Why is our faith in democratic politics collapsing?

Democratic Satisfaction

Q: How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Australia?


With democracy now serving the interests of the 1%, the public are disenchanted and finally sending the elites packing – courtesy of the Brexit vote and the (relative) popularity of Donald Trump and in Australia the rising vote of minor parties. That’s the narrative anyway, as supported for instance by Moz in a recent comment in the thread on elite tribalism:

1he problem we have is capture of the political system by an apparently unreachable elite whose interests the democracy serves.

I think this is pretty much wrong. This is a democracy. If there are systematic problems with it – and there are – the buck stops with us. We decide who gets the top office. We decided to vote for John Howard when he told us  that reffos were chucking their kids into the sea for a great photo-op. We voted for Paul Keating when he told us that the GST was vital to our economic interests when he was peddling it, and that it was a monster tax designed to cripple working Australians a few years later when his opponent was.

Certainly the public says that its interests are being ignored and of course the elites do give their own perspectives and interests disproportionate attention. But is this particularly worse than it ever was? Schools, hospitals, dole payments, garbage services all run as efficiently as they have in the past. In principle they could probably be run a little better. But politicians probably don’t know how to do much better and in so far as the public vote for such things, they’ll often vote for the wrong things – like smaller class sizes and keeping smaller, lower quality, regional hospitals open.

What wishes of ‘the people’, exactly are being ignored?

You can say that inequality has grown. Certainly in the US it has, and some of it has been driven by aggressive tax cuts for the wealthy and ingrained crony capitalism, particularly in the ‘asymmetric information economy’ – America’s bloated health and finance sectors. In Australia it’s much less clear and to the extent that it’s the case, it’s been driven largely by market outcomes, with policy leaning against the wind, beginning with the world’s most targeted tax and transfer system and then strengthening it over the ‘reform period’ from 1983 to 2001 and probably since.

It’s easy to see why we fall for a narrative that our politicians have let us down. It sentimentalises us by demonising them. I think what’s happening is this: Political combat is in words (by definition) and the culture of modern democratic politics requires those words to have a particular (dumbed down) form and implicit emotional content. The form is concrete – and very basically so at that. Don’t promise a more efficient electricity market. Promise to put a lid on electricity prices. The emotional content is the assertion by the politician that they’re really motivated by service to us – and it must be delivered  with sincerity. Politicians follow this formula to succeed in winning our votes, but expressing oneself like this is disingenuous and, as the deals pile up, is rapidly exposed as such. Apart from the disingenuous style of speech, this situation leads almost immediately to endless contradictions between words used in political combat and the words and deeds coming afterwards with which they must be reconciled.


Here’s a very simplified, model of the way I  think the world works. It’s worked up a little from Schumpeter’s ideas.

The world of markets is characterised by:

  • ‘is’ questions (What’s the price of bread and which is best – tasting, nutritionally etc?)
  • matters of which people have some practical experience
  • prudence in the pursuit of self-interest
  • the exercise of reason to make choices. (Though that reason may be very summary and informal).

The world of political action on the other hand is characterised by:

  • ‘ought’ questions (Should we reintroduce capital punishment? Should we leave the GST at 10%?)
  • matters where abstract reasoning is usually necessary to appreciate the merits of alternative possibilities
  • self-interest may or may not dominate motives for engagement, but the discourse is one directed to the persuasion of others and so other regarding language and thinking is heavily represented.
  • Affect and expression (rather than reason) have a large influence on both the extent and the nature of individuals political engagement.

Tim Harford documents a similar point:

Dan Kahan is a Yale law professor who studies the way we debate controversial political issues such as climate change and gun control. He points out that our reasoning about such issues is often bound up with passionately held emotions and values. For example, people who oppose government regulations are often instinctively sceptical about climate change, fearing that it is a Trojan horse for state control; alternatively, people who distrust large corporations instinctively embrace the scientific evidence on climate change, yet tend to dismiss scientists who say that genetically-modified food is safe.

