Party Politics and the Crisis of Democracy

While constant warfare is raging between liberal, conservative and other political forces at national and international level, the willingness to join parties and the trust society has in them has been severely eroded worldwide. The situation is much more complicated, however, as political actors are mostly doing their best (or worst, depending on your point of view)  to mobilize people and get them to support them as much as possible.

On the one hand, we cannot ignore the fact that voter turnout is declining almost everywhere, along with general interest in politics. These days, in (so-called) developed democracies, only 1-2% of voters belong to a political party, compared to around 30% in the 1960s. But the lower the level of public participation in politics, the more parties turn to the private sector for financial support. And the closer they get to corporations and business interests, consequently the less they represent their original communities and constituents – which of course explains the erosion of trust in politicians on the other hand.

The lack of political participation is therefore quite understandable, and can be explained not only by a loss of confidence, but also by the fact that most people are busy, constantly struggling to make a living and generally disillusioned with the whole political scene. But because it is still fundamentally about our lives and often quite sensitive issues, the interest of a large part of society in politics and public affairs has never waned beyond a certain extent – at most, the majority no longer believes that it has any real influence on the way things are going. So it should come as no great surprise that from time to time there are occurrences and manifestations that can be a real shock to supporters of one party or ideology or another.

The constant clash of competing views and conflicting ideologies is thus just as present in our societies, even if we do not enter the political arena with them, but rather, as it were, settle them among ourselves. Yet we have to see that it is not necessarily a matter of spontaneous disagreement between people of this and that worldview, in which they clash – whether just verbally or in action. Politics itself tends to be a source of conflict and negative public opinion, which it often achieves by manipulating people, usually on an emotional basis.

Unfortunately, the active, mass manipulation of voter opinion is becoming an increasingly common weapon all around the world, and the easy accessibility of the internet makes it a very difficult, almost impossible, task to neutralize it. Moreover, such practices are no longer confined to dictatorships or notoriously autocratic governments, but also occur in states known to be fundamentally democratic, such as Spain, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa and the United States of America.

Thanks to the distortion of information in the interests of the party disseminating it and the ever-growing volume of fake news, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the average person to know what is true and what is not. Regarding the issue, Professor Philip Howard of Oxford University has said: “The manipulation of public opinion over social media remains a critical threat to democracy, as computational propaganda becomes a pervasive part of everyday life. Government agencies and political parties around the world are using social media to spread disinformation and other forms of manipulated media. Although propaganda has always been a part of politics, the wide-ranging scope of these campaigns raises critical concerns for modern democracy.”

In addition to spreading fake news, misinformation and distorted facts, the various internet platforms, forums and social media are also excellent tools for pitting, inciting and dividing people and groups against each other, as well as for inciting dissatisfaction and hatred in general. Hired by opposing forces, political parties, governmental and other agencies, organizations or even anarchists and terrorists, ‘cyber soldiers’ use a variety of strategies to achieve their goals. These may include deploying automated bots, hacking and stealing user accounts, harassment, trolling (expressing opinions in a violent and offensive manner to provoke others), or even doxing (collecting and publishing personal information to blacken, discredit or set aside a person).

So the data obtained (legally or not so legally) about you can not only be used to influence your consumption habits, but also to manipulate your political, social and other views by assessing your personality online and using your data to manipulate your political, social and other views. Based on your browsing, clicks and likes on the most popular social networking sites – currently mainly Facebook and X – it is now possible for political organizations and authorities, or even private companies, to build detailed profiles of you, which can be used to predict your online or even offline activities.

These methods that are not at all fair toward electors are used as the tools of such policies as identity politics that exploits people’s individual preferences, or political correctness that is often more about pandering or making concessions to certain groups in the hope of gaining more support. Through those manipulative means, politics has now largely appropriated the various ideologies, and is using them to turn as many people as possible against each other or to get their support. The biggest problem with this is that the rampant party infighting is slowly eating away at (civil) society, minimizing the willingness to cooperate and compromise, and preventing people from focusing on what really matters.

The most important thing to realize in all this is that, as in general, the struggle here is not really about the peaceful coexistence and well-being of the majority of people, but primarily about power and money. And that is still the privilege of a narrow stratum, as it has essentially always been throughout the thousands of years of human civilization that has been dominated by existential opportunism. While a large proportion of people continue to struggle daily to make a living and get on with their lives, and as nations and peoples rival each other for similar reasons, there are more and more billionaire politicians around the world, and non-politician billionaires are increasingly having their say in politics, something that the average person has little realistic opportunity to do.

This is especially true if one does not wish to take part in the unscrupulous fighting of different parties against each other, which is not at all normal or civilized, regardless of how much it is considered by some as a necessary bad or an indispensable characteristic of democracy. For in a truly civilized society, or a society that aspires to be civilized, it matters a lot how we treat each other, or what means we use to persuade each other (not to mention to undermine each other). In such a society, we simply cannot ignore the free will of others, which in turn does not really allow us to manipulate people and take advantage of their situation in order to circumvent them by putting our own interests and ideas first. If anything, this is by no means the real job of politics and politicians.

In fact, it is not what a democratic and humane society is supposed to be about at all, and what we expect from our leaders is correspondingly vital for the issue. In my view, the duty of politics and politicians is to ensure that the various areas in our societies are properly regulated and continue to function as sustainably and fairly as possible – no more, no less. To achieve this, we basically need to rely on facts and past experience rather than on ideologies based on beliefs and individual preferences, prejudices and preconceptions. Essentially, then, this calls for governance based on science and rationality, not money and power at its heart, but meritocracy characterized by real merit and expertise.

Of course, such technocratic governance also has its dangers: its opponents have since the beginning criticized it for not taking into account the will of the majority, which is overshadowed by the opinions and views of the technical and scientific experts in positions of power, who become a kind of new aristocracy. In this regard, however, I think that, on the one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to ask how far today’s more and more extremist parties take into account the will of the majority. On the other hand, this only reaffirms the importance of civil society, or ‘the people’, keeping their leaders under constant scrutiny, ensuring that they are fully accountable, while conducting their activities in a transparent and, if necessary, correctable manner. If civil society does not make sure that they are constantly judged on the basis of their performance, then it makes no difference to the substance whether they are democrats, autocrats, technocrats, military or religious leaders, or representatives of any other category, because in this case the members of society are just as much at the mercy of their will and individual interests.

So because politicians are not perfect (just like people in general), they will almost never limit and regulate their own ‘playing field’ to act in a fair and equitable way towards the electorate to the best of their ability. That is why it is essential not only to keep politics under constant citizen scrutiny, but also to exercise participatory democracy whenever it is reasonably possible to do so. After all, the main duty of true professional politics is not to make decisions over people’s heads in a paternalistic way, but to explain the facts, the possible choices and their potential consequences as well as possible, and to involve citizens in the decision-making process as much as possible, without trying to constantly manipulate them in the process.

The avoidance of self-interested manipulation and propaganda must be ensured through appropriate legal prohibition and the enshrinement of key democratic and humane principles in the constitution. This is our only chance to make sure that politics serve citizens, and not the other way round, thus fulfilling its original mission given by the people. As for the role of the ordinary person in all this, I don’t think one necessarily has to join various parties to participate in common affairs – yet it makes a huge difference how we do it, and how we treat each other in the meantime.

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