Emily Beausoleil: Voice of dispossessed makes itself heard

The support for Trump, Sanders and Brexit is a sign that something is rotten in the state of our democracy.
Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign raised more personal donations and drew larger crowds to its rallies than any in US history. Photo / AP
Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign raised more personal donations and drew larger crowds to its rallies than any in US history. Photo / AP

Dr Emily Beausoleil teaches politics in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University's Manawatu campus.

What do Brexit, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common? They show, across the political spectrum, the re-emergence of populist politics. We can point to a growing disenchantment and frustration with formal politics since the 1960s: near-universal decline in voter turnout, party membership and trust in politicians. But this was assumed to mean citizens were less engaged, more apathetic about politics. In a word, more manageable for an increasingly technocratic, bureaucratic, and expertise-driven political system.

But when frustration has no voice by the usual channels, eventually it has to shout to be heard. And we ignore these voices at the peril of organised politics.

The groundswell of support for Brexit, Bernie and Trump was beyond the imagination of politics-as-usual, so much so that each movement has caught political elites off-guard.

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign - despite mainstream media and, it appears, Democratic National Convention bias and blackouts - raised more personal donations and drew larger crowds to its rallies than any in US history. Donald Trump has garnered mass support despite flagrant lies, absence of a clear political programme and causing overt affront to women, migrant, Muslim and disabled communities. The result of the Brexit referendum surprised even some of those who campaigned to leave the EU.

In each case, those who feel unrepresented in formal politics have rushed at the opportunity to be heard. Frustrations born of economic hardship and politics-as-usual have coalesced and found sudden and monumental expression. And in each case, attempts to sway public opinion by party elites - David Cameron's support for staying in the EU or Mitt Romney's warnings about Trump, for instance - had the opposite effect, if any. The masses, the unrepresented, disenchanted, demoralised masses, don't matter to formal politics until, suddenly, they do. The people, it appears, have spoken.

This is what democracy should be, is it not? Yes and no. Populism - unmediated political influence by the people - can take many guises, and can be anti-democratic as well as democratic. What distinguishes the democratic voice of the people from, say, mob rule?

Whether the masses become either a mob or a democratic public seems to hinge on two crucial variables. The first concerns the channels that connect the masses and formal politics. Are there means with which to hear distant rumblings and gestational mutters? Can politicians recognise in these signs of unrest the need to listen, understand and respond accordingly?

These signs of disenchantment demand a hard look at how unrepresentative representative politics has become, and how we might refresh these mechanisms and practices to better fulfil this function of formal politics.

The second concerns the channels that connect the masses to one another, because these rumblings are not inherently more accurate or wise than the elites who fail to hear them. Democracy requires that the masses interact as citizens. This is because our clearest comprehension, our most effective solutions, our most just decisions are always the result of pooling our resources and hammering out the details together.

A certain flag referendum comes to mind. It was a process that, for all its careful stages, lacked any deliberation and debate that might have developed initial designs into more than any one of us might have imagined alone.

Without spaces, physical and virtual, in which diverse communities can come together to do just this, we get politics fed by misinformation and fuelled by raw instinct.

In this light, mass support for both Brexit and Trump speaks with a resounding voice, making explicit that politics-as-usual - leaving big decisions to the professionals who are at an ever greater distance from the public they serve - is insufficient to contend with major grievances and challenges that "we the people" face today.

The xenophobia, scapegoating and anti-intellectualism that underpin these swells of support speak just as loudly that we have forgotten how to be citizens, how to perform the alchemy of transforming personal opinion into public concern, how to listen in order to refine our own voices, how the benefits of grappling honestly together over the decisions that matter most far outweigh the risks.

When we fail to foster and protect channels of communication, debate and decision-making within communities, we open ready routes for explosions of mob rule akin to those we see today.

- NZ Herald

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