The Art of the Populist
Politics, it used to be said, is the Art of the Possible. I never quite knew what it meant, something along the lines of ‘politicians have rather limited power’, I think. That would certainly justify it today. The political world is full of eminent people who know – at least vaguely – what is going to be best for a planet whose technological advances far outstrip its wisdom to handle them. For democratic reasons, they can neither say so, nor accomplish what is desirable. Voters would no longer stand for such unbridled common sense.
Democracy was once thought to be docile. Ruled by wealthy political parties who depended on the ‘who you know’ system of influence, it followed a social structure like the hierarchy of religions, businesses and cricket clubs. In many spheres that hierarchy still exists today. Voters are different. They know, because they have often been told, that everyone is equal. Indeed, every voter has just one vote, of similar value – proof of equality, if proof were needed.
Operating within its socially dictated order, democracy trundled along quite nicely when the world order was fairly stable, and even more predictably when it wasn’t. Instability meant war, with men and horses the driving force until tanks and submarines were invented. Thereafter, nuclear weaponry became a world-destroying threat of such immediacy that political effort was largely devoted to seeing it was not used. We all stayed home, close to the ‘shelter’, in the touching belief that we would thus escape the fallout if the worst happened.
But the advanced technology of flying, the advertisements television provided about the scenery of an exciting world, the photos we were shown by more adventurous neighbours, all conspired to make us want to travel, to meet the rest of the human race and become friends with the Eskimos. We met, liked, and found ourselves Facebookers, not just revealing our most intimate details but inviting foreigners to stay with us for a holiday. It was when they didn’t go home that we realised we weren’t so keen on this silent invasion.
Rapid economic growth had provided comfort, longevity and instant communication, making us aware of the even greater growth we might achieve through more technology and sustainability. The sports we are all so fond of now included a world competition for our country to have the best of – and be the best at – everything. The idea of sharing, which had seemed so sensible when we were threatened, now appeared absurdly generous and self-defeating.
Wise people, even wise politicians, were ignored when they pleaded the interests of the species. ‘My country right or wrong’ – a cry that had not been heard for many generations – once again echoed through the corridors of town halls and parliaments. Voters liked the idea. ‘More for me’ appealed better than ‘Equal shares’. Indeed, the thought extended inwards, to widen the gap between rich and poor. Making more people rich became an easy sell as ‘the way to make everyone rich’. The absurdity of such a proposition was ignored.
Voters had learned a lesson. Democracy actually meant what it said, not just about the ballot box but about an equal voice. From Denmark to Hong Kong, from Edinburgh to Belfast, vox populi began to make itself heard, whether on the streets or in the choice of candidates to run its country. Protest and jubilation both qualified for mass rallies and both justified water canon and police baton. For a protest to be judged peaceful it had to be registered and limited. The people were having none of it.
Cartoon characters from Washington to London to Kiev took the seats of power. More established leaders, previously often seen wearing suits and ties, took airtime to declare their abhorrence of all decency that had gone before and their new alignment with buffoonery. Monthly single-issue referenda became the modus operandi for voting, replacing boring elections every five years. New parliamentary buildings were circular to avoid having sides.
Democracy could go this way if we are not careful. Its weaknesses are obvious. Its strengths are not being reviewed in light of modern education and communications. It is being left to deteriorate while opportunists of the most vulgar kind exploit it.
We should certainly hold a peaceful rally in favour of its overhaul.
Don’t you think so?