“If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it” (Ken Livingstone 1987 title of book)
At the heart of western democracy is the concept of consent, indeed this is what gives any government its legitimacy or a parliament its right to legislate. This consent is vital, as states by their nature do things that individuals cannot. States can levy taxes, they enact laws which everyone must obey and, as Max Weber pointed out, they are also the monopoly provider of legitimate violence in society.
If consent is absent, for whatever reason, a representative government by its nature ceases to be legitimate in the eyes of its citizens. Consent, as we are often told, is what distinguishes democratic states from those nations that are termed dictatorships. This is not to say that democracies are perfect, even their most ardent supporters do not claim this, but within western political systems there lies embedded within its Lockean roots a system that operates within the context of underlying consent. As John Locke said
“Man being… by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”
However, recent voter turnouts in elections on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to challenge this notion of electoral consent. In November 2000 when the whole world was enthralled about hanging chads, black voter exclusion and supreme court judgements in the context of a tight contest between Al Gore and George W Bush, very few people failed to mention another significant story of that US election. This was the numbers of people who actually refused to provide consent. There was copious analysis on the popular vote in 2000, concluding that Gore had beaten Bush by about half a million votes (50.5m vs. 50m)—despite the latter’s win in the electoral college. What was subject to less scrutiny was the fact that just as many people (100m) didn’t actually vote for either of the two main candidates. In a country that prides itself on its democratic Lockean traditions this should be given some consideration.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation does not fare any better. At the last general election in the UK, we witnessed a voter turnout of just over 59% with 18 million people deciding to stay at home, the worst electoral turnout since 1918. Thus more people watched the recent England vs. France Euro 2004 football match than voted at the last general election. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable to see Tony Blair on the one hand enjoying huge parliamentary majorities, yet on the other receiving consent to govern from only one in four of the British people. Yet despite this significant lack of a popular mandate, New Labour has changed some of the fundamentals of the British constitution, given independence to the Bank of England for the setting of monetary policy, signed the Nice treaty, and launched a pre-emptive war on Iraq.
However lack of voter turnout has not simply been restricted to the general election, in local elections interest is even lower. Despite the volume of campaigning and media focus in the recent bye elections, the successful Liberal Democrat MP in Leicester South obtained less than one in seven of the electorate’s consent. William Whitelaw once famously accused Harold Wilson, the former Labour prime minister, of: “going up and down the land stirring up apathy”. After the recent local and European elections and the Bye-elections in Leicester and Birmingham, the charge could easily be levelled at a whole host of politicians from across the political spectrum. Worryingly for politicians, lack of electoral participation seems to be strongest among the young; at the last general election, 61% of 18-24 year olds did not bother to vote. In 1997 this percentage was only 43%, showing an astonishing increase of 18% in four years.
The lack of electoral commitment that we witness is not just in the traditional democracies, but even in emerging democracies such as Poland and Slovakia where turnout was 21% and 20% respectively in the recent European elections. Many allude to the loss of trust in politicians, others point to the growth in single issue campaigns where concrete results are considered easier to achieve; some, especially in political circles, blame the media for their cynical portrayal of politicians. However what is also clear is that the choice faced by the electorate has also narrowed over recent years. With the fall of communism and the diminishing of the left/right polarised debates of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, most political parties have now converged around the centre of the political spectrum. In America, or even Britain, the similarities of the main political parties now completely dwarf their differences. As John Curtice professor of politics at Strathclyde university said in 2003: “For many commentators, New Labour’s move to the centre is a reflection of the reality that in a post-communist, globalised world there are no big choices left to make any more about what kind of society and economy we want to have. All that divides the parties is their relative ability to manage capitalism. Meanwhile, there is certainly no law of politics that says that the Conservatives must recover. Britain may perhaps for all practical purposes have become a one-party state. But if it has, then we should not expect many voters to think that voting is worth the effort, no matter how easy the internet might make it to do so in future.”
As evidence for his contention, Curtice cites the fact that 17% of the British electorate told pollsters after 2001 that they believed there was no ‘great difference’ between Labour and the Conservatives.
The absence of a great philosophical divide may well be a contributory cause, in conjunction with the other stated reasons for the increased lack of electoral enthusiasm that we see. Although the associated lack of electoral commitment may not mean an immediate crisis for the western body-politic, complacency would be a mistake. The fact that 55% of people in a recent ICM opinion poll in the Guardian believe that the prime minister lied about the war in Iraq should act as a sobering experience for all politicians.
Within the current debate, apathy has only been defined in the context of falling electoral support and enthusiasm for the three traditional political parties. Under this definition many people who engage in single issue campaigns on issues such as the environment or people who support alternative societal ideas are also mistakenly categorised as apathetic. Apathy in its true sense of the word should only relate to those who have lost enthusiasm for all politics in general rather than those who decide to exercise their political will in alternative ways. Though most people would accept that apathy is a problem that needs to be resolved, the rejection of the status quo should be seen in a completely different light.
