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Opinion: The drive for re-election is a major flaw of modern democracy

Caoimhín de Barra looks at democracy and asks if it prevents politicians from pushing for real change.

Caoimhín De Barra Associate Professor of History, Gonzaga University, Washington

MODERN DEMOCRACY, WITH universal male and female suffrage, is only a century old.

It is worth keeping in mind just how new our system of government is when we assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Most of us can remember a time, not that long ago when the superiority of democratic government was almost unquestionable.

In recent times, however, some of its flaws have been revealed. In particular, the rise of misinformation and the willingness of demagogues to tell outlandish lies to voters in the pursuit of power has created a crisis for democracy.

Early democracy

Assuming this storm can be weathered, we should be taking a hard look at all aspects of our system of government and see where improvements can be made for the benefit of society as a whole.

One feature of our government that rarely draws analysis is the fact that most politicians try to make careers out of public service. Many of us simply take it for granted that this is just part of the system of democratic government. But has it always been? And should it continue to be?

It would probably surprise people to learn that members of parliament in Westminster were not paid at all in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many elected officials saw themselves as making a noble sacrifice of their time and efforts for the public good.

Of course, this usually meant that one had to be independently wealthy to support oneself while in parliament. It was precisely to allow people from working-class backgrounds a greater opportunity to be elected to parliament that salaries were introduced for sitting members in 1911.

What incentives?

Few people today would quibble with the idea that elected representatives should be paid for their efforts in government. But the question is whether people should be able to make a career out of holding elected office?

As voters, we want our government to always make decisions for the good of the national interest. But when one is trying to make a career in politics, then there will often be cases where the national interest is at odds with one’s self-interest.

In such a scenario, politicians often make choices that will help them get re-elected rather than being for the common good.

To say this isn’t to deny that many of our politicians want to be good public servants. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the self-interest of politicians often interferes with the efficiency of government.

Evidence of this can be found readily overseas and at home.

One of the most obvious examples is the control that former US President Donald Trump continues to wield over the Republican Party in the United States. Many Republican politicians who repeat the rants of the former president do so in the knowledge that much of what they say is not true.

But they know that to challenge what Trump says is to commit political hari-kari. So they bend the knee and tell the tall tale. This is the smart move for their political careers. We wait to see what damage this will do to their nation in the long run.

It was ever thus

Political self-interest has also played a major role in stymieing the political system in Northern Ireland.

Why did it take almost four years after the IRA ceasefire in 1994 to hammer out a political settlement to the Troubles? Because politicians, not all but some, were afraid that being seen to compromise would be kryptonite to their future electoral success.

This has also been perhaps the single biggest factor behind the constant grandstanding and brinkmanship that has plagued the province’s politics since the Good Friday Agreement.

At home, the most controversial political topic in recent decades was the constitutional ban on abortion.

Since the turn of the 21st century, it was obvious there was a growing demand for a new referendum to repeal the 8th amendment. But a majority of Irish politicians avoided throwing their weight behind such a campaign until the public demand was overwhelming.

Eventually, a referendum was held and the 8th was repealed. But pro-choice advocates would argue that there were years of unnecessary suffering for thousands of Irish women before politicians were willing to grasp the nettle.

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While all of the above issues are significant, the most crucial way in which political self-interest has hindered the ability of liberal democracies to meet the challenges that face them is in response to the climate change crisis.

Shedding the old model

Across the world, politicians have shown themselves unwilling to take meaningful measures to offset the issues confronting humanity due to a warming planet.

Our current political system is particularly disadvantaged in tackling climate change. Politicians have little appetite for introducing changes that will be unpopular in the short term, regardless of how necessary they may be in the long term.

Of course, it is easy to point out the problem in a system. But what is the solution?
The most obvious idea is introducing term limits for elected officials.

This certainly has merit. Without the need to worry about re-election, elected officials would be guided less by self-interest and one eye on the polls in their decision making and have greater freedom to govern in the national interest.

Of course, that would also require a wider cultural change in Irish society whereby more people are willing to take a career break and put themselves forward for public service in representative government.

One reason the public has lost faith in democratic institutions is the belief that political leaders are only looking after themselves. Creating a system that prevents individuals from making a career out of politics would go a long way to restoring confidence that our government is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington. 

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Associate Professor of History, Gonzaga University, Washington

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