Only 60 per cent of Australians think democracy is preferable to any other form of government, according to a Lowy Institute poll published last week. It gets worse. Just 39 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds favour democracy.
This anti-democratic scepticism seems to have taken everybody by surprise. But it shouldn’t, because we live in a profoundly undemocratic age.
The key is a follow-up question which asked whether the right to vote is important to the poll respondents – 98 per cent believe we personally deserve the vote. There’s no contradiction here. Many Australians think they should have a say on how the country is run but other Australians shouldn’t. We could dismiss this as the famed arrogance of Generation Y, but it’s more troubling than that.
Democracy requires a belief that all Australians have an inherent right to decide the future of the country. Every person can help choose the government, regardless of their background, wealth, intellect, or knowledge about public policy and current events.
Democracy won’t inevitably result in the best decisions. That’s not why it’s valuable – it’s valuable because it says we all have an equal right to participate in collective decisions.
The results of the Lowy poll show a rejection of that value. This is the fruit of a long process. We’ve been undermining political egalitarianism for decades. We no longer have any faith in the capabilities of other Australians.
Critics of the modern world claim Australians act contrary to their own best interests. We’ve apparently been brainwashed into buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have. We work too long and too hard for wealth that doesn’t make us happy, but we’re too miserable to stop.
Naturally, these criticisms are never self-applied. They’re faults found exclusively in other people.
If we’re all hopeless in our private affairs, no wonder we are second-guessing voting about public affairs.
There’s a psychological bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after its authors, which says that incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent. In February, David Dunning told the science website Life’s Little Mysteries that this has consequences for democracy: “most people don’t have the sophistication to recognise how good an idea is”. His comments were reported around the world as meaning science has proven democracy “doesn’t work”.
So this is a great time to be an expert. Elected politicians cannot possibly steer the ship of state by themselves. As Laura Tingle shows in her new Quarterly Essay, Great Expectations, Australians want government to solve almost every problem. Governments likewise want to be in control. And fulfilling our limitless demands requires technocrats, not democrats.
Policymakers often talk about regulations being administered “at arm’s length” from government. This is to ensure they are not subject to political interference. If we’re going to regulate, that’s probably a good thing. But we should be clear about exactly what “arm’s length” means: outside the control of the democratically elected representatives of the people.
Nothing illustrated our technocratic age better than Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, where the ”best and brightest” were assembled in Canberra to set policy agenda. The new PM said he was “throwing open the windows of our democracy”. But Rudd had just won a landslide election and had all the democratic approval he could need. The symbolic purpose of 2020 was not democratic at all. It was to hand the reins over to experts.
The cohort most sceptical of democracy is also the cohort that most votes Green. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. The sympathetic author of the textbook Green Political Thought, Andrew Dobson, writes of the “palpable tension between radical green objectives and the democratic process”. The public opposes much environmental action. Anybody with radical politics will be just a little bit disappointed by democracy’s results.
The response to the Lowy poll was telling. Some said it showed how badly we teach civics. Others flocked to social media to complain darkly about how intelligent the poll respondents were (“these people vote!”).
But ironically, the complaints show why Australians have come to be sceptical about democracy in the first place. Do we really want people who are too uninformed or too stupid to trust democracy to vote? Talk about reaping what you sow.