A lack of faith in politics is dangerous for democracy, argues Sian Norris, as it paves the way for 'strongmen' to take authoritarian control
“They’re all the same”, is the most common moan about politicians. “They all lie. They’re all in it for themselves. They don’t care about people like me”.
Such a complaint has become particularly potent in the twin fallout of 'partygate' and 'beergate'. There is clear distance between the 12 events in and around Downing Street being investigated that are linked to the Prime Minister, and the allegations against Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. But the fact that both main parties are facing questions from the police has added fuel to the fire that all politicians are as bad as each other.
The narrative that politicians are all the same – and by ‘same’ we mean equally bad, not equally good – breeds a cynicism in politics that is bad for democracy. It turns voters away from the ballot box, as they refuse to choose between a ruling and opposition party that they believe are as bad as each other. It breeds distrust in politicians so that when positive policies are announced, voters don’t truly believe politics can make a difference to their lives.
Worse, it allows for extremist and divisive actors to thrive – after all, if the mainstream can’t be trusted, why not lend your support to those who promise to do things differently?
Extremism flourishes where faith in democracy is broken.
According to a report published earlier this year by the Carnegie UK Trust, less than half the English public (45%) feel that democracy works well in the UK and an overwhelming majority (77%) do not trust MPs. Just under three-quarters (74%) of the public do not trust that the UK Government will make decisions that will improve their lives.
The poll was taken in the early weeks of partygate. Now, with beergate fuelling the belief that they’re “all the same”, it’s possible trust is even lower.
Such lack of trust creates confusion. This in turn creates division and divide, which can be manipulated into a culture war. This is the breeding ground for extremism.
As democracy has eroded in the UK, culture war issues have increasingly taken hold and the electorate has become divided along values lines – with progressives pitched against ‘small-c’ conservatives, with pro-Europeans pitched against little-Englanders, with social justice and human rights advocates pitched against those who long for a return to the natural order.
When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law”
This is evidenced in new research from the Policy Institute at Kings College London and Ipsos UK, which found that more than half (54%) of the UK public aware of the “culture wars”. That is an increase from 46% at the end of 2020. At the same time, 36% of the UK public see the word “woke” as an insult, rising to 42% of over-55s.
The study also found that half of the UK public feel the term “white privilege” is unhelpful when talking about race relations – double the number of people in 2020.
This is hardly surprising. The Conservative Government has been determined to wage a culture war that can distract attention from the disastrous handling of the pandemic, and the growing stress on families caused by the rising cost of living. From reports that blamed the phrase “white privilege” on the lack of academic attainment of white working class boys, to Party Chairman Oliver Dowden telling the radical-right think tank that the term would be banned in UK schools, a Government in trouble clings to culture issues in order to create scapegoats for its failings and to stoke divisions.
When faith in democracy crumbles, people seek refuge in the old certainties – in race, in nation, in war (even a culture one). That the UK is increasingly aware of and embroiled in a culture war over values is a consequence of both cynicism in political leaders – and the cynicism of political leaders who fill the lacuna where policies of transformation should be, with the politics of hate and division.
This, in turn, moves us towards extremism.
Whenever democracy is in danger, there’s often a strongman waiting in the wings. These are the authoritarian leaders who rush in on promises of simple answers, conservative solutions, and a return to the natural order.
Crucially, the strongman leader comes to power with a promise to end corruption – to “drain the swamp” in Trump parlance – while accusing their predecessors in mainstream politics of being corrupt. For an electorate that has lost trust in its politicians, a campaign against corruption is beguiling. Voters that believe all parties are the same, that all politician are in it for themselves and not in it to support the public, have every reason to support a strongman who promises to do things differently and end corruption.
But there’s a problem. From Putin to Orban, Trump to Bolsanara, even Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Salvini in Italy, strongmen come to power or popularity promising a new dawn... only to be corrupt themselves.
This has two consequences. The first is to create even more disillusionment in politics – a sense that if even the man promising to end corruption is corrupt, there’s no point trusting anyone. The second is to create apathy or even forgiveness – that he probably deserves that wealth/kickback/favour (this, for a while, worked for Boris Johnson and the endless stories about backers being asked to pay for wallpaper/takeaways/nannying services). Either way, it feeds the degradation of politics and paves the way for extremism.
To understand why this happens, it’s important to understand the far-right framing of corruption. Far from being about money and Wall Street, the strongman leader sees corruption as being about who takes up space and who holds power.
When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law” or a “usurpation of the natural order”, according to writer Jason Stanley. He explains in his book How Fascism Works how “when women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of a democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption”.
Little wonder then, that where there are authoritarian, strongmen leaders, there is often a flourishing anti-gender movement, along with anti-women, anti-LGBTIQ policies. According to research by Women’s Link Worldwide, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ organisations and policies find success in countries with weak democracies and strongmen leadership. As such, natalist efforts, anti-abortion bills, anti-LGBTIQ and anti-RSE policies are the canary in the coalmine for a democracy that is sliding into extremism.
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