Modern democratic institutions reflect some awareness of these issues. Thus the dominant value in the bureaucracy is reason (don’t laugh – I’m referring to bureaucracy’s ‘self-talk’ – the standards of persuasion within legitimate discourse) whereas the language of politics is about justice and right. This is a good division of labour with the bureaucracy holding fast to ‘is’ kinds of questions “if you do this then that will happen” with the political layer on top dealing with the ‘ought’.

Schumpeter likens political campaigning to”the ways of commercial advertising”:

We find the same attempts to contact the subconscious … the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are … the same evasions and reticences and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people. 2

So for me this is the basic template of modern democracy though we can add 70 years of cultural and technological evolution – an eon at the pace set by modern liberal capitalism where the relentless forces of competition melt all that is solid into air. Indeed, Schumpeter’s analysis of politics as a ‘market’ with purchasers being the voters and providers being the politicians – a radical thought at the time and one made principally for the sake of analysis – has arguably become the way voters see democracy. In many ways voters see themselves as the consumers of a product and they’re not happy with the product. (The ‘complaints’ department just waste your time, so you have to go to another store, but you know in advance that you’re just letting off some steam. The new store will treat you in the same way.)


As politicians compete for the consent of the governed, they ply their media management and modern marketing methods. The first rule is keep your claims and promises concrete rather than abstract. Simon Wren Lewis explains:

Suppose we had a referendum on taxes. A simple question: should taxes be reduced or not? Polling evidence suggests that the resounding answer would be yes. But polling evidence also suggests that most voters would also say yes to more money for schools and the NHS. They might also say yes to reducing the deficit. Referenda do not need to respect constraints, which in this case is a simple budget constraint.

In fact political promises have occasionally been made in an abstract form. Inspired (I think) by Ross Garnaut, around 1984-5 Bob Hawke offered his ‘trilogy‘ of commitments including the commitment not to increase the tax take as a share of GDP. But that doesn’t get anyone’s blood racing and so doesn’t travel through the media-tainment complex as well as “Read my lips – no new taxes” or “Axe the tax”. Likewise in the election just past the ALP stuck its head in the lion’s jaws again with its promise to return the budget to surplus by a specific year, when, as we saw in the ALP years, that ends up getting us to the worst of all worlds – bad policy making for bad politics.

You can blame ‘the media’ for all this, but it’s just responding to the nature of human cognition and motivation – as outlined in my four points above. Given our natures, we trained the media with our reading, watching, listening and clicking. We could complain about the parties not presenting all their policies at the beginning of the campaign so they can be debated throughout the campaign as used to occur. But any party doing that would sorely cruel its news coverage. And some savvy journalist would write articles full of contempt for the relevant party’s lousy media (manipulation) skills.

On top of these tensions between the manner by which abstract policy ideas are presented as concrete ones, in following the rules of marketing and media management, political discourse invites its audience deceive itself in a thousand small ways. Sound bites are tested on focus groups and then used in battle. And the deception begins right there. But it goes on and on. The need for authenticity and sincerity requires politicians to present the positions to which they’re committed by party loyalty as their own personal commitments.

In the face of all this, the media then goes into a dumbed down ‘watchdog’ mode, exposing contradictions, a process which traps the discourse ever more tightly into ‘gotcha’ scripting. And this in turn intensifies the problems. Politicians wriggle from the ‘gotcha’ questions trying not to make ‘concessions’ because if they do, the concessions become the story. Can you guarantee that no Australian will be taxed more under your government? The correct political answer here is ‘yes’ or better still a confident sounding emphatic ‘yes(ish)’ answer which offers some wriggle room (though sometimes the journalist will press on insisting on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.) In fact the actual answer is ‘”No, I haven’t stopped beating my wife”. If you answer “no” and explain that you don’t propose to freeze the entire tax code, then expect trouble – like Gareth Evans for doing just that in around 1998. The headline? (From memory) “Gareth Gaffe”.

