Politicians often promise the moon on a stick. When, inevitably, they fail to deliver said lunar body in kebab form, voters end up feeling disappointed and possibly even betrayed. That hopey, changey stuff nevers seems to work out quite as you imagined it, and so perhaps it’s no wonder that trust in politics is declining.

We’ve looked recently at whether voters have unrealistic expectations of what politicians can deliver. But maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps a better question might be: are there ways to bring about change that don’t involve trudging to the ballot box every few years?

Could marching, protesting, volunteering, getting involved in community organisations, or contributing to local cultural events be as effective (if not more so) than handing over decision-making to elected representatives? Or did the failure of the ‘Stop the War’ movement in 2003 to, y’know, stop the war demonstrate the limits of civic activism?

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.

Want to know more about civic activism, engagement, and trust in European politics? We’ve put together some of the facts and figures into an infographic below (click for a bigger version).


We had a comment sent in from NewsView, arguing that social change was good, but that in a democracy it is better to run for office rather than protest in the street. He was specifically referring to the protests in Ukraine that toppled the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, but could his comment apply more generally?

To get a response, we spoke to Carlos Delclós, a Spanish sociologist and an activist in the 15-M Movement. What did he have to say in response to NewsView’s comment?

Carlos_DelclosI would say that’s total nonsense. It’s not that I don’t think people who run for office can change things, but I do think that the moment they get into office they will start feeling the pressures for re-election…

So, I think that it is the job of social movements to keep elected politicians creative, innovative, and honest. And I don’t think you can do that by just running for office against them… I would also say that, for example, Spain is changing right now and it’s not because people are running for office but because people mobilised…

To get another reaction, we also spoke to Dr. Armine Ishkanian, Assistant Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. She strongly supported people getting out to vote, but said that a healthy democracy has to be more than just voting every four years:

Armine_IshkanianI think, of course, the electoral system is very important to create that sense we are living in a representative democracy. But what we’ve seen in recent years is the incursion of special interests, of corporate interests, state capture in some instances, which has skewed, and in some ways biased that system. And I think that’s what a lot of the protesters were arguing against, that they didn’t feel that their voices were being heard because the elites had captured the system. So, you can’t have a democracy that’s only based on the ballot box. There needs to be space for wider civic activism, and that’s what has been shown in terms of an inclusive democratic system, you need to have the grass roots also being able to shape the policy debates and issues.

We can’t only look at it in terms of electing leaders for four years. It has to be a greater form of participation, people taking part in the life of the commons, and so forth. I’m not saying let’s get rid of representative democracy, not at all, I think it has a very important role to play. But I think it’s not the only way to work in a democratic system.

Is voting the only way to bring about change? Could marching, protesting, volunteering, getting involved in community organisations, or contributing to local cultural events be as (if not more) effective? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Mark Knobil

50 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Alex Sascha

    Has the vote of Greece, Spain or Ireland changed anything? ! Wer not in democracy anymore *sick*

    • avatar

      yes it had bought mpre changes including in the life of people

  2. avatar
    Любомир Иванчев

    Democracy can’t work when people are uneducated and apathetic. Look at the election ratings in most european countries. Only 30-35% of voters use their democratic right to elect a government. And all governments, when elected, start imeediately bragging how “The People” chose them as their representatives. This isn’t how you work for your country, this isn’t how you implement adequate and meaningful policies. This isn’t democracy, it’s demagogy.

    • avatar
      Dexter Kohler

      You are mistaken, im Swiss and we have representative democracy and direct democracy to complete it, everyday I see things that were voted on by the people, things that were built, laws that were created or voted down etc. etc., in your country the system might be broken, SO FIX IT

    • avatar

      Dexter switzerland ,sadly ,is an exception ,and very good it is.
      But equally sadly most of the EU has been corrupted by the Brussels elite,who issue laws,and remove from power anyone who does go along with their master plan.
      Look at the situations in Portugal,Italy,Greece,and now forcing their will upon countries in the front line against the mass colonisation of Europe from Africa.
      Countries are fighting back.They are refusing to do the bidding of their EU ” masters” soon there will be far more civil unrest,just look at germany ,its starting already.

    • avatar
      Judy Kirungu

      How does it cause a change in a state

  3. avatar

    A good starting point would be for the politicians,to listen to the people who pay their wages and vote for them,and not ignore them ,bully them and force change upon them without their consent.
    Only when this happens,and the people feel valued and respected will society change.

  4. avatar
    Dexter Kohler

    I am Swiss and I say Direct Democracy.

  5. avatar

    By putting all the right people in the right places. Use the media. Water down democracy. Disregard referendums. Threaten financial catastrophy. Take over the financial system. Strategic depopulation (syria). Forced integration. False flags. And almost forgot, Lie like a rug..and fill your pockets with corporate cash.
    Sounds familiar doesnt it??

