Anger and Mistrust Towards Politics and Government – The Diagnosis

… an Atlas blog post

angeratpoliticsPaul G. Thomas, 13 October 2016

In all western democracies there is unprecedented public anger, frustration, disillusionment and mistrust towards politicians and governments. Such a climate of public opinion has given rise to populist leaders who claim they are not politicians and that the political systems in which they operate are corrupt and broken. It is rare today to hear someone argue that politics is a noble profession and that government is a positive presence within the economy and society.

The anti -politics and anti-government mood is reflected in the rise of leaders like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the USA, Marine LePen, leader of the National Front Party in France, and Norbet Hofer leader of the Freedom Party in Austria. Such populist leaders capture the anger and resentment of many people who feel left behind by economic upheavals. There is a strong anti-immigrant message in their political appeals. It has always been accepted that politicians fudge the truth, but now many people believe they lie routinely to gain and office and once there they serve the interest of the well heeled and the well connected not the average citizen. Disgust with politicians goes along with lack of confidence in government as an institution. After decades of being told that government is ineffective and wasteful, many people have come to believe it.

Canadians and Manitobans might think that these negative sentiments do not describe the reality here. After, all, at the national level, in October 2015 we elected the Liberal Party and its young engaging leader after they promised an extensive democratic reform agenda. In Manitoba, in April of 2016 the Progressive Conservatives took office committed to making the province the most open, transparent and responsive jurisdiction in the country. Such developments must be grounds for at least conditional optimism that some political leaders recognize there is also a democratic malaise in this country that requires attention.

Evidence of that malaise is not hard to find. Over four decades going back to the 1970s polls revealed that trust in politicians and governments declined slowly, with only the occasional, short-lived small upswing. In a November 2014 poll done for the ethical leadership program at Ryerson University, 50% of Canadians declared they did not trust politicians. Nearly three quarters of respondents believed that politicians regularly break election promises. Over 70% of respondents believed that elected representatives quickly lose touch with the people who elect them. Over 50% believed that politicians use tax dollars to buy votes. Perhaps most disturbing, one third of the respondents believed that politicians frequently accept bribes and one fifth declared that political corruption had led to them to stop voting.

There are many factors, both historic and more contemporary, that have caused this serious trust gap to develop. Historically, since the 1960s people have become less deferential towards and trustful of elites of all kinds. After decades of post-war prosperity and the expansion of the welfare state, there were a series of economic downturns and downsizing of the public sector began, supported by high -octane rhetoric that anything ambitious governments tried ended up in failure. Some problems, such as poverty and climate change, seemed intractable. Political leaders and their parties were guilty overpromising and failing to be candid about the limits of government action in, for example, limiting the impacts of globalization or keeping society perfectly safe from terrorism. Poor political leadership, broken promises and scandals involving illegal and unethical actions were other factors. Party competition became more negative, personal and excessive in the view of many citizens.

The media has played a part as well. The media industry has become more diverse, competitive, aggressive and instantaneous on a 24/7 basis. Mainstream news outlets, editorialists, opinion columnists, cable news hosts, bloggers and online social media compete for an ever more fragmented audience by magnifying and sensationalizing the undoubted problems that arise in government. The existence of access to information and whistleblower protection laws, along with an army of oversight bodies for various purposes, ensure a regular supply of reports from which the parliamentary opposition and the media could draw mainly negative news about the political and governing processes.

The public cannot escape some of the blame for the negative political culture that exists today. People are paying less attention to politics and government. Many are ignorant about the basic features of the political system. Less than 5% of Canadians belong to a political party. There are estimates that only 30% follow policy debates closely. People tell pollsters they want authentic leaders who will “tell it like it is”, but politicians believe telling the truth will guarantee their defeat.

In summary, the interaction of a less deferential and ill- informed public, the complex problems facing governments, poor leadership, blunders and misdeeds and increased transparency have all combined, with the support of the media, to foster a culture of anger and frustration. That is the diagnosis; a second article will offer a prescription for how we deal with our democratic discontents.

Author: Paul G. Thomas is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar at the Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba. Recent articles include Electoral reform and the pros and cons of compulsory voting and Why electoral reform is always a political headache. Professor Thomas welcomes comment on this post and can be reached at Paul.Thomas@umanitoba.ca.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 14 October 2016.

Image: Business Insider, Almost 80% of Americans say they are angry with the federal government, at http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-poll-americans-angry-with-federal-government-happy-at-home-2016-4, accessed 14 October 2016.