Indeed, this whole thing can be made up for you. As it was for Stephen Conroy when he was asked how Labor would pay for an initiative. He responded unremarkably, that, like all initiatives, it could be funded either by diverting funds from other programs, or by raising taxes. Conroy’s Opposition then beat that up into a story about Labor’s “secret tax agenda”. They were of course just doing their job – and nothing that Conroy wouldn’t have done in their position. And then it gained ‘traction’ (what a marvellously revealing word about the linguistic bog the medium for politics has become) because the media were just doing their job on what was presumably a slow news day – just reporting what he said and she said.


So I think much of the disenchantment with modern politics comes from the endless contradictions between words as they must be spoken in campaigning and political combat and the subsequent words and deeds with which they must be reconciled. The recent brouhaha over Sam Dastyari offers a timely illustration. Sam gets up to some unappetising behaviour. He’s naïve enough to post it on his declaration of interests and then the issue gains ‘traction’. Then a week goes by in which each side rolls out its representatives to spin their side. George Brandis uses his position as Attorney General to make dark (but indefensible) comments about possible illegality. So his shadow – Mark Dreyfus who appears to be a person of considerable integrity – takes the opportunity to demonstrate he’s a team player by defending, or be seen to defend, Dastyari. He’s presumably hating being associated with behaviour that he thinks is deplorable, but that’s the gig.

None of those reporting on the matter do so from any other perspective than one of expediency. Has Brandis got away with his innuendo or has he gone ‘too far’ (ie too far to get away with it)? Did Dreyfus look convincing? Here an ethical matter important enough to determine the fate of a political career is debated by people all of whose publicly expressed views are governed entirely by which party they’re in, rather than by the merits of the case and reported on by journalists similarly careless of the merits of the case. After Dastyari resigned, we went into another brief flurry. The Government said how badly this reflected on Shorten and the Opposition said Sam had “done the right thing” (that is resign for doing the wrong thing) and we now needed to “move on”. As we could say for every single person commenting on the issue since it arose, they would say that wouldn’t they?

And of course all this is bog-standard business-as-usual and has been for some time. As I put it in another essay a while back talking about the last days of the Howard Government:

With the recent AWB scandal leaving the Government’s distain for … ministerial responsibility fresh in the mind, the Minister for Environment got tangled up in the Government’s attack on Kevin Rudd. With the Government in high dudgeon about Rudd meeting persona non grata Brian Burke, the Minister turned out to have done the same thing quite appropriately in his ministerial duties. At this point the principles of Westminster Government appeared, like some digitised folkloric creature in a Harry Potter movie with nothing but its uncanny weightlessness to give away its essential unreality. The minister resigned. His Prime Minister said he’d done nothing morally wrong. Others in his party said that in resigning he’d done the right thing. The minister, smiling and magnanimous, was transparent about his party’s motivation – which was to clear the decks for intensified attacks on the Opposition Leader. And so the once grave principle of ministerial responsibility reasserted itself one last time under Howard, this time transformed into an ironic simulacrum of its former self – a walk-on walk-off cameo, the tactical feint du jour in the news cycle.


As the philosopher Harry Frankfurter explained, the difference between lying and bullshit is that the liar cares for the truth – if only to enable him to deceive. The bullshitter is indifferent to the truth. Bullshit generates plausibility without content. That’s its purpose. And something similar is going on here. Hypocrisy, it is said, is a tribute vice pays to virtue. But in today’s kind of politics, there’s no virtue, only the hypocrisy of the endless musical chairs in which politicians rotate roles to defend (or attack) the indefensible – or to attack (or defend) the eminently defensible. We’re all aware of people talking their own book, but when they’re doing so there’s some point in trying to catch them out – as one might a liar. But what’s the point of doing this when everyone’s working to the same bullshit script. There’s no ‘there’ there!