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      Yes, you are right Klassen. But, to change it is very easy. The great public, or, the citizens of Europe must stop buying into it. And that means don’t pay good money to go to football matches or buy their cheap T. Shirts. Stop buying tickets to all sports games. Don’t use transport.

      Stop sending your money to false charities. Vote for anyone at all but not any of those main parties or anyone in power presently who continues to take us down the road of destruction. Take you money out of the banks and put it elsewhere. Choose one supermarket every three months to boycott and never use that shop untill the three months are over. Boycott all food imported from outside the EU. Stop buying imports altogether, only buy products made in Europe.

      Don’t work for less than the minimum wage and refuse to work for any company offering zero hour contracts. And do it collectively. Join a group to offer assistance for doing this.

      Don’t take out loans of any kind. Stop using your credit cards. Don’t stay at hotels, find rooms with friends or the local ma and pa bed and breakfast. Don’t do package holidays, find an alternative.

      In other words stop the corporations at their core. Stop being used and joining in with your own demise. Don’t listen to political correctness, don’t accept state abuse on your children at school. Stop playing the game.

      Or, beat them at theirs. Simples.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      By Jove, that appears to be happening today by an organisation called the ‘Europena Union’ or somefink!

  6. avatar
    Dimitris Stamiris

    Wen democracy born (in Greece) was for everything new they must ask the people , THAT WE HAVE NOW is to vote for them once and you let them do what the hell they want for 4 years , they tell you lies before elections but you cannot do anything even for those lies …. You cannot say “no” to something they bring to you

    That’s not democracy we have now

  7. avatar
    Toni Muñiz

    Voting is becoming useless. Political parties and politicians make promises they never mean to fulfill, doing as they please, governing with their backs towards the citizens. There is no accountability. Something more has to be brought to the table to improve this and remove politicians who do the opposite of what they promised before their time is up. One clear example is the EU and some commissioners pushing islam on us. On what political program was that on? Would that person have been elected if she made the same comments before elections? EPP ha controlled migration on their program. Is that what is happening now?

  8. avatar
    Enric Mestres Girbal

    People can vote everyday about everything…but politicians will do what they fancy. We don’t live in democracy, we live in a dictatorial partycracy.

  9. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    Definitely not the present EU- “THEIR ONLY WAY”!

    Following all these debates over time it has become clear that the entrenched EU brigade with the help of all its available tools is hell bent to implement stoically- contrary to most voter’s wishes- only ONE European version, one kind of European society all according to one EU concept!

    Designed like a car without a reverse gear, a (VW) designed manipulated software, probably driver-less- all remote controlled from the well known “invisible hands” of (extreme globalism & comparative advantages) by the 1%+ in Brussels.

    A better way to let society evolve is to offer & let society choose the changes it wishes. Starting to give voters within their sovereign states a CHOICE to chose alternatives, opt out or opt in to an alternative European concept and type of democracy (advanced “direct electronic”- preferable). A good start would be by willingly tendering back/reclaiming all lost sovereignty, learn from past (political) mistakes, rethink, re-use what was good, regroup & reorganize!

  10. avatar
    Ady Paslaru

    How do you see the problem… We need to work, for a profit, for our society/corporation?

  11. avatar
    Ricardo Exposto

    change only happends when ppl starting changing .. we are the same begging for change and doing nothing ..

  12. avatar
    Paul X

    “Could marching, protesting, volunteering, getting involved in community organisations, or contributing to local cultural events be as effective”

    Volunteering and getting involved in community organisations – definitely, those who continually complain about the state of things should put their time in and do something useful that actually contributes to society

    Marching & protesting – complete waste of time. all it does is use up resources (i.e. police) that would be better spent elsewhere. It physically achieves nothing and is usually only done by unemployed attention seekers with too much spare time on their hands. If people have a justified complaint there are better ways of trying to address things without walking down the street ranting and annoying everyone, but these methods require intelligence and common sense, something which is lacking in your average street protester

  13. avatar
    Yordan Vasilev

    It is right that politicians lie the voters and they free make, that they want, but the organized civil community can pressed them to take decisions in use of the citizens. I believe that marches and demonstrations should change the EU, because they are a part of the democracy.

    • avatar
      EU reform- proactive

      Hi Catherine- why? Once you signed the (“serious”) Lisbon treaty- you are legally “handcuffed”! Iceland was not- it made a U-turn- just in time & was brave! It only belongs to EFTA and the European Economic Area (EEA). They nearly, but never signed their full sovereignty (“referendum”) away like the other 28 eager beavers!