In opposition to the prevailing wisdom opposition to the status quo is not necessarily negative, as the aridity of current mainstream politics is driving more and more people to consider alternative ideas and value systems. The side effect to this new thinking is that some people will inevitably be attracted to many ideas that are perceived by the supporters of the status quo as extreme. These views may emanate from the right, the left or from the growing current of Islamic political thought. It is clear that this mode of thinking is itself positive—whether or not one disagrees with the proposed idea—as it forces people to decide what views they want to hold, rather than to adopt by rote the liberal consensus view contained within society. Although this type of thinking may be considered healthy, there are, inevitably, severe repercussions which will arise. For example, owing to the political establishment’s torpid superintendence of current policies, some people are more likely to become much more susceptible in the longer term to a more crude, simplistic and narrow political mindset, as the BNP‘s 750,000 votes have shown in the last set of elections. As one contributor stated in 2002: “The managers of archaic ideological conflicts have been astonished by the speed at which their known and comfortable positions have been overtaken. Conservatives—and that means all ‘mainstream’ political parties—have a vested interest in prolonging familiar antagonisms, however exhausted and played-out these may be. Indeed, these are only the palest shadow of the original social forces once pitted against each other, overtaken now by fatigue, habit and of course their favourite causal explanation, ‘apathy’. Apathy is no such thing. It is the sullen silence that covers growing popular disaffection from the ‘depoliticized’ politics of the perpetual centre; beneath it, deeper political divisions are striving to find expression.”
The growth in far right parties is not just happening in the UK, but has already occurred on a bigger scale in France where the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the socialists into third place in the last presidential election. Far right parties have also enjoyed considerable advances in Holland, Denmark and Austria in recent years. The inexorable growth in nationalist, patriotic, and xenophobic sentiment will lead to a degeneration of intellectual and political thinking among some within society, as values and ideas lose out to reactionary factors like race, religion, and colour. Although Tito’s Yugoslavia was far from perfect, the ideological bonds of socialism proved at least sufficiently robust to bind the various nationalities together within the republic. Once the bonds of communism became diluted because of its inherent flaws, and nationalism rose to the fore, the country split asunder into its constituent races. Though no such parallel event is on the immediate horizon in western Europe, the growth in anti-Semitism, the increasing attacks against Muslims, the constant attacks on asylum seekers, and the still endemic racism all inevitably leads to a more nationalistic, fragmented and polarised society. Regardless of the views of the far right, it is clear that currently their support in society far exceeds their electoral support. Consequently it would be a mistake to view this section of society who didn’t vote as being apathetic, in fact there is a fervour and conviction in many of their views which is the complete antithesis of apathy.
The real apathy which forces people in society to no longer concern themselves with political affairs or what is beneficial for the collective good remains a big problem. Apathy here is driven by one’s own self-absorption and individual self-interest. No one on any side of the ideological spectrum—irrespective of their political views being Islamic or capitalist—benefits from a society where cynicism, apathy and extreme individualism are the modern day currency of political life. For any serious ideological discussion to take place, it requires a society that is aware of its heritage and which contemplates its political future. If one wants new ideas to flourish or old ones to be reinvigorated, new horizons to be reached or past glories to be regained, new values to be instilled or old ones refreshed, this requires a society that is politically, intellectually, and emotionally tuned in—not the apathetic situation we currently witness. The power of thought, the desire to progress, and the obligation to our future generations to provide an appropriate intellectual legacy are fundamental aspects in advanced societies and should always be protected.
Further assessment of the causes of voluntary disenfranchisement needs to be undertaken, as the implications are too severe to ignore. Solutions to the problem of voter commitment have so-far been confined, sadly, to enhancing the ease of voting such as the recent postal voting pilots in the May local elections. SMS and internet voting as well as weekend and supermarket voting have also been suggested as ways of increasing voter participation. These propositions may well assist in procuring additional voter turnout, but these attempts will be cosmetic in nature at-best and do not fundamentally address the underlying causes of voter apathy. Indeed, if these changes were successful they may reveal the uncomfortable truth about people’s current priorities and level of political commitment. There is an irony, surely not lost on anyone, about going to war in Iraq—supposedly to bring elected governments to the Middle East—while one’s own citizens consider a visit to the polling booth every four years to be more burdensome than a daily visit to the pub. Many people still see the solution to apathy as an urgent and renewed focus on voting, citizenship and participation but it is doubtful that those who have become truly apathetic will return to the fold merely because they can vote while buying a carton of milk. A strategy that merely focuses on more participation in the system, which may itself be contributing to electoral fragmentation in the first place, will inevitably generate the wrong conclusions. Do some more questions need to be asked?
