In recent times, the political world looks like a very strange place. Not only outcomes that are difficult to rationalise are occurring at an increasing frequency -- from Brexit to the electoral victory of Trump -- but there is a strange sense of frustration and anxiety that has gripped the political space across countries.
A common underlying tone of this frustration is that most concerned citizens sense there is an acute disconnect between their individual or collective aspirations and how politics ultimately plays out. In essence, there is a sense of no real influence of citizens on laws that are passed in either the US Congress or Indian Lok Sabha, or the decisions that are taken in 10 Downing Street.
To better phrase the anxiety, it seems like in most democracies, citizens just have a mere vote every four or five years, but not a real voice to change or influence outcomes.
This concern, that there might be a systematic disenfranchisement of masses from influencing outcomes that shape the quality of their respective lives within polities that are often categorised as an oasis of democracy, first captured my attention when I examined the comparative development analysis of India by Jeane Dreze and Amartya Sen in their book An Uncertain Glory. Interestingly, their examination revealed that in spite of benefitting from six decades of electoral politics, relatively free media, and strong judicial institutions which hold political elites accountable, across a large array of development indicators India has lagged substantially behind countries like Bangladesh or China -- where democracy was either in its embryonic form or absent altogether (see Table 1).Of course, one might play devil’s advocate and argue that the only reason there is significant variation in development indicators between India, Bangladesh, and China is because voters or citizens in India have different policy preferences. Yet, this will be an overstretch as it is difficult to rationalise that poor parents in India care less about their children’s schooling or immunisation than parents in Bangladesh or China.
Further, the fact that after six decades of electoral politics, nearly two-thirds of India does not have access to improved sanitation makes one contemplate if the ordinary voters have an actual power to influence resources that are diverted to them.
The presence of such acute deprivation also can make one question: Why did voters in India fail to punish politicians for not adequately addressing such basic deprivations? Can’t a majoritarian political system ensure (at least) that such visible mass deprivation receive critical public scrutiny and are dealt with effective policies that worked in a relatively resource-poor country like Bangladesh?
What stopped the vibrant India media from creating a hue cry over such issues? Do voters in India (or in other democracies) have any real influence on policies and laws that are ultimately agreed upon by the political elites?
The questions posed above are critical for us to scrutinise so that we understand why and how majoritarian political systems, where electoral politics decide which exact set of parties or individuals govern, can nonetheless facilitate subtle mass disenfranchisement by allowing citizens to have votes, but no real voice or influence in shaping policies.
Yet, this phenomenon is not solely an Indian problem. If we actually evaluate the state of many western liberal democracies, certain outcomes fail to make any rational sense if one agrees on the basic premise that democracies should be better able to prioritise the interest of the many over the interest of the few.
Figure 1 illustrates a stark example of what is meant. As pointed out by the time series evolution of wealth inequality owned by the top 0.1% (yes, not 1% but top 0.1%) and the bottom 90%, it is evident that in contemporary times, both groups cumulatively have a similar level of wealth in the US. Most interestingly, the relative share of the wealth of top 0.1% has witnessed a substantial rise after the late 1970s, and the relative wealth of the bottom 90% in US witnessed a gradual decline after the mid-1980s.
Of course, this economic evolution can make one question that within a political avenue that witnessed the birth of the first constitutional democracy, how could citizens not find a scope to ensure politicians address such harsh degree of inequality through redistributive policies? Or should we accept the proposition that voters in the US do not care about economic inequality?
Again, this is a difficult proposition to establish because, recent estimates not only suggest that more than 40 million people in the US live below the poverty line (which makes it difficult to believe that they are not concerned with the growing level of wealth inequality), recent opinion polls derived by PEW Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project have also indicated that “concerns of inequality trump all other danger” for respondents in United States and Europe.
Thus, the case of US (just like India) only makes it legitimate for one to question if citizens, whose aspiration to defeat the harsh realities of their lives, actually suffer from subtle disenfranchisement where the political establishment allows them to vote, but their real voice and concerns have very little impact on the policies that are ultimately chosen.
No wonder, one might even argue that this sorry state of socio-economic reality in the US probably explains the acute deficit of trust of US citizens in its own government, which peaked with President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (who declared a war on poverty) and has witnessed a substantial decline ever since -- and recently stood at 19% (Figure-2). More importantly, can polities with this level of citizen distrust for their state apparatus have really extended the franchise to the ordinary masses?If we also examine the growth of inequality in other democracies (Figure-3), which coexists with the growing number of people who feel that their country is not heading in the right direction, it makes one suspicious if policy establishment is failing to register the real concern of people.
Figure-4 also brings to attention two interesting variations. Not only can we see that people’s confidence in how their respective countries function and whether they are in the right direction vary considerably between democracies, there is also some unexpected candidates with a large share of optimistic citizenry.
More specifically, why is it that in Canada, nearly three out of five people feel that their country is headed in the right direction, while in the US, only two in five will agree to that statement? Are ordinary Canadians availing some kind of service from their political landscape that makes them enjoy such optimism?
Similarly, why would 68% of Argentinians feel that their country is headed in the right direction but only 9% of Brazilians feel similar? Or why would countries that have formally not extended the voting franchise to its citizens like China or Saudi Arabia enjoy such level of confidence within its citizen concerning its respective direction, but countries like France -- the political cradle of individual liberty -- have such dismal citizen confidence?
Are such variations in public response concerning the direction of their respective country reflect some kind of variation in underlying disenfranchisement in voicing their experiences?The questions that I have tried to bring attention to are difficult to settle rigorously with the descriptive statistics that I have discussed in this article. Yet, there is little doubt that a comprehensive assessment of modern democracies will remain incomplete if we solely evaluate the purist or just nature of its institutions but not the actual outcomes it is delivering.
More than anything, there is a genuine need to introspect and assess if political landscapes, which are popularly categorised as democracies, have been able to give real voice to its citizens (and not just a mere vote) to address chronic socio-economic deprivations and economic injustice that are difficult to justify in a political system that is concerned with empowering the masses.
What, of course, remains an imperative inquiry is if, why, and how political systems that mimic democratic ideals can nonetheless suffer from subtle mass disenfranchisement -- a subject I will discuss in a follow-up article.
Dr Ashikur Rahman is a Senior Economist, Policy Research Institute.