We look on and see the vacuity of it all. But politics is at heart an ethical practice and debates about the limits of acceptable conduct go to the heart of political culture. This isn’t a call for politicians to be goodie-goodies. In debates about the conduct of a politician, opinions will often divide down party lines. But politics is a fight for the good life as one sees it. And whether you’re Richard Nixon or Abraham Lincoln, the currency of political action generally involves trading off ends and means. I think Paul Keating meant something like this when he said that, in politics, you’ve got to know when to “nick through the fence”.

But not only does the ‘gotcha’ culture of political reporting encourage a completely naïve view of these trade-offs – in which politics becomes to serious ethical debate what panto is to drama. It forces the combatants into such simple reflex spinning for their own side on the issue du jour that after they get over any early career revulsion, their sensibilities as to what ends might justify what means and what might not, must surely become pretty debauched. I know they would if I were trying to play that game. I guess there’s still the private corridors of power where they can share what misgivings they have and perhaps even reach across the isle in solidarity. Has there ever been a time in which politicians’ public views on what does and does not constitute conduct unbecoming so lacked all conviction?

I could have focused here on the ultimate content of politics – policy rather than its ‘manners’. Isn’t that more important? Perhaps it is – though its manners are its operating system as a means of deliberation, legitimation and accountability. But to some extent people ‘get’ the distinction. (As the chart below shows, most Australians think politics is corrupt as a practice in the sense that I’ve portrayed it, but far fewer think Australian politicians are corrupt as in taking bribes.)

But then the things that are going wrong with national decisions of grave consequence are driven by the kind of corrosion of meaning I’m talking about. Probably the most important thing the incoming government did was to abolish carbon pricing and replace it with subsidies to emitters to reduce their emissions (you know the way in which, in a drought we lower water consumption not by penalising overconsumption, but by subsidising the biggest water consumers to lower their consumption?) That was a policy to get through a media interview, not several terms in government. So we have a decision made by the Parliament that a vast majority of members would have known was bad policy and which wasn’t in the interests of any major block of political power. You can say it was driven by business, but only a small minority of business interests stood to gain – really only coal and trade exposed energy intensive producers.  Political systems are supposed to protect us from that kind of madness.

Today in the US Donald Trump’s entire platform looks like that – and it keeps changing – which is fair enough since to require it to be consistent through time is to misunderstand the nature of what it was in the first place. It’s some policy bullshit tacked onto the feeling The Donald is selling. One of the roles of elites was to protect us from this kind of derangement. Indeed in the 19th century anti-democrats warned us against democracy because they feared the people might not heed the warnings of the elite – might go their own way. Well it took a while, but now the political elite market right into the public’s weaknesses. And we need, we desperately need, to work out how we can protect ourselves from it.

How common are political phenomena

Q: Please indicate how common you feel the following activities are in Australian politics today.



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  2. Who knew advertising had so embraced the irrational by 1943?[]
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paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago

what an effort! Thanks, Nick.

I think about these things more in cycles. Elites loose legitimacy because we dont pay attention, want bullshit, get bullshit, reap corrupt politicians (who DO take bribes in terms of the revolving door), and gradually loose our faith in the language and media embedding surrounding politics. New parties and new-looking ideologies come up, initially looking like crazy but over time simply becoming the new norm. Old elite is swept away, though in its spasms choosing its own successor to salvage most of its ill-gotten gains. And the cycle starts anew, with a population that pays more attention and systems revamped for the more modern age.

Where I think Australia is now in the cycle is the loss of legitimacy phase. We still have a long way to go before the crisis, I think: the two dominant parties still expect to rule the roost and the vultures are still feasting (PPPs in schools and hospitals? How much lower can we sink, I wonder?). Now is the time to dream about improvements for the system and how to adapt to new technology and life-styles. Part of the job of economists is to point out the corruption of the politicians.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
7 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

Hi Paul

“Complex human societies, including our own, are fragile. They are held together by an invisible web of mutual trust and social cooperation. This web can fray easily, resulting in a wave of political instability, internal conflict and, sometimes, outright social collapse.

