This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
One of the most significant challenges for democracy has always been the question of expectations. Promises are made at election time but realities clash and expectations of popular change are dashed as policies lie undelivered.
Could any democratic politician be expected to point out the limits of growth and dampen expectations of continued expansion in living standards? Democracies need to believe in a better future in order to function; politicians need to champion a better future in order to get elected.
Sometimes, however, politicians appear to intentionally agitate public euphoria in order to destroy their political opponents, with little concern for the damage they might be doing to democracy. The trick is to mislead the media about an intended policy announcement and send the opposition down a rabbit hole preparing stock responses to tailored policy announcements – only to do something completely different.
Regardless of whether the policy might be workable in practice, the result invariably stirs the public; the skilful politician wins the headlines and leaps up in the polls. Democracy seems renewed, sensationally so.
Out of the blue, a living wage policy
In the UK, one such announcement has just been made. In his first post-election speech, newly re-elected Chancellor George Osborne pulled a proverbial rabbit out of the fiscal hat by declaring, seemingly out of the blue, the introduction of a National Living Wage.
The “living wage” is a progressive concept championed by a coalition of trade unions, community groups and relatively marginal Labour and Green politicians over the past decade. The aim is to raise the wage employers pay directly to workers to a level that allows them to enjoy a basic quality of life.
In 2014, the Living Wage Foundation – a UK-based pressure group lobbying for private firms to voluntarily pay living wages – calculated it to be £7.85 per hour (or £9.15 in ultra-expensive London).
Given how the living wage has become a hallmark of innovative left-wing thinking on “predistribution” since the turn of the decade, its apparent introduction by a chancellor previously branded as an elitist, staunch advocate of austerity politics was nothing short of a media and public sensation.
But what if this is read as a manoeuvre of cynical statecraft politics? The budget announcement will most likely further strengthen the Conservative government’s position in power and blunt any real opposition. By introducing such a hallmark progressive policy without warning (least of all in the Conservative manifesto), Osborne succeeded in tripping up his political opponents while simultaneously gaining widespread media appraisal.
More importantly, the policy itself is counter-balanced by a string of cuts to social security payments including tax credits (subsidies that top up low wages), student maintenance grants and housing benefits. So though poorer people are hit harder by cuts to vital benefits, this is shrouded by an increase in basic wages.
How will this political strategy affect British democracy? The announcement has been almost universally and instantly popular. Even The Guardian acknowledged the chancellor’s guile.
So on the one hand, especially if we employ Joseph Schumpeter’s basic definition of democracy as elite rule by popular politicians, it seems very democratic. Closer inspection of the policy, however, reveals that it is not nearly as radical as Osborne has made it out to be.
The actual level of pay will start at £7.20 in 2016 and rise to £9 per hour by 2020, falling short of the Living Wage Foundation’s calculation. When this deficit is coupled with the forthcoming welfare cuts, it becomes clear that the policy barely scratches the surface of the UK’s standards-of-living crisis.
Dashing hopes fuels public distrust
What will happen when people come to realise that Osborne’s policy does not warrant the media’s euphoric reaction? Expectations of a genuinely “high wage” economy and improved standards of living are already building.
Unfortunately, such hopes will soon be dashed by the swingeing cuts to tax credits and the disembowelment of public services over the next five years. At the very least, any improvements will likely fall far short of what the Living Wage Foundation has campaigned for over the past decade.
And the result? Probably an even greater entrenchment of the cynicism and distrust in politicians that pervades liberal democracies throughout the Western world. More than ever we need to recognise how risky these “policy surprises” and moments of false euphoria are for the long-term health of our democratic ideals.
The hidden risk behind this political approach is that it encourages what might be called hyper-democracy. The concept of hyper-democracy captures the intensification of a corporate-political game, with fake popularity and even faker policies.
Such a situation does not mean that there is too much democracy. Rather, democracy takes on the characteristics of a malicious simulation in which media and political elites artificially create winners and losers in the daily news cycle. When popularity tricks are applauded and admired (much like Osborne’s announcement), when spin matters more than substance and when the public is ultimately left in the dark about the true intentions of political actors, democracy becomes a parody.
Like a drama or a comedy, or the latest box set of Veep (itself a brilliant satire of precisely this kind of politics), this parody denigrates the very ideal of democracy. It creates an image of democratic politics that is bound to disappoint and diminish our hopes of what politics can be.
By contrast, research shows that the most effective policies tend to be those that have been introduced gradually and constantly maintained and developed in collaboration with the citizens they affect. It’s the “slow boring of hard boards”, as Max Weber would have it. This isn’t to say that the democratic politics of hard boards can’t be enthralling, as long-strived-for ideals such as universal health care or racial and gender equality are achieved through slow and incremental, yet meaningful reform.
But, at its worst, hyper-democracy centres on personality cults and media-driven ploys. As Tony Blair and Barack Obama have shown, this can be as much the case for progressive politicians as for Conservatives.
Hyper-democracy is pervasive and, sadly, it may well be that Osborne’s “living wage” episode in the UK turns out to be yet another example of its pull – the debasement of democratic ideals through acts that in themselves appear very democratic.