as the demands of the populous become more complex and varied then the compromise-orientated element of that worldly art called politics will reflect this fact and become increasingly opaque. But there is something else going on — the insulation of a dominant economic elite that appears almost insulated from democratic control or scrutiny. Votes don’t seem to affect the cosmopolitan business elite and, as a result, capital in the twenty-first century is eroding democratic politics.
My message? Don’t expect too much from the 2015 General Election for the simple reason that democracy is about far more than a vote. It is about everyday life, it is about community engagement, it is about personal confidence and belief, it is about daring to stand up and be counted and its about the art of life and living together in the twenty-first century. The problem is that democratic politics has become a toxic brand and it need to re-brand itself by offering a new and fresh account of both the challenges and opportunities that undoubtedly lay ahead. That is a model of democracy that is deeper and richer, creative and honest, formal and informal, amateur and professional, agile and responsive, as responsibility-based as rights-based and as innovative as it is international. The problem is that at the moment ‘democracy’ appears almost synonymous with ‘elections’ and this robs it of its potential.
Democracy is about more than a vote.
Heading image: Election MG 3455. By Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Wikimedia Commons.