It has been well publicised by almost all media outlets that Australia’s faith in democracy is at an all-time low, and plunging rapidly. Less than half of all Australians think that the party in power makes any difference to the country, and less than a third showed a good deal of interest in the 2016 federal election.
This trend isn’t just a home-grown phenomenon. Almost half of Americans have lost faith in democracy and, shockingly, more than a quarter of Americans would regard an election where their preferred candidate lost as illegitimate. Similar numbers exist across most Western democratic nations.
The ramifications of this trend show themselves at the ballot box. The informal vote proportion in this country is at an all-time high of 23%, a key indicator of the strength of stable democratic systems. Arguably worse is the fact that the proportion of Australians not lodging a formal vote hit one-fifth of the entire population at the last election. In a country where voting is law, and an informal vote requires just as much effort as a formal one, this statistic is even more damning.
This lack of faith, however, is a relatively new phenomenon and many are rightly asking why. There are some key explanations which can be drawn from looking at the timing of this trend, which began during the Great Recession (2007-8). Since then, the number of people in this country that aren’t satisfied with democracy has doubled. The destruction of many financial markets during the recession ruined the savings of everyday people across the world, jobs were lost and houses seized. Did the top end of town pay? Not at all.
Governments across the globe of all political leanings bailed out banks in an attempt to slow the turmoil, whilst everyday citizens were left to largely fend for themselves. Politics is, as we all know, about perception. Whilst the benefits of these bailouts can be debated on a moral and an economic standpoint for hours, the move didn’t look good. Democracy failed almost everyone in the Great Recession, there’s no wonder people started to turn their backs on it.
This leads to another broader explanation. Inequality is at its highest point in recorded history. People feel neglected, betrayed and taken advantage of by every major party in the world. Even if it’s not their fault, people will naturally blame the government of the day for the problems of the day. The trend towards a lack of faith in governments, democracy, and institutions in general has largely been driven by the younger population. Only half of under thirties in Australia agree that democracy is preferable, compared to 60% amongst the general population. Only a third of US millennials see civil rights, a key tenant of democracy, as absolutely essential. And, shockingly, more than a quarter of US millennials dismiss the importance of free elections to democracy. But what is it about the current relationship between young people and democracy which has left us so apathetic?
Put simply, most of today’s societal problems disproportionally affect younger generations. Cuts to education funding that reduce people’s ability to improve themselves is one that is particularly close to us. The refusal to commit to any significant efforts to climate change won’t affect anyone in power right now, but it’ll affect us, and our kids, and every other future generation.
In addition, the correlation between political alignment and age has contributed to the abandonment of younger people by conservative and right wing governments. Conservative parties know that the youth vote is essentially a lost cause to them, whilst the grey vote is a guaranteed support base every time. Armed with this information, conservative parties have woken up to the realisation that there’s little political use in pandering to youth through sympathetic policies. In addition, progressive parties consider the youth vote a sure win every time. Elections are won and lost on the swing vote of the working age population, and as a result, younger people are consistently neglected by both sides of politics. This is evident through the fact that nothing of substance has been done to improve housing affordability, despite a consensus that the issue exists. Little fixes around the edges have been implemented in an attempt to somewhat appease young aspirational homeowners, but nothing that will actually fix the issue. Politics, and by extension democracy, has failed young people. It’s no wonder we’re losing faith in it.
Another explanation that is often proposed is simply that we’ve had it too good for too long. Relatively speaking, democracy’s been pretty good to us. We get somewhat of a say in things, the government doesn’t try too often to attack its own people, almost everyone is fortunate enough to have a roof over their head, and you generally get to say whatever you want without being persecuted. Sure, it’s pretty rough around the edges, and needs a lot of work, but for the most part, things are alright. This is in stark contrast to the outcome for many twentieth century historical examples of non-democratic societies. An estimated three million died during the reign of the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge resulted in between one and two million deaths and Mao Zedong’s reign in China resulted in the direct or indirect death of tens of millions of people. Then there is the less violent, but still horrible, crimes committed in states such as East Germany, and present day North Korea.
Many of today’s youth, or millennials, myself included, are simply too young to have any real understanding of the scale of the horrors incurred during instances of non-democratic states. It is then, only natural, that young people contemplate variations of these alternatives when they feel dissatisfied with how government treats them. The very real consequences of such alternatives are less likely to be taken into account when one has not experienced or lived at the same time as one of them. They seem more removed, and thus more unlikely. One starts to question whether these alternatives could be better after all. This may explain the increasing acceptance of non-democratic systems by younger people, as seen through the fact that far fewer millennials are opposed to military coups and martial law than older generations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the way democracy treats us all. Or rather, the way that today’s current manifestation of democracy treats us. We have record amounts of money funding election campaigns, coming from sources with an interest that almost never align with the general population. The 2016 US Presidential Election campaigns raised $2.5 billion, with most of this coming from wealthy individuals and corporations. With an influence like this, it’s easy to see why the public feels like democracy simply doesn’t involve them anymore. The idea of one person, one vote, still holds technically true. By and large, however, when the vote of an entire nation is influenced by vested interests, a small number of individuals can effectively control millions of votes.
Then there’s the many, many instances of political sell-outs. Voters of Palmer United back in 2013 would have understandably been frustrated when, one by one, every senator defected the party but still held their seat. Then there’s Cory Bernardi defecting from the Liberal Party that won him his seat, and Family First suddenly merging with Australian Conservatives without consultation of its membership. And then there’s the political policies that are obviously to the detriment of the average citizen; tax cuts to big business whilst penalty rates go, loans to a coal mining company that will pollute the earth and destroy the natural environment, the list goes on.
Even when government policies actually do benefit the average person, quite often these benefits are hard to understand fully. The reignited debate surrounding globalisation compared with protectionism is a classic example of this. Policies that promote globalisation such as free trade deals are often given a bad rapport for their role in destroying jobs, and rightly so. However, these disadvantages are heavily outweighed by improved standards of living through cheaper goods, as each country can specialise in what it’s best at, with everyone winning. But the other side to the coin is often understated due to the fact that the effects of it are less personal in nature, and intrinsically harder to measure, despite the fact that they are as real as their downsides. In regards to faith in democracy, even when policies enacted through a democratic system benefit people, they can still be perceived negatively, thus contributing to a dissatisfaction with the democratic system.
So, we’ve got a problem with democracy, with plenty of reasons behind it. That much is a given at this point. But is this even a bad thing in the first place? Many would argue that this dissatisfaction is positive, as it could be the catalyst that leads to a better, fairer system. However, it’s important to consider the ramifications of an increasing lack of faith with democracy, and for the most part, they’re not pretty.
Lack of faith is well correlated with a lack of government stability, resulting from a higher minor party vote share. When this happens, you end up with the likes of Pauline Hanson, whom we all know has done wonders for this country. Whilst a variety of views in Parliament is to be welcomed, when you end up with a collection of individuals that at best can be described as nutcases (Hello Senator Malcolm Roberts), things aren’t going to turn out too great. The general instability stemming from the unpredictability of Parliament can be incredibly detrimental to things like consumer and business confidence. Look what happened in the UK when the world realised Brexit was going to happen. The pound tumbled, and doesn’t look like it is coming back any time soon. And if your response to this is ‘so what?’ just remember the last time the financial markets turned to shit. The little guy got screwed over, and those at the top just got richer and richer. Like it or not, political stability is pretty important, which is why it’s incredibly important that all those with the power to do so enact change to restore faith in democracy, since it might be our only option.