An extract from “The Knowledge Solution: Politics”
In this extract from The Knowledge Solution: Politics, Michelle Grattan considers the paradox of our modern democracy. Read the entire extract over at The Conversation AU.
It is a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction.
In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well educated and prosperous. In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate — or should. So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability. Today’s plethora of opinion polls ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.
Yet much of what should facilitate a smooth-running, engaged political system has helped corrode it. In politics, as in other aspects of life, abundance can be good but excess is often harmful. You can end up with too much of everything, and I think that’s what we’ve got in politics today.
We’re lumbered with what has been dubbed the continuous campaign, and that means, as Hugh Heclo, who was an academic expert on US democratic institutions, wrote in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s The Permanent Campaign and its Future: “[e]very day is election day”.
The leaders never hang up their high-vis vests. This is debilitating for decision-making because, as Heclo notes, there is a difference between “campaigning” and “governing” — and it is exhausting for the public.
Leaders always have to strike a balance between the time they spend with their feet under the desk and the days their boots are on the road, but things seem out of kilter. The permanent campaign encourages short-termism and puts the focus on the immediate media grab and headlines. It fans the politics of negativity, accentuates the adversarial and makes for hyper-partisanship. And it stretches the patience and concentration of voters.
The modern 24-hour news cycle both enables and fosters the permanent campaign, providing platform and spur. Political leaders have given up previous aspirational talk about “not feeding the media beast”. Tony Abbott tried that (for a nano-second) and it did not work too well. Now they argue that if they leave a gap, their opponents will fill the vacuum. Seeing so much of their politicians close up (and often too personal for comfort) has alienated voters, rather than made them to want to involve themselves in the political process.
The ability always to command attention, when there is so much airtime available, also helps small players turn themselves into minor political celebrities. It’s a sign of the times that as voters have increasingly looked to minor parties, these often come with a personal branding. They have been based around individuals, whose names they have taken — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team (subsequently the Centre Alliance), the (now collapsed) Palmer United Party, the Jacqui Lambie Network. “Name” parties fit this age of celebrity. If they had been born in today’s world, the Australian Democrats might have been “The Don Chipp Party”, after their early leading light (and conveniently shortened to “Don’s Party”).
Far from providing a sophisticated channel of community feedback, constant polling has come to be a whip hand over leaders, especially if they are going through a difficult period. This can restrict their room to breathe — that is, to lead — and it is made for the media’s “horse race” coverage of politics.