In less than a week, the process for electing the next US president will start. Bernie Sanders, seemingly unelectable, has drawn near-even with Hillary Clinton in polls in Iowa, upending the Democratic nomination process. He remains an authentic social democrat — a liberal in the true sense, who fights for universal healthcare, environmental protection and subsidised education. His struggle for economic fairness and an equitable tax system heralds the leftward shift of the US political landscape. This exciting turn of events has led to a self-avowed socialist being recast as an anti-establishment visionary. When Sanders talks about economic security, by making college tuition and debt free, the youth listen.
The establishment remains heavily distrusted. Centrist politicians, like Clinton recently, have drawn fire from frustrated young voters who question their trustworthiness and castigate their propensity towards lobbyists. Liberal democracies, purportedly established to enable the pursuit of happiness, are increasingly undergoing “repatrimonialisation” — the capture of independent state institutions by powerful elites (Francis Fukuyama). A democratic deficit has led to disaffected voters losing trust in representative institutions — only 21 per cent of British citizens feel that their government listens to them.
Political fragmentation has thereby ensued. The European political landscape increasingly resembles India’s political mosaic — with smaller, regional parties eating into the core vote of major parties. In India, meanwhile, policy debates are characterised by mudslinging and cynicism, while the ordinary voter remains resentful. Globally, volatile politics, reflecting voter rage against political deadlock, is now the norm.
Young citizens are increasingly drawn to unapologetically liberal narratives, attracted by principled leaders offering communitarian solutions. Across the world, 300 million youth (15-24 year olds) are not working. This rise in unemployment has been accompanied by increasing insecurity, with formal jobs replaced by unstable work arrangements — over 30 per cent are on temporary contracts.
Unemployment, along with underemployment, is progressing in the wrong direction.
Democracy in the West is undergoing a churning. With institutions gradually co-opted by big business, any further centralisation of power is viewed sceptically by the youth and disadvantaged. Elite distemper, skewed by a billionaire kleptocracy, in its short-sighted self-interest, had encouraged a narrow vision of the public good while “reforms” have succeeded in creating newer opportunities for elites to aggrandise themselves. A fair and just social democratic system has been replaced by one where rules about wealth, migration, trade and finance are settled by supranational institutions. This upcoming entrepreneurial generation feels distinctly estranged from hierarchical, leader-driven politics. With protests against inequality rising, the call for economic fairness has touched a nerve.
A pro-poor narrative is now expansive, penetrating popular consciousness. Jeremy Corbyn, having won the Labour leadership in a stunning upset, is revamping British politics with a grassroots ethos and has abrogated the New Labour consensus, advocating raising taxes to fund the NHS and mitigating climate change. Populist parties like Italy’s Five Star Movement, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza have grown by altering traditional party hierarchy, riding on a wave of anti-austerity sentiment. “Aspiration” has been replaced by an ardour to institutionalise “fairness”.
Under laissez faire policies, the government was fated for an ever-shrinking size. This upcoming political generation is comfortable with democratic socialism, which offers a right to economic security. It constitutes a big government that offers social investments with a particular focus on raising the minimum wage. Such targeted welfare spending will help regain economic confidence while instituting a robust social safety net. While advocacy of a single-payer healthcare system is idealistic, even a part implementation would offer significant benefits to youth voters.
A living wage matters to them. As pronounced by Sanders, defining inflation-linked living wages is an initial step and penalties for violations of such provisions should be dramatically raised. Pay ratios, as attested by Corbyn, could be fixed between the top and bottom wage workers, enabling growth’s rewards to trickle down faster. Linking dividend distribution to a living wage would help draw attention to a firm’s labour policy better than any CSR activity.
Decentralised governance is now called for. Discontented citizens increasingly hanker for a better process of politics, not just its performance. The classical, insular 19th century British parliament style of democracy no longer suffices. An Indian MP represents over two million people; representation is no longer representative. Modern political parties focus on developing a winning electoral strategy, staking out popular positions and developing a reputation for policy and governance competence. This policy-heavy party machinery needs a complimentary contact democracy focused on grassroots action.
Radical surgery needs to be considered — city assemblies can be replaced by randomly chosen diverse groups of citizens to veto or approve legislation. The Belgian culture minister, Sven Gatz, announced “Cultuur Burgerkabinet” — the Flemish citizens’ cabinet — creating a group of 1,000 representative individuals to flesh out culture policy proposals. South Australia’s “Better Together” programme instituted collaborations between government and NGOs. The Rajya Sabha could even be chosen at random, with diverse representation.
The pursuit of the greatest good, of equality under law, has historically been inefficiently focused on pursuing equality of outcome. For the fruits of growth to be shared across society, free-market democracies need to re-tailor their political and economic systems to offer rising prosperity and sustainable living standards. The rise of this broad progressive narrative continues to evolve. Democracy, riven by oligarchy, can begin to regain its lustre.