Is the voter now effectively powerless?

The world, viewed through the perspective of verified journalists posting on twitter is a scary, frightening, place. Yesterday, for about half an hour between one and one thirty, I just sat and scrolled. There wasn’t one bit of good news to be seen.

In the UK, it seems, the country is on the verge of collapse because Mrs. Truss passed a tax cut for the rich which “the markets” did not much like. In Italy, the “fascists” or “far right” or – if one is to be a modern journalist playing at being scrupulously fair – “populists” have surged to power. In Russia, the madman might, or might not, use tactical nuclear weapons, and he might, or might not, have blown up his own gas pipeline to Europe. Or the Americans might have done it. Pick a side, because there’s no evidence either way.

Away from the bigger issues, Buzzfeed was warning its million or more readers that a new trend in makeup might be racist and culturally appropriating. The war about what a woman is continues unabated. The Sussex police have had to apologise for threatening people with arrest who suggested that a male rapist who is now a woman should be called a man.

It is still not clear whether the lights will remain turned on across Europe this winter. And meanwhile, people continue to die in Europe at stubbornly elevated rates that nobody seems able to explain. Perhaps it was that lockdown saved few lives but stopped a lot of lifesaving treatment. Perhaps it’s the vaccines. Since neither answer makes anyone in power or in the orbit of power look good, the usual approach is simply to ignore it, or perhaps to blame Europe’s summer heatwave. Because I forgot: The other crisis is Climate Change.

What is clear from all of this is that nothing which is taking place in the west right now is particularly good or enjoyable. It’s not just the cost of living, but the stress of living. We still live in a country where a significant number of people are afraid to go places because of covid 19, and wear masks as they do. I have no raw figures on this, but anecdotally, levels of alcoholism and depression are at levels higher than at any point in my four-decade life. Hospital waiting lists are longer than they have ever been. Mortgage rates are rising, as are crime rates.

Amid all of this, we are, apparently, supposed to be shocked at the Italian preference for Ms Meloni, or the political struggles of Ms Truss, or the record support for Sinn Fein. What, I might ask, do Giorgia Meloni, Keir Starmer, and Mary Lou McDonald, all riding waves of popularity, have in common? That they’re not the Government, is the answer.

Voters lack any power greater than the power to remove a Government. That is the greatest power that they hold. It is the single biggest sanction that they can deliver. But they were snookered, long ago, because removing the Government makes not one blind bit of difference, these days, at least, not to the bigger picture.

That, more than anything, I think, is at the root of populist discontent. The sense that people are utterly powerless: It’s one of the reasons why the internet is full of people talking about Klaus Schwaab and the World Economic Forum, or Bill Gates, or, on the left, “international capital”. The sense that the strings are being pulled from elsewhere, and that the nation state itself is no longer – at least not in any real sense – in control of its own destiny.

We often compare democracy favourably to the Monarchies of old. If one took the view that the Kaiser was not doing much of a job at the helm of the German Empire, then there wasn’t really much to be done about it. You could elect the German Imperial Parliament, all right, but the Emperor was within his rights to ignore them – as Wilhelm II usually did. The Russians didn’t even get a parliament under their Tsar. Both the French and the English, with varying degrees of decorum and civilisation, had to chop the heads from their Kings in order to make the point that they favoured some kind of democratic reform.

The position of the nation state within Europe, at the moment, feels to me not dissimilar to the position of a German voter under the Kaiser: You can vote, all right. But don’t expect it to make much of a difference. You’ll get a seat at the Eurogroup meetings, and you’ll be listened to politely. But your country has just the one small say in how things are done, and if you’re advocating anything too radical or different, well, that’s nice. And by the way, those of us with a seat at all are privileged. More than half the world lives with the consequences of decisions and ideas made in the G7 or the UNSC or the EU, and doesn’t have any say in the matter at all. Globalisation has turned a lot of states into county councils on the world stage.

Many of us, I think, have arrived at the conclusion that something here is fundamentally wrong. Something is broken.

It is not, I would argue, normal for us to live in a world where so many are depressed, and scared, or homeless, or alcoholic, or where there is a real debate over whether there will be electricity this winter, or nuclear war in the spring. Nor is it normal for the expression of this discontent to be so feared, and repressed: Quietly, this country of ours locked a chap up for six months, last week, for organising a protest during covid.

And of course, the response so far, to all of the discontent, has been to blame the discontented: The American hicks, who made a mess of things by electing Trump. The Brexiteers. The anti-vaxxers who, we were assured, were killing people. In Ireland, there’s not a car that’s dented that can’t be blamed on “the far right”.

But this will not hold. Look around the world, and it is obvious that our leaders are failing us. Look at history, and you see that the penalty for leaders who fail their people is repeated, over, and over, and over, and over, again.

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