I’m willing to make the claim that politicians today are no more corrupt, self-serving or beholden to special interests than politicians were fifty, a hundred or even a thousand years ago.
Regardless of the political system in place, it takes hard work, compromise, negotiation and a willingness to be pragmatic and flexible in one’s values and ethics to achieve high office. Even the cleanest and most ethical politicians have to deal with people with different standards, and must find ways to accommodate diverse views in order to achieve great ends.
I’m also willing to say that it isn’t the economic situation. The world has faced huge financial strains in the past, and while governments may rise and fall (as Greece’s has done), or constitutions may be redrawn (as in Iceland) the underlying governance systems have rarely changed as a result.
No country changed from a democracy to something else as a result of the GFC, and none changed from ‘something else’ to a democracy as a result of it either.
Maybe its our institutions – are government agencies, courts, armies and police failing in their jobs?
Well no, to a large degree public services around the world remain highly capable of delivering the services they are required to deliver. Of course there’s always room for improvement, and successive governments have changed the configuration and goals of public services – but the core capability remains largely intact, at least to-date.
So what do I believe is causing the rapid decline in trust, potentially the greatest threat facing governments today?
It’s the rise of the internet and supporting technologies.
The internet – particularly social media – has become a mirror that society cannot escape.
Every action and decision taken by elected politicians is now almost instantly communicated, critiqued and analysed by thousands or millions of people – many looking for the slightest sign of deviation from a past statement, position or decision.
Websites have sprung up to collate and consider every public political statement – and some of their private ones too. Tools such as Polliwoops ensure that even comments that politicians later delete remain accessible – Google’s cache is another way to find deleted media statements made in a politician’s early career, and even government-funded platforms such as PANDORA are repositories of deleted Prime Ministerial speeches (removed so as not to ‘confuse’ voters).
Old-school politicians, who chameleon-like reflect the views of the physical audience in front of them, are potentially finding instant mass communication the greatest challenge. Gone are the days where a politicians could travel from event to event, each time subtly adjusting their message to appeal to the audience at hand.
Now every inconsistency, weasel word, off-the-cuff remark and error of judgement by elected politicians (as well as many unelected ones and public figures) is captured, shared and discussed online.
And that’s just the facts – the internet is also full of commentary, predictions, suppositions and lies about political leaders, some benign, some actively trying to understand or help and some trying to bring them down.
The problem isn’t that our politicians are flawed, our economies failing and our institutions corrupt – many countries have been there before and survived, even thrived.
The problem is that society is now seeing both truth and fiction in greater quantity and detail than ever before – the mirror of the internet is always on, and no society can choose to look away from it.
It is easier to believe politicians when all we see are the good things they do. It is easier to believe in a system of government when we don’t think about the deals done to support it.
However people today now expect some form of purity from their political leaders that has never been achieved in history – they want leaders better than they are, without flaws, with no need to compromise and who appear mystically in a leadership role without years of learning their craft and making mistakes on the way.
How would the political leaders of the past have been effective in today’s mirror society?
Would any of them successfully been able to face the mirror without flinching?
Can any aspiring political leaders now make it into parliament without casting a mixed reflection?
Even a political leader who is pure and uncompromised in every way will find that hostile elements – rivals, other parties, lobby groups, disruptive citizens – attempt to distort their reflection into a funhouse caricature that the public reject.
I wonder whether our system of government can survive the relentless focus of this mirror. Whether we’ll attract competent politicians, see ongoing mass civil disobedience or simply lose all trust and faith in the people who put themselves forward to be elected and the system they are elected into.
Will we learn to accept that all political systems, their institutions, leaders and decisions, are flawed under sufficient scrutiny. That everyone has something they’re not proud of, or can be distorted into inappropriateness, in their past, and accept that our leaders and system are what they are – faults and all?
Will we demand systemic change – that our electoral systems are reformed and the people inhabiting the current system be removed, possibly even tried?
Or will we simply opt-out. Treat politics and our governments as an annoyance that we evade wherever possible and only engage when we have to – leaving us at the mercy of politicians who choose to use their powers for actions not in the interest of the public?
I really don’t know which course will be taken in many countries around the world, but I do expect to see many more governments fall over the next twenty years, hollowed out through loss of talent and put into the hands of petty tyrants, or collapsing under their own weight.
However what I hope to see are governments and societies finding ways to truly look at themselves in the mirror. To rationalise that while they can no longer persist with the myth that they are the ‘finest of them all’ they’re actually not that bad looking – despite the wrinkles and scars.
I also hope to see governments recognise that they need to experiment more at the core, not simply around the edges – reverse trends towards political functionaries being the majority of elected members and institute practices which turn parliaments back into the servants of their societies, rather than their masters.
This will take real political courage and will to change.
Ironically political courage may be one thing that increases as the as the mirror’s reflections become more and more defined.
Soon anyone seeking to enter politics will need to have courage simply to put themselves forward for election, because if there is a single blemish on their reflection they will be hounded relentlessly.
Standing up to that scrutiny, displeasure, disappointment and abuse in order to make a difference through public office will take enormous public courage.
Ultimately, however, societies will need to find a new accommodations. We will need to accept that there’s as many pure politicians as there are unicorns, and when we look into the mirror of the internet the reflection we see isn’t solely that of the politicians we elect, it is a reflection of our entire society and the choices we have made to create it.
If we want to feel something other than disappointment or horror when we look at our reflection, our society’s reflection, in the internet, then we will have to consciously, personally and collectively, make the decisions that will allow us to gaze on it with pride.
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