Why I’m Optimistic About Democracy, But Less So About Politics

Uffe Elbaek is a Danish MP, former minister of culture and initiator of the entrepreneurial green party The Alternativet

A little more than two years ago, I resigned from my position as the Danish minister of culture and left the social-liberal party that I had been a member of for 15 years. 

I had become a pessimist about the politics we were pushing and the way we did it. I launched a new political party named The Alternative.

And everything since has made me optimistic about democracy. 

So… How do we stop the epidemic of apathy surging through many European countries? It’s an important question and one I have been giving quite a lot of thought, since Compass and political artists People at Play in London invited me to speak at the Change:HOW conference on February 8, 100 days before the UK will have its next government. 

I don’t have the answer, but I might have a bit of one. Hopefully, together with answers from the 99 other speakers, we will make new strides towards solving apathy. Or more precisely, towards solving the problem that lies at the root of apathy. Because, as I see it, apathy is not the sickness, it is a symptom.

I will return to the sickness, to what made me pessimistic about politics. For now, let me recap what has happened in the last 14 months to make me change my mind about democracy.My new party was born out of a critique of the neoliberalists’ single focus on economic growth, combined with an entrepreneurial approach to sustainability and based on courage, generosity, transparency, empathy, humility, and humor, naïve was the buzzword for Danish media to describe the project.

They had three reasons:

1. The Alternative is not fixed to a specific ideology, they thought the party would sorely lack something for people to identify with.

2. There is an unrealistic conviction that economic growth as a given, a necessity

3. The fallacy in believing that the public can be motivated to participate in formulating and shaping politics from the bottom up.

The first criticism was also the first to fall. The public quickly identified with our core values, as they strike a chord with a population tired of endless televised quarrels, unending personal insults. The second critique is slowly but surely proven wrong with a population, increasingly stressed, depressed and unfulfilled in their jobs and lives. The result of which is a growing awareness that the solution to their problems is not to spend more and to buy stuff they do not really need – as clearly instructed again and again by varying governments

The third criticism was put to shame when we began the process of crowdsourcing our political program. Over the course of a few weeks, more than 700 citizens participated.  

They formulated ideas, solutions, and gave shape to our politics. In about five months, we finished the first 100% crowdsourced political program in the world, and fifty-four pages of political ideas were ready to be implemented.

We are well on our way to bridging the gap, the great divide between institutionalized politics and the public.

So yes, I am optimistic about democracy. It is as popular as ever with the public.

One could argue that Denmark is a frontrunner and incomparable when it comes to political participation, with 87% of eligible voters casting their vote in 2011. However, scratch the surface and you will find the same tendencies in Denmark as in most of Europe. Politicians are now deemed the least trustworthy group of professionals by Danish citizens – journalists and car dealers are to follow. Nice company.

And yes, Denmark too is suffering from rising political cynicism and apathy – best showcased by the fact that people are rapidly fleeing our political parties: membership count has dropped 30% in just 18 years.

These are symptoms not of a crisis of democracy, but of a crisis of politics. Even the Danish left are beginning to believe that there is no alternative to the neoliberal agenda of economic growth above all else. However shitty it may be.

Inequality is not necessary for society or democracy – least of all the people – but I understand why it is becoming increasingly necessary for the way we deal with and in politics.

The waning revenues from party memberships leave all political parties inclined to take money they normally would stay away from. This is fact.

It is also fact that most parties are reluctant to speak openly about where they get their donation from. Such openness would deter future donations from private people and organisations, they say.

But let us be clear, money influences politics, and the public perceive money to be influencing politics.

I would not hazard a guess as to which of the two feelings is stronger, and it really does not matter. Fact is, when big corporations and the rich – who arguably have more of it – throw money at politicians, politics begin to suffer a crisis of legitimacy.

Especially if it is perceived to be – or in truth is – leaning in favour of big corporations and the rich. Where in Europe is that not the case?

The rich and especially the superrich are allowed to accumulate wealth at an increasing rate. For the growing numbers of less fortunate, the opposite is true. No wonder people give up or become angry.

Do we really expect a growing number of unfortunates to sign off on politics that relentlessly isolates them further and further from the towering power elite?

To some, it might seem to be a question of communicating better (or more cunningly). For others, the real question is, do we really want the less fortunate to accept it with a smile? If your answer is yes, then you are the root of the problem.

My answer is no. In these times of politics of necessity or of inequality, apathy, cynicism, and disinterest are all signs of a healthy democracy. Give the public a real, tangible, or even a political way out, and they will take it.

It was merely a hunch when I – little over a year ago – left established and old politics. Today it is conviction: If you replace the politics of inequality with politics based on a platform of openness, honesty, participation, creativity and above all, equality, then politics will thrive yet again.

Do not take these words rom me alone. Ask The Five Star Movement, ask Beppe Grillo. Ask Syriza, ask Alexis Tsipras. Ask Podemos, ask Pablo Iglesias.

Uffe Elbaek is speaking in London at the festival for alternative and progressive politics, Change:HOW 2015 on February 8th, along with politicians from Greece, Spain, Sweden, as well as Britain’s Labour, Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP.

This article was first published in the Huffington Post which can be viewed here 

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