Support for mainstream political parties is slumping across Europe. In recent elections in Portugal, anti-austerity political parties of all stripes – socialists, radical leftists and Communists – won over 50% of the vote, triggering a political crisis as the country’s president passed them over to offer the premiership to the centre-right incumbent, Passos Coelho. In the UK, the unlikely victory of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represents a resounding rejection of the orthodox political order, while the motorcycle-riding radical Alexis Tsipras recently cemented his position as Prime Minister of Greece in a second general election in less than nine months.
Since the economic crisis in 2007-2008, trust in the EU, national governments and national legislatives alike has plummeted to record lows (although the latest figures from Eurobarometer suggest that trust in the EU has rebounded slightly to 40%, with trust in national governments still mired at around 30%).
We had a comment sent in from Catherine, who says she doesn’t trust politics because it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the policies always seem to stay the same. Increasingly, it feels like decisions about public spending and debt in particular are being insulated from the democratic process at an international or constitutional level. Is Catherine right to feel so despondent?
To get a response, we recently spoke to Jordi Vaquer, regional director for Europe at the Open Society Foundations and a co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. We asked him generally why he thought people were losing trust in politics, and more specifically what he would say to Catherine. Interestingly, he felt that citizens have many legitimate reasons not to trust politics, given what has happened over the last few decades:
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Carne Ross, the founder and director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group. Ross argued that the principle cause of distrust in politics was likely to be the process of globalization, which has moved agency and power over our affairs to others; not just to our national governments, but to supranational bodies and financial markets:
Finally, we spoke to Nick Perks, Trust Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Why did he think people were losing trust in politics?
I think there are probably different reasons for that. I think we’re becoming more suspicious of authority generally. I think if you were 100 years ago, or 500 years ago, we lived in very hierarchical societies where decision-makers, whether that was politics or in the church, had a lot of power and people didn’t tend to question authority. And I think in the modern era we tend to question authority, and so I think that’s one of the driving factors.
Then there have been examples of poor behaviour by politicians and decision-makers. And, I think there’s also something of a cycle of distrust; the media tends to run stories about politicians when they’re not behaving well, and it makes it more difficult to build a positive relationship between ordinary people and decision-makers.
And what would he say to Catherine, who believes the policies stay the same no matter who is voted into power? In Greece, for example, does it matter if a left-wing or a right-wing government is elected?
I think the situation is a little bit more complicated. So, firstly, in recent times we’ve seen that it is possible for a wide range of different parties and political movements to gain traction. Some of those parties may be ones you like, and some might be ones you don’t like, but politics can change. And I also think that governments only have a certain amount of power, but they do have power.
So, even in Greece there are choices to made, and even if there are maybe only limited choices around what Greece can do in relation to the debt picture and macroeconomic picture, there are lots of other things that governments are delivering on. And I think it is important to pick the representatives who you feel are closest to your beliefs and the way you want your society to be run.
Why are people losing trust in politics? Are there legitimate reasons for citizens not to trust mainstream politics? Does it matter who you vote for? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!