Magna Carta and ‘vox pop’ democracy

Dr Nicholas Gruen

If we compare our own system of government to King John’s government – either before or after Magna Carta – there is no comparison. We have a robust democracy rather than a tyranny at the very beginning of a centuries long process by which the West came to impose the rule of law on its rulers. In contrast to the barons of thirteenth century England, if we’re unhappy with our government, we vote them out. Yet all is not well in our democracy.

Our political system has rarely been held in such low regard. In what I call our ‘vox pop’ democracy, there is a pervasive sense of the staged quality of politics and its remoteness from citizens’ lives and concerns. Political parties have hollowed out to a rump of professionals managing party ‘brands’ – in turn, political ‘brand management’ has hollowed out public debate, producing systemic disaffection and deepening cynicism and distrust.

But despite a good deal of agreement as to the nature of the problem, there’s little that’s agreed about how these problems could be tackled. You could say ‘that’s politics’ – vigorous disagreement is part of the package. But while agreeing on improvements to our democracy will always involve debate, there’s a deeper problem. When we think about the problem we excuse our own role in the problem. We sentimentalise the idea of ‘we the people’.

‘We the people’ can do no wrong. It’s our politicians that let us down – by gilding the lily, by promising more than they can or intend to deliver. And their media are also to blame. They reduce the news to entertainment and encourage people’s resentments.

This sentimentalism then sees us swoon to the siren song of people doing democracy themselves. The internet’s extraordinary connectivity can amp up democratic participation so that we can by-pass a corrupt system and take matters into our own hands.

But the fact is that ‘we the people’ are thoroughly implicated in all those aspects of democracy that we feel so disillusioned with. After all, it’s a democracy. It would be surprising if we didn’t have a pretty pivotal role in the shape our democracy has taken.

The media only got the way it has because our decisions as media consumers reinforced the editorial decisions the media makes. The media reports personality conflict, and the talkback radio of resentful, narcissistic entitlement ahead of policy analysis because that’s what gets us buying papers, tuning in and clicking links.

And guess why politicians make promises that can’t keep? Because it wins them elections. We vote for the promises they can’t keep. (As Bernard says to Prime Minister – or perhaps it’s just Minister Hacker – when Hacker muses that the civil service seems to do little other than prevent politicians implementing their sacred promises to the people: “Well someone has to”.)

This sentimentalism about ‘we the people’ is often tantamount to magical thinking as for instance when a sizable block of republicans wanted to use the occasion of the recent republican referendum to introduce a system in which the people would take the appointment of a head of state into their own hands. No more politicians thank you! But a moments’ reflection reveals who you’ll get if the people elect a public office-bearer. A politician!

Though I am not particularly sympathetic to the argument he was making in articulating them, the Austrian economist and political philosopher Joseph Schumpeter offered two fundamental ideas that have governed my own understanding of our dilemma.

His first point is that even rudimentary social organisations like a local football club have a division of labour and specialisation. Governments have all sorts of functions to perform and that means a division of manual and intellectual labour. A great deal of what governments do involves detailed administration of the relatively humdrum. Wanting all such details to be governed by the will of the people in democratic elections is a recipe for dysfunction. We need means to delegate to those who understand the issues. So the real question becomes how to do we delegate that work so that it is done and seen to be done effectively.

Secondly when ‘we the people’ do engage in politics by voting or by more extensive activism that conduct is generally driven not by reason, but by our expressive and emotional faculties. (If we were governed wholly by instrumental reason, there’d be no point in voting given how infinitesimal is the chance of influencing the outcome.) As early as the 1940s, Schumpeter was prescient about the similarity between the growing irrationalism of commercial advertising and political campaigning. He observes:

We find the same attempts to contact the subconscious . . . the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are . . . the same evasions . . . and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids

Sound familiar?

Today we live in a democracy in which either side can paralyze the other with a scare campaign by playing on fears. Paul Keating won an election in 1993 with an about face on the GST – opposing the very policy he’d so vociferously campaigned for a few years previously. It was hugely successful. Vox pop scare mongering at its best.

But today we’re even further along the road. For in 1993, for all its brazenness, the policies with which Keating retained government were relatively coherent.

Today the depredations of vox pop democracy have gone further. The current government found its way to power not simply with a vox pop scare campaign but with a policy that was designed only to get through media interviews, not any length of time in government. And so the government committed itself to meeting Australia’s emissions targets at the same time as dismantling the most efficient way to do so – with carbon pricing – and replacing it with a subsidy scheme which will only be effective to the extent that it evolves towards the carbon pricing scheme it replaced.