There can be little doubt that we are living through an extraordinary, and in many ways unprecedented era. Times of uncertainty and tremendous upheaval for sure, but also positive times, in which large numbers of people are becoming energised and politically engaged. Political parties in many countries are fracturing, as internal differences surface and the old dualities of left and right fail to respond to the needs and demands of the people.
Political/social activism has been with us for centuries, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ‘People Power’ – the ‘new superpower’ – has been growing exponentially. Huge numbers of people, angry and alienated, have been taking to the streets calling for fundamental political, economic, and social change.
The two major examples of the global movement for change have to be Occupy, and the Arab Spring. Both declared that freedom and social justice are fundamental human rights, that the current economic model is fundamentally unjust, that sharing needs to be seen as a guiding social and economic principle, and that the voice of the marginalised majority – so long ignored, must be listened to. In opposition to the relentless drive towards change sit the conservative, reactionary forces of society. Groups that dominate both the mainstream media and the political classes who, lacking vision and shrouded in complacency, turn to the past for answers to the manifold issues facing humanity and seek to maintain the status quo at all costs; a status quo that has served them and their supporters well, whilst consigning hundreds of millions to poverty or near poverty.
As politicians resist the calls for change, refuse to listen and continue to act in the same old divisive, unjust ways, frustration and anger in many countries, and amongst many groups, is increasing.
Anger is a negative motivator, it distorts reason and leads to irrational decisions and actions: electing Donald Trump – an anti-politician political figure – as the Republican presidential nominee, and 52% of people in Britain (in defiance of politicians, 75% of whom ticked the box marked ‘remain’), voting to leave the European Union (EU) are two examples of such angry collective choices. These are revealing decisions made by a similar demographic, based on some common issues: Immigration and a perverted sense of nationalism being the loudest ones. The misconception that ‘they’re’ taking over – immigrants that is – threatening our communities and national identity; fears stirred up by manipulative politicians and a dishonest right-wing media, that, instead of holding power to account, routinely campaigns on its behalf.
Underlying these reasons is the fact that large sections of humanity have been systematically disempowered. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are sick of economic/social injustice and the extreme levels of wealth and income inequality and don’t trust the corrupt political system or out-of-touch politicians (just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, and 19% in the US), who habitually act in their own best interests and the interests of their corporate backers. CNN makes clear that, “at the center of both the [EU] referendum and the U.S. presidential election is the idea that the political status quo is not working for voters and that elected leaders are either incompetent or not listening.”
Donald Trump, of course, has cleverly tapped into the suspicions of voters, putting distrust and disdain for politicians and their institutions at the heart of his campaign. Telling his supporters that the politicians are ‘dumb and don’t know what they’re doing’, nobody in political office is looking out for you he says, but hey, you can trust me – I’m one of you, and together we will “Make America Great Again”.
The causes of what we might call protest or rage voting are clear; the effects however are unforeseen, and far-reaching. While many in America may support his candidacy, the wider world tremors at the prospect of a ‘President Trump’, and in Britain political and social turmoil has erupted since the vote to leave the EU – Brexit as its been labelled. It is a fateful vote with consequences not just for Britain and Europe, CNN states, but also “for Western stability that could trigger economic and political reverberations in the United States.”
Deep divisions in the UK and within the main political parties have been brought to the confused, fragmented surface. The now ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, an ardent ‘remainer’, was forced to resign, to be succeeded by Teresa May; Labour – the official opposition – has called a leadership contest and seems determined to tear itself to pieces; the leader of the Green Party has stepped down, and independence from the UK is being openly talked about in Scotland (again) and Northern Ireland.
The vote revealed social divisions, based on age (young versus old); regions (England and Wales voted out, Scotland and Northern Ireland in); well-educated and less well educated; affluent multi-racial metropolitan centres (where, ironically immigration is highest) – in vote, versus degenerating regional towns, out vote. Differences of outlook that the think tank Foreign Affairs states “may well play out in the United States and elsewhere, with important electoral effects.”
Then there are the countless practical effects of leaving the EU, all of which, despite the duplicitous rhetoric of the leave campaigners, are worryingly negative: From the impact on the economy, to funding for University research, holidays to food prices, European education opportunities and agricultural subsidies, employment rights and environmental issues, not to mention the UK’s standing in the World, and the shame felt by millions of us for this national demonstration of “pointless, bellicose imbecility,” as Ed Vulliamy, writing in the Guardian puts it.
Whilst referenda (or ‘direct democracy’) appear to be a democratic way of encouraging participation, unless the threshold agreed for a conclusive result is at a level that carries the vast majority, consensus is not realised and the views of millions of people remain ignored. The usual 51% (as applied in all first past the post elections) is simply not sufficient. Decisions passed with such a tiny majority will not be accepted by the large percentage of people who did not vote for them, any changes will be challenged and social divisions strengthened – as has happened in Britain over the EU vote. A majority of at least 80% should be the target.
True democracy is participation – responsible participation. Yes it means voting, but it also means voting based on the issues in an informed way. Fully aware of the consequences of the vote – unlike the British EU vote, which saw millions cast a vote that is not only against the national interest, but in many cases is also against their own local interest.
Unite and Act
At the same time as unleashing a tidal wave of uncertainty and despair, there are exciting positive repercussions of the British vote to leave the EU, which reflect the growing worldwide realignment of politics.
The political class has been shaken up and a national debate has been triggered. Proportional representation – the only fair electoral system – is once again being openly spoken of and there has been much talk of a re-shaping of political parties, with the potential for new groups emerging or existing parties splitting. And most significant of all, a range of grass-roots movements has sprung up, and large numbers of people (over 125,000 in three weeks) have joined the Labour Party, with most, but not all new members supporting the ‘left-wing’ incumbent leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
The key point to recognise is that globally, democratic participation has dramatically increased in the last thirty years. People in substantial numbers are uniting, forming groups, organising and acting, recognising that the responsibility for society rests with them – with us, and that fundamental change will not come from the politicians. As Professor Robert Tombs of St. John’s College, Cambridge University puts it, “there is a sense that politics no longer matters or that the people who run mainline politics are no longer in contact with the people who vote for them.” This phenomenon is taking place throughout the world.
People everywhere see the inadequacy and dishonesty of partisan, ideologically driven politicians who are obsessed with gaining or holding on to power. Out of touch with vast swathes of the population, as well as the mood and energy of the times, rooted in the past they lack the imagination and courage required to initiate the far-reaching changes needed to tackle the major issues of the day: Climate change and peace; the movement of people – migration and refugees; obscene levels of inequality, the desperate need for a new and just economic system based on sharing, and the cultivation of social justice – which would create an environment of trust – essential if we are to build a society free from the conditions that lead to conflict.
There is a real possibility that a new form of politics will evolve out of the popular democratic movements springing up in many nations. A new politics free from ideology, that recognises humanity’s essential unity and is driven by a commitment to address the needs of the people and to build a new fair society, based on sharing, cooperation, tolerance and justice.
Despite the outward turmoil these are wonderful times: The impulse for change is sweeping through our world and people everywhere are responding; do what they will the politicians and ruling elite will be unable to counter the evolutionary forces. It is a question of when, not if, fundamental change will take place. It is a very good time for democracy and politics.