How to organise democracy fatigue?

Johan Leman, 4 November 2021

“Instead of allowing science, civil society and the administration to prepare a plan in time, as the northern countries do, the governing parties want to invent everything themselves and postpone a decision for so long that they have no other choice than to lump together a lot of sensible and crazy thoughts at the last moment, in order to distil a ‘compromise’ from them.” (Guy Tegenbos, DS, 4.11.21)

How do parliamentary democracies actually work? You can keep it strictly to a description of the separation of powers (parliament, government, judiciary), to which you might then add a free press as the fourth power. In the Flemish-Belgian version, the party leader replaces the parliament. Every four to six years there are elections in which “the people” can determine the composition of a parliament on the basis of lists drawn up by the party chairmen.

However, one can also look at how and when parliamentary democracies function at their best in practice. In this second scenario, one arrives at a more complex society, in which individual people do vote every few years, but in which all kinds of institutions (civil society and broader) move in between during all those years and help streamline participation. The task then is for each to continue to play its specific role. The midfield must remain the midfield and politics must remain politics.

What processes are underway today?

First observation. Whether they like it or not, the fact is that the ‘fourth power’, the media, has de facto lost much of its influence, firstly because the sales value of their product has often become dominant, and secondly because, especially for a large part of the young population, the social media have pushed them away as a source of information and opinion.

Second observation. Civil society is being eroded by the government to the extent possible. This means that whereas in the past people entered parliament who had first learned to acquire knowledge of a particular field and had also learned to master compromise, today this is much less the case.

In both areas, the media and civil society, the social media (with their many hypes, ephemera and the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valid and of equal quality) occupy the created vacuum. Politicians and government leaders therefore attach more importance to this level of volatility, hypes and sharing in bubbles than to civil society.

As a result, the sense of depth that goes hand in hand with an acceptance of compromise, not as a concession but as a possible enrichment, is disappearing. What we get instead is very often “a bunch of sensible and crazy thoughts”, inspired by the sensitivities picked up on social media a few days before. How else do you explain the fact that we did not see a shortage of teachers and carers coming, or that we are now preparing for “Glasgow” in a matter of days? To which the response is always “a lot of sensible and crazy thoughts”, quickly raked together.

And then one is startled by the symptoms of democracy fatigue….