Stephen Collins: Ireland not immune to virus that spawned Donald Trump’s success

Irish voters are also no longer won over by facts; instead emotion carries all before it

One of the anti-EU campaign leaders, Michael Gove, summed up the mood when he dismissed the economic facts of life by saying that people had had enough of experts. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

One of the anti-EU campaign leaders, Michael Gove, summed up the mood when he dismissed the economic facts of life by saying that people had had enough of experts. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

 

The emergence of Donald Trump as a serious candidate for the American presidency and the decision of the British people to leave the European Union are similar developments that raise serious doubts about the health of western democracy.

Ireland is not immune to the virus either as the recent general election demonstrated, even if a hopelessly hung Dáil represents a milder, more benign form of the disease.

At the core is a loss of faith in established politicians, political parties and even in the democratic process itself.

Voters are no longer won over by facts; instead emotion carries all before it. The outcome of the Brexit referendum was a prime example. Almost all experts agreed the British economy and consequently the British people would suffer materially if they voted to leave the European Union.

In the end this did not prove decisive as everybody, including the bookies, had anticipated. Patriotic emotion, whipped up by scoundrels, carried the day. One of the anti-EU campaign leaders, Michael Gove, summed up the mood when he dismissed the economic facts of life by saying people had had enough of experts.

In this country, conventional wisdom before the February election was that the last government would get some credit for the significant recovery in the economy between 2011 and 2016. Not only did the reverse happen but a huge proportion of the electorate refused to believe there had been any improvement in the first place.

Perceptions of truth

A majority of voters is simply not prepared to believe anything from established politicians even when they are clearly telling the truth. The rise of Trump in the US and the proliferation of Independent TDs of all hues here are symptoms of the low regard in which traditional politicians are held.

The problem was starkly illustrated in the focus group research carried out for The Irish Times before the February general election which showed people held Independent candidates in far higher esteem than they did party politicians.

Independents were regarded as principled because they were not involved in government while party politicians were held in low esteem precisely because they were – or wanted to be – in office.

It is often said that politicians have only themselves to blame but, in recent times at least, that is actually not true.

Yes, we had an appalling economic crash almost a decade ago for a variety of reasons, including bad political leadership, but the recovery was brought about by courageous political decision-making, first by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government and then by Fine Gael and Labour. Both governments were punished rather than rewarded for doing the right thing. By contrast the Bertie Ahern-led governments were re-elected for making the irresponsible decisions that contributed to the crash.

There is also no evidence our current crop of party politicians are more dishonest or untrustworthy than those of previous generations. If anything, the reverse is the case but that has not stopped public cynicism about politics from reaching alarming heights.

One irony, as pointed out by American commentator Jonathan Rauch in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly, is that the sweeping reforms designed to make politics more transparent and accountable have helped to undermine faith.

He pointed to reforms in the US which have ended the party-dominated nominating processes, put strict controls on party fundraising, ended congressional seniority and closed-door negotiations, and set limits to constituency spending.

“The political reforms of the past 40 or so years have pushed toward disintermediation – by favouring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organise the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomised model of politics in which there are candidates and there are voters, but there is nothing in between.”

Using polls and focus groups, two American political scientists, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, found 25-40 per cent of Americans have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work.

Research by Ipsos MRBI for The Irish Times has shown a similar proportion of the Irish electorate share a basic ignorance about the operations of government as well as an innate hostility to mainstream politics. A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.

Healthy scepticism

The media must take some responsibility for this ignorance. A healthy scepticism from the media about the decisions made by our political leaders and a determination to subject government decisions to rigorous questioning are a vital part of the democratic process. However, over the past decade or more, that has often turned into naked hostility to party politicians.

Ministers and TDs from mainstream parties trying to defend difficult policy decisions are usually given far rougher treatment than Independent TDs, while NGOs making narrow self-interested arguments are treated with kid gloves.

All of this feeds into the anti-politics narrative sweeping the democratic world. If it continues to gather force, the day of the loose-lipped demagogue could soon come round again. The silver lining of the Trump campaign is it might serve as a wake-up call about where trends will lead.

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