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?
I 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:
I 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!