Democracy has changed. Gone is the time when our representatives really held the political power. In early representative democracy, there was a nation and its people. The people held the power, but in order to be governed, they accepted to give up their power to regularly elected representatives. Those representatives were given authorization by being elected, and were not bound by any particular promises made: it meant that, to efficiently lead the country, they were allowed to make decisions that went against what the constituents saw as their immediate interests. And the constituents were only allowed to judge these decisions by exercising their right to vote.
This system is not perfect. Politicians did not accept enough responsibility for their actions, driving some of them to abuse their power. Representatives tended to solve every problem through a state intervention. And their power could easily become authoritative. But Churchill had it right: democracy is not perfect, but it is the best system of government we have.
Apparently, it was not good enough. Liberalism hates all form of authority and it raised a movement against the all-powerful state. This movement is probably the most important change in recent politics, and it has been happening since the 1960s. It pushes for the state to relinquish the powers it has had for decades that allowed it to regulate society and the economy.
We have established a system where all the components of civil society can have their say in political decisions. Step by step, a new system has been set up. It began by criticizing the level of taxation, leading to a limitation of state resources. The slowing of economic growth after 1970 also went in that direction. With fewer resources to implement its policies, the state has been forced to turn to the private sector and include their representatives in the decision process. But by doing so, the state dug its own grave: it admitted it was limited and that it could be wrong.
This has lead to a weakening of our representatives and of the state. If the state can be wrong, it means that it no longer represents the general interests of the people. It also means that our representatives do not actually represent their constituents, who are legitimately to be included in the decision process. Now, we have a system in which elected officials have to negotiate almost every decision with the main parts of society.
But although it may seem like it, the system is not more democratic than the previous one. The consultation process has only set up another circle of people with close access to power. Of course, it widens the number of people implicated in the decision. But in a crowded political field, the difference is more likely to be found in non-democratic criteria, the number one of which is money. Through money, the most important lobbyists are able to influence politicians into taking their point of view in account. Without money, the legitimate causes of some isolated citizens are left aside.
We might be going to a new form of plutocracy, government by the wealthiest. Of course, money has always been able to influence the course of events. The wealthiest have always made up the majority of our leaders. Democracy cannot simply eliminate the difference of social, cultural, economic or political capitals in society. But representative democracy had this strength: within constitutional limits, political power was independent and able to act for the common good and the general interest. Both the idea that politicians were once all-powerful and the possibility of the self-regulation of politics in favor of the general interest are myths.
Thus, it should still remain our aim to protect political decisions from the power of lobbying. It would create a greater responsibility for politicians and a greater coherence in policies. Governance is not government. Today, this is our choice: are we ready to relinquish our power and trust our representatives with it? If we are not, then democracy is not the system for us.
This article is the second in a series of three about the place of the nation-state in a globalized world. For last week’s article about patriotism, go here. Next week: a look on the possibility of cosmopolitanism.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.