Firstly, does the emphasis on the concepts of individualism, utilitarianism (with a wholly individualistic slant—naturally), and self-absorption within western societies have an adverse effect on increasing political discourse and communal activism? Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez writing in response to the book ‘Good Society’ believe there is a link between individualism and apathy:
“A ruthless individualism, expressed primarily through a market mentality, has invaded every sphere of our lives, undermining those institutions, such as the family or the university, that have traditionally functioned as foci of collective purposes, history, and culture. This lack of common purpose and concern for the common good bodes ill for a people claiming to be a democracy. Caught up in our private pursuits, we allow the workings of our major institutions—the economy and government—to go on ‘over our heads’.”
Secondly, does the obsession of the tabloids and of television with popular culture, parochialism, and ‘celebrityism’ suck oxygen out of the atmosphere that is required for vibrant and serious political debate? Are people’s priorities in the short term really congruent with the long-term goals of producing politically mature and informed societies? Are people now more interested in the Big Brother on their television sets than the possible development of Big Brother in society?
Thirdly, is the lack of moral and political leadership demonstrated by leading politicians symptomatic of a greater machiavellian streak that runs through the heart of western politics? Is this machiavellian streak a significant cause behind the gulf in trust between politicians and their electorates? Do people even recognise themselves or issues that they are concerned about in the feeble political debate led by politicians?
Fourthly, does the role and influence of finance and vested interests within capitalist political systems irreversibly erode the Lockean relationship, as Mark Clack (deputy director of the US electoral reform group, Public Campaign) alludes to when he states: “Money, not votes, is the primary currency in our democracy.”
Fifthly, is the situation in America sustainable where 90% of households whose income is $75,000 or more do tend to cast their ballots, yet only half of those on incomes of less than $15,000 do likewise? Is the danger of a two tier electoral system, one for the well off and one for the poor now becoming a real possibility?
Lastly, is the media’s focus on sound bites, finding fault, and avoiding complexity, really conducive to fostering an informative political conversation in society. Is there sufficient amount of column inches and television airtime to ferment a serious news and political debate, or do competing commercial tensions now pose too much of a constraint? Do politicians actually want to debate the substantive issues any more? What do we make of Bob Herbert’s statement in a New York Times Op Ed recently when he said: “Unfortunately, we’ve become a society addicted to the fantasy of a quick fix. We want our solutions encompassed in a sound bite. We want our leaders to manipulate reality to our liking… It may well be that candidates can’t tell voters the truth and still win. If that’s so, then democracy American-style may be a lot more dysfunctional than even the last four years has indicated.”
Not cauterising the problem of apathy, could lead to a crisis of credibility and legitimacy within western politics over time—If such a situation has not arrived already. Consent, the very foundation of western politics has, through apathy and the adoption of alternative societal ideas, become diluted and increasingly opaque. The refusal to give consent within a representative democratic system in essence undermines the very foundation of the fundamental contract between the governed and the government. Tony Blair echoed the Lockean principle when he said in 1997: “We are not the masters. The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people… What the electorate gives, the electorate can take away.”
However, the electorate has in recent times stayed away and voted with their feet. Western states, even in their current weakened position, cannot be equated to dictatorships, since within the latter consent is not even sought and popular will is crushed. The substantive point remains that the democratic form of government lacks popular enthusiasm and consent. Debates about nationality and identity are growing at a local and global level along with the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement in some quarters. The rise of Islamic political thought and the return of ultra nationalism to the agenda of the major political parties in Britain all set the stage for a powerful conflict of ideas. This is set to challenge the tired status quo of the entrenched politics of the British centre parties and requires a high level of political maturity. In that sense, people of all ideological persuasions have an obligation to resolve urgently the current unsatisfactory political formulation that strangles current debate and leads to a dangerously perverse apathy.
1Livingstone, Ken ‘If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it’ (title of book Collins 1987)
2Locke, John ‘Second Treatise of Civil Government’ (1690) ch. 8,sect. 95
3Curtice, John ‘Progress Magazine Jan/Feb 2003′
6Kwasniewski , Aleksander President of Poland described his country’s apathy as “a disease we will have to look at”. BBC website 14 June 2004 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3804803.stm
7Seabrook, Jeremy ‘The shock of the obvious’ New Internationalist Magazine 26 April 2002
8The Good Society, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991).
9Andre, Claire & Velasquez, Manuel ‘Creating the good society’ Issues in Ethics – V. 5, N. 1 Spring 1992
10Aslam, Abid “US Election: Inequality Stalks the Polling Station”, 6 July 2004 Inter Press Service
12Herbert, Bob Op Ed New York Times 2 August 2004
13Blair, Anthony addressing Labour MP’s 7th May 1997 reported in the Guardian 8 May 1997