Politics is the art of compromise. Political parties are alliances of (occasionally) overlapping interests, and politicians work to balance those interests in order to unite enough of their party behind common goals that they can get votes passed. That’s just within individual political parties; in the political system as a whole there may be dozens of parties, and thousands of interest groups, civil society organisations, lobbyists, trade unions, industry bodies, media personalities, bloggers, protesters – all outflanking one another, working together, making temporary deals, and forging agreements.
On 29-30 October 2015, the Vienna Policy Conference was held in Austria, focusing on the question of trust in politics. We caught up with some of the panelists during and after the event to discuss a couple of our reader’s comments. We’ll be publishing their responses over the coming weeks, and we thought we’d start with a comment from Pier, who argues that part of the problem is that voters have unrealistic expectations. Is he right?
To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Armine Ishkanian, Assistant Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. Here’s what she had to say on the subject:
What we often see is that politicians, before becoming elected and taking office, make huge promises about transforming the system. But when they actually get into office they’re faced with the realities of actually having to do politics, and actually having to compromise and negotiate in order to get things passed. I think we’ve seen this with SYRIZA in Greece, but we’ve also seen this in the UK with the election of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader.
It’s one thing to be completely outside the system, but then once you become part of that system you have to work within it, and you cannot necessarily take the most radical stance. So, I think it’s about recognising that politicians are working within particular structural constraints, and that has to be taken into account.
For another reaction, we put the same question to Carlos Delclós, a Spanish sociologist and an activist in the 15-M Movement. He agreed that the problem is not with politicians, but with the political system as a whole. However, he argued that the solution is to work on changing the political system:
I would say that you can vote on more things than just which politician should represent you. And I think that if you can do that then you can eliminate this problem. Voting for repreresentatives is a very indirect way of getting your interests represented, and we’re technologically at the stage where we can vote on individual issues directly. But we feel like we need representatives, because that’s the system we’ve had historically.
I think on the one hand it’s only natural for people to mistrust representatives because these are people who want to decide things on your behalf. You would assume they would have some of their own interests, which may not correspond with your own. And, on the other hand, I do think that some people of course have overly high expectations for representatives, but I think it’s also the case that a lot of people don’t have high expectations of our representatives, and that’s why they’re not particpating very much in the political process.
A friend of mine explains it in a very interesting way: the current system offers you ways to vote, but what people really want is to be able to decide. So, I think there are meaningful changes that can be made that can enable the latter over the former.
How would somebody who holds political office respond? To get a reaction from a sitting politician, we spoke to Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a Hungarian Member of Parliament for the social liberal “Together” party. Here’s what she had to say:
What do the political analysts think? We spoke to Anna Matuskova, founder and senior partner of the Czech political consultancy firm “Campaigns“. You can hear her take on the topic in the video below:
Finally, we spoke to James Morris, a partner at the political research, polling, and strategic consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Did he think that voters have unrealistic expectations of politicians?
Are voters angry because they don’t understand political compromise? Do they have unrealistic expectations about what politicians can achieve within a democracy? Or does the problem lie with the political system itself? Would direct democracy reduce the need to compromise on our ideals? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions.