Friday, November 30, 2018

Democracy, trust, and populism

There's an excellent piece in The Guardian today on why we stopped trusting elites. The short version is that democratic society depends on trust: trust that elected representatives are actually representing us, rather than their donors; trust that officials are telling them what they need to know rather than what they want to hear (or worse, what the officials want them to hear); and trust that the media are doing their jobs and telling us the truth. Corruption and deceit destroy trust. And when enough of it has been destroyed, people stop believing in the system and its representatives entirely. If politicians are just self-serving on-the-take arse-coverers who try to lie their way out of trouble, their spokespeople paid liars, and the media obedient little stenographers for the above, then people stop paying any attention to them. And then anyone who promises to sweep the whole steaming pile away looks like a good bet - even if they drop a few steaming piles themselves (or, in Trump's case, are pathological liars).

In the UK, assorted political and media scandals have doused trust in politicians and institutions in petrol and thrown it on a raging bonfire (I'd throw the betrayal of the Iraq war in as the basis of that bonfire). Globally, Wikileaks, Snowden, the Panama Papers, and the Great Financial Crisis has done the same. In NZ, we had just recovered from the great betrayal of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia (thanks in part to the public revenge of electoral reform) when we were hit by the police rape scandal, The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics and now Hit & Run (Nicky Hager seems to have an eye for finding these things), which have eroded trust in law enforcement, politics, and the defence forces (who really do seem like institutionalised liars). The damage here is nowhere near as great as the UK, probably because we're a small country and our establishment is nowhere near as corrupt and self-serving as theirs. But the seeds are there.

What can be done about this? I'm actually optimistic, in that I think trust can be earned and restored. Governments which behave openly and honestly, which do what they say they are going to do and are responsive to voters will better preserve the credibility of politics. Officials and media can protect their credibility by very obviously doing their jobs: by providing free, frank and fearless advice (and then releasing it, so we know they've done it), and pursuing power and holding it to account respectively. But the key to all of these is transparency: being honest, and being seen to be so. The consent of the governed on which their legitimacy is based is not a one-off thing; it needs to be earned every single day. And the moment our institutions fail to earn it, then we can - and should - take revenge.