Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Pop culture meets politics

The desire for instant gratification can be overwhelming when leaders need time to implement unpopular decisions

By Ralf Dahrendorf


Replacing a governor whom they re-elected only a year before with Arnold Schwarzenegger must have given Californian voters an enormous -- if guilty -- pleasure. Some members of the opposition in Germany would dearly love to do the same to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, though they have not (yet!) found a film star to replace him.

Several other European governments find themselves in a similar state of unpopularity not long after being elected. Beyond Europe this is true even for the recently acclaimed Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, to say nothing of Mexican President Vicente Fox and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, the latter having called for a referendum to help arrest his sinking popularity.

Electoral success, it appears, fades fast nowadays. So should every country adopt a recall procedure to maintain the legitimacy of governments?

Absolutely not. Democracy, in the words of the philosopher Karl Popper, is about being able to remove those in power without violence; it is in this sense about trial and error. But leaders must be given the chance to govern. Indeed, they need a chance to make mistakes and to learn and recover from their errors, as long as their decisions do not affect the foundations of the democratic order itself. Trial and error implies the opportunity to err before we try again.

Californian voters' first mistake is thus what may be called "the lure of the immediate" -- none too surprising in a state where instant gratification is supposedly a core value. But sometimes this desire seems overwhelming in post-modern democracies everywhere.

Indeed, democracy nowadays has embraced a pop culture of rapidly passing fads; today's hysteria-generating pop group is forgotten tomorrow, and there are always more waiting in the wings. In politics this can be dangerous, because it encourages basing decisions, no matter how weighty, on whatever popular opinion momentarily prevails. The call for more referenda both reflects and fuels this trend.

Referenda are for the most part snapshots. Switzerland, with its generally slower pace and its thorough political debates before votes are held, may be the exception. As a rule however, referenda measure the popularity of political leaders at a particular moment, regardless of the issue at stake. If and when Britain votes on joining the Euro, the result will most likely tell us all sorts of things about Tony Blair and about the EU, but little about the merits of the common currency.

So the case for representative government remains strong. Democracy is government by debate, by taking important decisions after thorough deliberation of the kind that -- at least in large countries -- must be conducted in a parliament through elected representatives. Sometimes parliaments wish to act quickly, and perhaps must do so, but as a rule they take enough time to examine issues fully. Parliaments talk before reaching conclusions; hence their name.

Consider Germany, where some leaders of the opposition Christian Democrats yearn to sink the Schroeder government. Clearly, the reforms proposed and already partly enacted by the government are unpopular, and there is little doubt that, a year after their re-election, the coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens would not stand much of a chance at the polls.

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