Reversing the slow death of our democracy

Posted: February 1, 2016 in Democracy, Election 2016, Uncategorized

Although unfinished at the time of his death, Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, is an important book. It tells the story of the slow death -or what Mair calls the ‘hollowing out’- of Western European liberal democracy.

The professionalisation of parliamentary politics has led to the emergence of a political class. Traditional modes of mass political organisation have been displaced by an increasing reliance on television as the primary interface with the electorate.

Voluntary membership of parties has decreased as has voter participation. Politics and politicians are becoming increasingly separated and distant from the people, particularly those worst affected by the decisions of government.

While southern Ireland is experiencing all of these trends, Mair’s ‘hollowing out’ is at a less advanced stage here than elsewhere across Europe.

Mass politics emerged in Ireland almost a century before most of our neighbours. Decades before people had the right to vote they were involved in political agitation and electoral mobilisation. Popular participation in politics in Ireland has long and deep roots.

These traditions shape our political culture today. Unlike many other countries Irish voters still expect to meet TDs and Ministers in person as they go about their business.

Door to door canvassing, constituency clinics, attendance at local residents’ and community meetings are the bread and butter of electoral politics. It is a foolhardy politician who thinks they can avoid this aspect of our job and remain elected.

There are some who feel that this produces an unhealthy localism, distracting from the ‘responsibility’ to represent the ‘national ‘interest’. (Of course the ‘national interest’ is nothing more than the local or sectoral interest most dominant at a given point in time) But direct engagement with people is of huge benefit to our democracy.

Rather than see it as something bad, we should be concerned with its slow demise and actively encourage its revival.

As a constituency politician I am a firm believer in the perpetual canvas. Knocking doors should not be something only done in the weeks before an election. It should be a core part of the work of the party.

The simple but powerful act of talking and listening to people creates a bond that binds voters and politicians together. It is the best way for politicians and party activists to remain rooted in their communities.

How else can a TD or Councillor know how government decisions are affecting the lives of people? How can a party properly represent people if they are not constantly in a dialogue with them?

So contrary to the popular misconception within the political class, canvassing is not a necessary evil, it is the oxygen of our political system. People get to look you in the eye, interrogate your positions, challenge your assumptions and hold you to account for your failures.

Larger parties complain that they find it increasingly difficult to mobilise local organisations to engage in the more traditional activism. They are increasingly reliant on the media soundbite or commercial advertisement.

I have little sympathy for them. They are authors of their own misfortune. They have reduced electoral politics to a personality contest between individuals with ever diminishing difference between the political and policy substance on offer.

Party politics is at its best when it is participatory, when the party, its principles and its policies are what matters. It is at its best when the candidate and the cumman member are part of a team working within communities to build support for what they believe is a better way of running the affairs of state.

So as polling day fast approaches I am one of those political activists who relishes to volume and intensity of the canvas. The only bad canvas is one where people are not in or too disconnected from politics to bother opening the door.

My high point is not when I meet a loyal party supporter, but when I convince a disaffected non-voters to reengage with the political process, or when I have a lively argument with a constituent with strong views.

The etymology of the word democracy is found in the Greek words demos (the people) and kratia (rule or power). Democracy at its strongest is when power is wielded by an active informed, engaged and active citizenry. Conversely it is at its most corrupt when the people are ruled by a professional political and media elite.

If we want to reverse the hollowing out of our democracy that Peter Mair so rightly warns us of there is no better way to increase the volume and intensity of the conversations between politicians and citizens. And not just in advance of polling day but every single day after.

First published in the Sunday Business Post 31.1.16

  1. benmadigan says:

    “The professionalisation of parliamentary politics has led to the emergence of a political class”. Irish politicians are just following the trend in the EU. See here a proposal to democratise Europe

  2. […] hope he can stick to him comments posted on his blog dated 1st Feb-2016, if so We wish him […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s