Analysis of past societies shows that these destabilizing historical trends develop slowly, last many decades, and are slow to subside. The Roman Empire, Imperial China and medieval and early-modern England and France suffered such cycles, to cite a few examples. In the U.S., the last long period of instability began in the 1850s and lasted through the Gilded Age and the “violent 1910s.”

We now see the same forces in the contemporary U.S. Of about 30 detailed indicators I developed for tracing these historical cycles (reflecting popular well-being, inequality, social cooperation and its inverse, polarization and conflict), almost all have been moving in the wrong direction in the last three decades.”

So writes one of my favourite bloggers Peter Turchin. The text is from this page


on his site which is only one of many wonderfully thought out explanations about inequality and elites in the context of how our culture evolves. Well worth reading if you are into dreaming these days.

Don’t take any notice of his enthusiasm for the paleo-diet though. We all of us have quirks that make us individuals. :)

Check out the page I linked to. The link to the Bloomberg article is too old and doesn’t work but the list of other blogs – with comments – that are relevant to and supportive of his general thesis about inequality and elites, do work.

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  Julie Thomas

Hi Julia,

thanks for the links. As luck would have it, I am writing a small booklet with Cameron Murray on exactly this issue and we quote Peter in various places, usually in total agreement.

I do think the cycles are a bit quicker now. The spread of unrest and the ability to formulate counter-theories has speeded up due to modern communication, I think. And the waves are somewhat less violent, it would seem.

As Nick points out, we are a democracy and its basic functioning is in rude health, giving a very obvious legitimate mechanism for change. That should make things quicker too.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago

Thanks for the considered response, Nick. Much to think about, but on the whole I think I agree with much of your description of the problem, just not with the analysis you wrap round it.

This is a democracy. If there are systematic problems with it – and there are – the buck stops with us. We decide…

I think you start with that faulty premise, then go on to explain how and why it’s faulty.

It’s some policy bullshit tacked onto the feeling The Donald is selling. Elites used to protect us from this kind of derangement

So “we decide” based on a contest to see who is better at manipulating our votes. Wait, what? How can you say “we decide” when that’s the question? (or at least, it’s my paraphrasing of your description of the situation). It’s all very well for me to say that if we gave people better options they’d vote for them, but you seem to be saying that they wouldn’t because it’s not about better options, it’s about helping voters feel better/less bad.

More thinking required from me.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago

Also, I’m finding David Brin’s rants about inequality quite informative. His points about rent-seeking distorting the system seem well founded, and he’s a big fan of references.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I suspect they leapt out at me, hence quoting them. I’m happy with you editing your essay and quotes to tone it down a bit (and remove this comment while you’re there, too).

we’re all part of a system and all capable of playing the game

That seems to me obviously not true. It’s part of the big fairy story that we’re all equal when that position is normally used as a strawman. The theory behind representative government is that it’s not true, and that by selecting representatives we will get better-than-average members of parliament (at playing whatever game “getting elected” happens to be on the day). Otherwise random selection would be better, simply because it’s faster and more definite.

Meritocracy relies on that not being true, as well, and in fact it’s arguably at the core of the idea. Finding the best means recognising that we’re not “all capable of playing the game” and choosing those of us who are.

Ken Parish
7 years ago

There seems to be a logical contradiction between on the one hand condemning “an apparently unreachable elite whose interests the democracy serves” and on the other hand denying that we are “all capable of playing the game”. Presumably you think it is possible by some unexplained process to select a benevolent elite which will “play the game” on behalf of the less capable, in place of the current self-interested elite. But how is this benevolent elite identified? How is it selected? By whom? Who designates the people who aren’t capable of playing the game?

