Donald Trump did not win the US election. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s an accurate description of what happened in November, 2016. All the politician candidates lost. The prize went, by default, to the one non-politician.
Mimicking ‘the Trump phenomenon’, Emmanuel Macron did not win the French presidential election. The politicians who had, for decades, governed the country, lost.
Mark Rutte’s governing party lost seats in the Dutch parliament to Geert Wilders and other small parties. Matteo Renzi’s governing party lost the 2016 plebiscite to change the Italian constitution. Theresa May’s governing party lost ten seats to minor parties. Malcolm Turnbull’s governing party lost seats to minor parties. As further proof my thesis, Angela Merkel will lose seats next month.
What is it about governing politicians in these democracies that has caused their electorates to vote against them? The French have a word for it, a word which emerged after Mr Macron, although lacking a political party, saw his opponents fall by the wayside – dégagement. ‘Disengagement’.
The driver of a car equipped with manual gears (a rare bird nowadays) knows what happens when you disengage the clutch. There is now no connection between the motor and the wheels. What we are seeing in politics around the democratic world is a disengagement of the engine (the power of the electorate) from the parliamentary wheels which move the country.
If the electorate has, indeed, become disengaged from the politicians, why?
Edmund Burke made it clear to the electors of Bristol that he was not, in parliament, a mere mouthpiece for their views. If they had confidence in him, if they trusted him, then, once elected, he would do his utmost in the best interests of the nation as a whole.
Trust, confidence, faith.
How do today’s electors view our current politicians, whether in government or thrusting to become the next government? Federal members of Parliament ranked 23rd out of 30 professions in a recent Roy Morgan poll. State MPs took 24th place.
Reinforcing the dégagement is the spectre of senior politicians in a number of countries being successfully prosecuted for corruption or other crimes. What happens, in such circumstances, to trust, confidence and faith?
Is it any surprise that, when polls turn into elections, small parties, even small single-issue groups, take away votes from the ‘disengaged’ major parties which have presumed an entitlement to govern?
Aided and abetted by an uncaring, disinterested internet, bereft of moral scruples or ethics, facilitating the spread of ‘fake news’, ‘ false facts’ and anonymous libellous ‘blogs’, many voters now focus, when casting their votes, on “What is best for me?”, rather than “What is best for the country?”
Adding to their moral confusion is the new ‘identity politics’. Not simply the selfishness of “What is best for me?”, but also the selfishness of “What is best for people like me?”
And who, today, are ‘people like me’? Decades ago, Australian politics was torn by Catholic/Protestant rivalry. Today, in our multi-ethnic, multi-coloured, multi-religious and multi-sexual society, this last question has come to the fore. We are identifying ourselves with the narrow group to which we feel we belong (or to which, to be politically correct, we think we should belong), rather than as seeing ourselves as individuals concerned for the wellbeing of the nation as a whole.
Regrettably, many democratic electorates have, when similarly disengaged from their politicians, opted for strong leadership of one sort or another. They want to know that the person in charge actually cares about them. They turn against the democratic process to appoint, sometimes through revolution, a strong leader whom they believe will actually ‘deliver the goods’. However, as GK Chesterton put it:
“The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”
Is the ‘Trump phenomenon’ reversible, and if so, how? How can public confidence be restored to a cadre of men and women who are held in such low esteem by the people who installed them in their powerful positions? Frighteningly, the process might only start with a strong leader prepared to clean out the Augean stables.
But then, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”