Our democracy’s greatest threat – our disillusionment

It has been boasted of as the biggest democratic event in the history of mankind. Half the world – at least – is going to the polls over these two months to elect local government assemblies, national assemblies, international assemblies, or heads of states.

All the countries in the European Union are heading into elections on the 23rd of next month to elect a new European Parliament. In many of them elections for local assemblies are also taking place. Why does this civic right and duty, which should be an inspiring, hope-filled and uplifting experience, induce such a distasteful feeling and even disgust in our hearts?

As those of us living in Dublin, Ireland, made our way to work yesterday through streets which overnight were festooned with banks of posters pinned to streetlamps, our hearts sank.  A myriad of smiling and determined faces stared at us from these lampposts, asking us to give them our “number one” vote. Could that sense of disgust, that sense of wanting to look the other way, be in some way connected with the disillusionment of the people of Ireland – I cannot readily speak for other parts of the world – over the past few years which is reflected in opinion poll surveys showing ever decreasing support for the nation’s political establishment. This is a disillusionment bred out of the experience of broken promises, lies and corruption which is what a large section of the Irish electorate now associates with its political parties.

Ireland you are not alone. Across the Irish Sea the same disillusionment is being experienced. Jeremy O’Grady, editor of The Week writes in the current issue:

What a disquieting maxim it is: “honesty is the best policy”. Blam: just like that, a virtue is demoted to a stratagem. Yet even as a stratagem, few of our politicians seem to have much faith in it. They act as if dishonesty always has a better pay-off.

He is loath to accept that they’re devoted to telling lies. However, the Daily Telegraph columnist, Peter Oborne is less shy about pointing the finger in this direction. Oborne maintains that in Britain, since the time of John Major’s premiership, lies and politicians have been constant bedfellows. Oborne has written a book on the subject, The Rise of Political Lying, in which he says “mendacity and deception” have become the norm, adding that British politics “now lives in a post-truth environment”.

O’Grady, while clearly not liking the politicians edging away from virtue, faults them on simple pragmatic grounds. This isn’t just unvirtuous: it’s a strategic error. So move over Machiavelli. I believe honesty does pay. I honestly do.

But is there any hope of Aristotle – or even Plato – replacing Machiavelli? Not much, unless the voters of the world look all these smiling and determined faces and ask them to make themselves accountable to the Truth with their deeds, not pretending to do so behind a veil of false promises. Our feelings of hopelessness in the face of their past deceit and hypocrisy is the first thing they have to address before they begin to make new promises about what they are going to do in the future. Only then will we have any chance of being able to walk out into our streets and not be reminded, with every few yards we travel, of sad betrayals of misplaced trust.

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