15 June 2008

Apathy is the main Enemy of Democracy

A well-known proverb states that "every country has the government it deserves". The deeper meaning is that if the people would want to have a different political system or government, they could demand it and see it through. Free nations - like the Irish and the people of most western countries - have in regular intervals the opportunity to vote and thus elect those who will govern them for the next few years. This is, compared with the situation in centuries past, an important development, a great step forward and one for which previous generations fought long and hard. Many of our ancestors paid their desire for freedom and human and political rights with their life.

It is therefore sad and disappointing when I meet people who have "no interest in politics" and who subsequently also not bother to vote in democratic elections and referenda. Many of them are not even aware how much this ignorance and apathy damages them and their future, as well as the future of us all.
Imagine you are playing Football or Cricket, and half of your team never turns up, or just stands idle on the field without taking any part in the game. You would be annoyed, of course, and you would most likely lose every match you attempt to play. Sooner or later you would get rid of the idle idiots and replace them with active people.

Unfortunately we don't have the same option when it comes to a country and its citizens. If only 50% participate in elections and other elements of the political and socio-economic process, we cannot expel the inactive rest from the country. Sometimes I wish we could. But a free society includes also the freedom to be idle, ignorant or lazy. Neither is a crime. If it were, at least a third of every country's population would be permanently in jail.

In some countries - for example Australia and Belgium - voting is compulsory and those who do not cast their vote in an election are fined severely. While the majority of countries do not go that far, there are valid arguments for compulsory voting, seeing it as one of the duties a citizen has to his country and community.

There are political systems where the active participation of individual citizens is not required and even discouraged. One finds this in countries ruled by a dictator or a military junta, but also in monarchies and aristocracies, and most drastically in theocracies.
A democracy, however, requires democrats, people who actively participate in the political and socio-economic process. Without them and their regular involvement a democracy is impossible.
Which means that most of the western countries that regard themselves as "democratic" are in fact no real democracies. The Greek word demos is often translated as "people", but it is in fact more precise and means "the common people".
What we have at present in most "democratic" countries is at best a representative democracy, usually with a parliamentary system or - like in France and the USA - a presidential republic, modeled closely on the example of the ancient Roman Republic.

They are dominated by an elite class of professional politicians, administrators and civil servants who have very little contact and very little in common with the "common people". The latter are asked to vote in regular intervals (usually every four or five years) for representatives of various political parties, but that is where their participation in the political process ends.

In ancient Athens, the cradle of true democracy, this was not the case. There every citizen was actively involved, attended the public meetings and debates, and then voted on the proposals put before the demos, the assembly of all (free male) citizens (which numbered about 10,000 in the ancient city state of Athens).
There are almost no examples of true democracy in existence today. The only modern state that comes close is Switzerland, where every law or major political decision has to be approved by the people in a referendum. The tiny republic of San Marino (entirely surrounded by Italy) is also governed in a truly democratic fashion. Among the representative democracies of the West the Republic of Ireland is the only state with regular referenda on changes to the Constitution and other major political matters. This makes Ireland more democratic than other countries, even though the system of government is parliamentary.

It is quite obvious that over the past century the parliaments of the western nations have been turned into exclusive clubs of the powerful. They have their own special rules and perks, which no-one else in the country enjoys. Subsequently the rift between those who govern and the vast majority of the governed has become wider and wider, to an extent that they speak almost different languages (even when using English), have totally different lives and live in completely different worlds. Members of Parliament (in Ireland called deputies or TDs) have become a new kind of aristocratic (in the original meaning of the word) elite, and most of the western countries are now more aristocratic (ruled by the "best") than democratic.

There is very little education in matters political provided to our children. Most schools stay out of any serious debate and try to please everyone equally without taking a position. Unless a child is lucky and born to politically active parents, there is no real provision for its preparation to become a good and proper citizen. In fact, the present education system is not geared to produce active and responsible citizens at all. It turns children into docile, ignorant and uncritical customers of goods and services, for whom consuming, spending money and "having fun" (whatever that really means) has priority over everything else.
The fact that more Irish people voted in May in the Eurovision song contest than in June in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty speaks for itself.

Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that the turnout for the referendum last Thursday was a lot higher that it has been in previous Irish referenda for more than a decade. People were very concerned and felt stronger than ever that "something needs to be done" to stop our politicians from selling out the country's remaining democratic rights (for which the Irish fought over 750 years, with many giving their lives for the cause).

But still almost half of those who have the right to vote decided to abstain. This is a general trend in recent decades, not only in Ireland, but throughout the whole western world. In the short term this might actually suit some politicians and parties, but long-term such a large proportion of non-participating people is a serious danger for our freedom and political system. In history Ireland was several times lost to invading forces, mainly because her leaders did not combine their strength for a proper defence. We see the same happening again in our modern times, with almost half of our population remaining (mostly voluntarily) outside the political process and thus weakening the nation.

Since the referendum result was announced on Friday afternoon, many politicians are wondering why they did not get their message across and why almost half of the Irish electorate registered a double NO by complete abstention.

The answers should not be too difficult to find, since they are clear to me and other analysts. The ever ongoing alienation between politicians and the people, including the massive pay-rise for the Taoiseach and his ministers Bertie Ahern introduced shortly after the last election, is certainly one. The arrogance of politicians who think they know everything better, and the idea that they can bully the population into submission with empty threats is a second.
It does also not help if a politician is completely ignorant. (The fact that Brian Cowen and Charlie McCreevy had to admit in public that they had not read the treaty which they advised people to vote for was certainly a contributing element to their defeat.)

The most important point, however, is the lack of political and social awareness in the general population. This can only be changed with proper education of young people, augmented with a series of independent information campaigns, aimed at the ignorant and apathetic parts of the adult population.
The National Forum on Europe, which has done a great job in the months before the referendum, would be the right body to provide information on and increase awareness of Europe and the EU institutions. On national matters a similar forum, comprising members of all parties as well as relevant groups and organisations, should be formed.

There is a solution for every problem, but the first step on the way to a solution is the recognition and clear identification of the problem. Let us hope that our politicians still have two eyes, two ears, a working brain and enough common sense to lead the country out of its lethargic attitude.

The Emerald Islander

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