Rage Against the Machine
Voters in France have spoken. Their clear message is one of anger and disillusionment with mainstream democratic parties. After the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, listless support for Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate, and President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Gaullist, barely reached 55 per cent – while one in five French voters cast ballots for the extreme right, nearly double the 2007 total, and one in nine for the extreme left.
France is hardly unique in this respect. Across the western world, voters are deserting the centre ground of politics for fringe parties and populist movements. The rise of the Tea Party in the United States, the resurgence of Scottish nationalism, even the surprise ascent of Canada's perennial also-rans, the NDP, all reflect voters' deep desire for "change" – any change – and an even deeper contempt for politicians, parties and, in some cases, government itself.
Politicians are at least partly to blame. A litany of broken promises, financial scandals, and sexual improprieties, all amplified by a voracious media, has led to a collapse of trust between voters and the politicians they elect. Walter Bagehot, the great Victorian essayist, argued that governments need to maintain a degree of "mystery" in order to preserve their citizen's respect. Today's casual familiarity with politicians – promoted not least by politicians themselves through an endless parade of photo-ops, sound bites, and tweets – has only bred contempt. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 10 per cent of Americans have faith in their elected officials – down from 30 per cent a decade ago – and well below even bankers or big business. According to the World Economic Forum, people in Azerbaijan – a quasi-dictatorship and ex-Soviet Republic – trust their politicians more than Americans do.
But the problem goes deeper. For all of the partisan bickering and jockeying for power, there is striking unanimity among most politicians in most countries today about the policies that must inescapably be followed – more austerity, leaner social programs, improved competitiveness, ever deeper regional and global integration. The problem is that these views are not always shared by the man on the street, who’s still reeling from a weak economy, employment insecurity, stagnating incomes, and world seemingly rigged in favour of the richest and most powerful. It is this growing divide between a discontented electorate – increasingly unhappy with the direction their countries are headed – and a political class – which has no credible alternative to offer – that explains the deep-seated malaise affecting almost every democracy today.
Democracies succeed, not just because political differences can be expressed, but because a deeper consensus makes such differences tolerable and acceptable. The recent French election is yet another sign that this basic consensus – or social contract – is in danger of unravelling. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is right to call the result "alarming".
Photo courtesy of Reuters