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago

Ken and Nick, at the most basic “many people get to vote” then yes, almost everyone is capable of voting (and I dislike that a great many people are prevented from doing so, not least those under 18 and resident non-citizens… but strangely not those too old)

Ken, my main objection is that our current system for selecting an elite to rule us seems unable to select for benevolence.

My preferred process for selecting representatives in a democratic system is PR, despite the mediocre results in Germany and NZ, and the disaster in Israel (I think the latter is mainly caused by racially limiting the franchise).

Ideally I would like to see a much more participatory democracy within a larger federalist model – extend the anarchist spokescouncil model upward in a representative way (which actually works in practice, despite being as vulnerable as the current system to sabotage as we see in the US federal system). With multiple “centres” getting a grand coalition seems to be common, although that’s possibly influenced by the use of consensus at the bottom level(s).

I suspect based on reading research a while ago (that I’m unable to find because the search terms are so popular) that there is an optimum size for a nation-state, and that 20M people may be too big. IIRC the best functionality was in the 5-15M range, beyond that a federal model works better. It’s fascinating research, and I think should be encouraged. Wikipedia has a functionally useless overview, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimum_population

Chris J Lloyd
Chris J Lloyd
7 years ago

“Ideally I would like to see a much more participatory democracy.” You mean like more plebiscites? ;)

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago

Plebescites are not democracy, they’re an opinion poll. They have the form of democracy (you vote), but not the content (voting has an effect). The effect in this case is to delay the issue and confuse the population.

As soon as they have any actual effect on government we call them referendums instead.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

You can definitely take it too far, for any value of “it”.

Expecting mass participation in bureaucratic minutiae would be one example, yes. Much as the US elected law enforcement and NZ elected hospital boards are cases where the average punter has no hope of having a useful opinion of the merits of the candidates they’re voting for. NZ suffers from low turnout and random voting in those elections as a result.

Having a local council that makes decisions for my community where I can attend meetings or make submissions doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to me. Having that council send a member to parliament to make decisions for the state (however defined) seems like an interesting variation on the three-to-five-layer system we currently use in Australia.

The fact that people don’t currently get involved with their local council 99% of the time is no more relevant than the problem that people vote perhaps one day a year despite being governed more or less continuously. When there’s an issue they care about watch the involvement jump… we’ve had riots at council meetings in Sydney’s inner west recently (specifically about the removal of democracy, even).

I am amused that apparently the Egg Marketing Board is a WA thing established in 1945… and you’re holding it up as an example of a decision best made by elected representatives rather than community members. I wonder how many MPs actually had any idea what they were doing (specifically, what evidence did they have on the effect of their decision, and was that evidence considered relevant?)

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
7 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I think taking democratic deliberation away from campaigning using sortition, could have a big impact.

No disagreement there, I’ve read a number of similar reports. The problem, as the Northern England example shows, is getting the existing political structure to accept the results. As you point out, the governing party gets the credit when things happen, the opposition when things are blocked. My experience in The Greens matches that, and you’ll note that the The Greens are in neither position and struggle to get credit as a result (in NZ it went from “that crazy greenie Sue Bradford’s obsession with smacking” to “your government is pleased to have prevented parents beating their children to death” in a very short time. It seems that only Greens and people who hate the bill remember The Greens being involved).

What I’d like to see is ways to bring that deliberative approach out into public view. Select committees often deliberate in a similar way to citizen’s juries, but we virtually never see them doing it. The closest might be senate estimates hearings, but the media focus there is still on conflict and shouting).

The TV show Q&A does give me some hope that there’s public interest in it, but as with sugar in breakfast cereal the easiest way to get more “buyers” is adding sugar/conflict. vlogs like “Rap News” and “White Man Behind a Desk” also give me hope (and I’m kinda tempted to include Scott Ludlam in that group). Although Cthulu take us all if politicians start trying to be funny.