      Solution: once a (few) major (Germany never, France, UK? or Italy?) net EU contributors (total 10) would exit- the EU concept probably collapses! If you’re UK David’ gets the cold shoulder with his EU reform demands, followed by a successful exit referendum- this could be the end of the (old) EU concept. The loss of UK’s net contribution (the EU budget works in seven-year cycles 2007-2013, UK “average” was ~Euro 4.9 billion net) would NOT be easily absorbed by the others! To be seen if buddy US leaning forward and a desperate EU leaning backwards can persuade to keep the UK in? It’s high noon! Wait & see- what is you wish?

      15/12/2015 Dr. Tom Casier, Academic Director of the Brussels School of International Studies of the University of Kent, has responded to this comment.

  14. avatar
    Christina Stockinger

    no the real debate in society takes place in much smaller units and voting is and should be the result of all those debates in the end

  15. avatar
    Vicky Papadopoulou

    However, as Emma Goldman wrote in the early 20th century “if voting changed anything, they would make it illegal”. I am sorry to put it so bluntly to you but I used to believe in the power of democratic voting as I come from Greece where democracy was born! Nevertheless, the recent events in Greece last summer with our referendum when a 63% of the people said NO to the European plan but then our government was either forced by the EU or deliberately chose to change the people’s will from a NO to a humiliating YES…I have stopped believing in the power of voting. I, on the other hand believe that activism and solidarity can change the world…slowly, gradually but more solidly and powerfully!

  16. avatar
    Enric Mestres Girbal

    Voting will not solve the european problems because the politicians are a group of corrupt, self interested people, who can ‘t care less about the european citizens.

  17. avatar
    Davide Nicola

    Voting in such EU fake democracy is not enough anymore.
    Networking, education and active citizenship would help to bring about change

  18. avatar
    Davide Nicola

    Voting in such EU fake democracy is not enough anymore.
    Networking, education and active citizenship would help to bring about change

  19. avatar
    Samuel Lisz

    No. Yet in many cases voting has not brought any changes. Greece, referendum on euro. Germany 1998, vote for leftwing coalition implementing neoliberal policy. Free quote: “if voting would change things, it would be forbidden.”

  20. avatar
    Sebastien Chopin

    Voting and democracy as we have known it for the past 100 years is dying out… it is now time to bring in a new system with no useless representation; no powers given to specific people; no hierarchy but real equality between the people…no social aids no religions no races and no crap (in general)… on the one hand you’ll have nobody to blame… on the other… only the fittest will survive

  21. avatar

    Starting out with a low entropy and ending up with a high entropy is the natural order of everything in the Universe. Democracy, capatalism and religion for that matter have all reached a point of high entropy. As human beings there is only one thing that we can do and that is to rebuild, to recreate order,whether we tear down the old systems with violence or preferably use our heads is really down to us.
    For democracy I really like the swiss system of direct democracy this should help to take away the power from corporations which seem to pull all the strings in the major democracies at the moment. In short at the moment the money men control the politicians. Men who seek power for selfish means have ruined democracy, shattered religions and capatilism feeds them well.
    Religion is also very very broken, all the major religions probably had the same starting point with philosphers such as jesus, they have been hijacked by men who seek power and control and now exist of 98% complete twaddle.
    What I am saying is it isn’t just our political systems that are broken, it’s everything.
    A new way is needed
    Erm now how do we achieve that?

  22. avatar
    yesmen sultana

    only social movement is not necessary to prevent corruption.

  23. avatar

    The way we choose our leaders, or the way we let people become leaders. Our current systems allow anyone to go for this role, but it is flawed in that it does not stop those wishing to manipulate, skew and use the system or systems for their own embitterment rather than a society as a whole. Human history is littered with such people who have led a nation or society into the abyss and destroyed either them or other nations. We all have the ambition to lead, and sometimes envy or criticise those that do, and sometimes we are correct and sometime we do not understand, why the people in charge do what they do, and we ourselves think we could do a better job. It is our primeval nature that makes us want to be the head of something, but now we have the technology to make things better as a whole or destroy everything, and it depends in whose hands the decisions are being made. We have tried and seen the flaws of inherited power, which still goes on in some places. So how do we in today’s world make sure those making the big decisions are to be trusted, that is the big question, and I think it comes down to education, proper education for the masses, and learning from our past mistakes and making sure nobody with a hidden agenda or selfish reason is allowed to lead a nation or society, and not just at the top level but those people making decisions on our behalf everyday, police commissioners, bank executives, local statesmen, doctors, even leaders of an environmentalist group. We should be trying to ask for examples of people who are doing things/sacrifices for society, like Terry Tamminen, Angela Merkal, Elon Musk, Carlo Petrini, Marina Silva, but always be careful not to over-egg as anyone’s ego can be bloated too much, and those wanting to initially do good become bad, think Aung San Suu Kyi. Once we have this solved the problem of choosing the wrong type of people to lead we will make society better.

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