We are witnessing a crisis of representative democracy. In most European countries, people feel ignored and sidelined by EU politicians and established mainstream political parties.
by Raylene Abdilla
Image: Central European University students protest against an amendment of the higher education law in Budapest, Hungary, 04 April 2017. EPA/ZOLTAN BALOGH HUNGARY OUT
We are witnessing a crisis of representative democracy. In most European countries, people feel ignored and sidelined by EU politicians and established mainstream political parties. There is a widespread feeling of mistrust toward mainstream politicians. A feeling that politicians cannot address the concerns of most citizens such as national security, stricter border controls, the protection of national identity, the end of austerity measures, tackling unemployment, catering for affordable housing and so on. This sense of disillusionment has intensified in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, whereby the political agenda of the EU and national politicians was to bailout banks and stabilise the single market at the expense of government expenditure on social investment.
This also explains why anti-establishment and populist political movements, such as Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos, Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza, among others, have gained so much popular support in recent years at the expense of established mainstream politicians. Despite having so much support, these controversial figures are often criticised for undermining democratic values by appealing to the emotions of ‘a gullible people’ in order to push forward their political agenda. They are seen as a threat to deliberative democracy which focuses on the rational deliberation of free and equal citizens.
At this point, one cannot but wonder how all of this came about: how did respectable mainstream politicians lose their voting stock so rapidly; are these populists really so dangerous to the foundations of democracy; are we – (as forming part of) ‘the people’ – destined to be left stranded, unprotected, and vulnerable to the whims of dangerous demagogues influencing us to push their own political agendas; are we a danger to our own democracy in the sense that we are nothing but a gullible mass which reacts to whatever is thrown at us from above; what kind of rationality are mainstream politicians expecting us to exercise; which econometric equation befits us to reach the same conclusions they are reaching?
In a nutshell, mainstream politicians are failing to represent the people – the very same people that for years (and, sometimes even decades), had pledged their support to these politicians, making them the established political machines that they are today. The mistake that these politicians are making is to expect the people to, following rational deliberation, understand and support policies which eat away from their national healthcare system, educational system and social benefits. All of this for the sake of a neoliberal economy from which the people get little if no return from. All of this to make sure that banks undertaking excessive risks with our hard-earned deposits remain in place and make sure that their executives pocket end-of-year hefty bonuses.
This is also the reason why the Remain campaign, pushed forward by factions of both the Conservative and Labour Parties, failed to mobilise UK citizens into voting to remain in the EU. Their arguments were all centred around negative economic repercussions in the eventuality of Brexit, while at the same time, they failed to address tangible concerns that many citizens experienced in their daily lives. This is the reason why Marine Le Pen with her Front Nationale in France, managed to attract a substantial number of workers whose support traditionally inclined towards the left. It is no wonder, therefore, that anti-establishment and populist movements are gaining traction so rapidly.
Chantal Mouffe, a professor of political theory, attributes this crisis of representative democracy to what she calls the consensus of the centre, whereby both the centre-right and centre-left have settled for the supposedly inevitable event of neoliberal globalisation. Both centre-right and centre-left political parties fail to offer an alternative to this neoliberal hegemony, and thus reduce the choice offered to citizens through elections. The unfolding of events leading up to the Great Recession has further consolidated the maxim of mainstream left and right politicians that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalisation espoused with harsh austerity measures in order to compensate for the shortcoming of the markets.
Mouffe argues that it is this lack of choice which has created a favourable terrain for populist parties that claim to represent all those who feel unheard and ignored in the existing representative system. In her own words, populists’ appeal is toward ‘“the people” against the uncaring “political establishment” that, having abandoned the popular sectors, concerns itself exclusively with the interests of the elites.’ Mouffe argues that the problem intensifies when the failure of mainstream politicians to mobilise the passions of the people is instead mobilised and monopolised by right wing populist parties that, in addressing the concerns of citizens, use xenophobic rhetoric by constructing the unity of ‘the people’ through the exclusion of immigrants.
To counter the stagnant position of mainstream politicians that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalisation and the xenophobic political agenda of right-wing populism, Mouffe argues that we need to revitalise the adversarial dimension of left-right. And according to her, this needs to be done through left-wing populist movements. In the face of stagnant austerity and neoliberal policies on the one hand, and xenophobic politics of fear on the other hand, left-wing populism has the potential to mobilise the passions of ‘the people’ in a way that opens up the space for a politics of hope.
Traces of such left-wing populist movements can be seen through Syriza in Greece, where the people still voted against EU-imposed austerity even though the other option was portrayed as an apocalyptic economic disaster. Similarly, Podemos in Spain are proposing a manifesto that addresses people’s concerns in a more inclusive and democratic manner.
The role of the passions in politics is therefore crucial, as it refers to the common affects at play in the collective forms of identification that constructs a collective will – the people. When mainstream politicians fail to take seriously into account the affective dimension of politics, it is the responsibility and the opportunity of left-wing populists to counter the right-wing politics of fear.
The need for real political choice that taps into the core of what citizens want to see in their country and how they want to be governed is as imminent as ever. The power of the people is as important as ever: left-wing populism enables people to keep politicians accountable for their acts; to critically question their agendas; to refuse to be given a vote but no voice; to realise that the enemy of the people are not the weakest among us, those at the end of the line, those having their social benefits cut, those not affording an education or even a roof above their head, but those who turn their back on the needs and interest of citizens in order to cater for the few.