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A post-election agenda for democracy

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

A sense of relief swept over the globe when the nerve-racking US presidential election 2020 resulted in Joe Biden's victory over President Donald Trump. Democracy had won over populism. However, the fight was so even that we, who side for democracy, have all reason to look ourselves in the mirror. Since decades back, we have had a growing social divide, with wealth amassed by a few and growing poverty among the many, unemployment, social unrest and growing populism. Thus, no cause for contentment.

We need to connect a number of dots to see the bigger picture, and, as a political philosopher, Michael Sandel is well placed to do so. In his book The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? (2020) he shows, in a concise way, how things are connected and tells us that we should take populism as a wake-up call.

Sandel observes that populism is an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a globalisation that benefits an elite and leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered. To this should be added the technocratic approach to politics that is tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel left behind. The hard reality is, Sandel says, that Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances. And it is a deplorable fact that the mainstream parties have no compelling answers. "Before we can hope to win back public support, the elite must rethink their mission and purpose", Sandel asserts, noting that the same is true for European democracies.

Most OECD countries are today facing a "trust crisis". Fewer than 20% of Americans trusted their federal government in 2017, as compared to close to 80% in 1964. Confidence in national governments hovers around 40% on average in OECD countries. The figure is about 10 points lower in the countries that were hardest hit by the 2008 economic meltdown, e.g. Greece, Spain and Portugal, according to the study Beyond GDP, Measuring What Counts for Economic and Social Performance (2018).

Michael Sandel warns that the governing elites should not repeat the populists' xenophobia and strident nationalism but take the legitimate grievances behind these ugly sentiments seriously. They should begin by recognising that "these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem." Another vital point that Sandel makes is that we need to be aware of the reasons behind the populist protest. Therefore, we should not free governing elites of their responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeling disrespected and disempowered.

There's nothing inevitable about the diminished economic and cultural status of working people in recent decades; it is the result of the way mainstream political parties and elites have governed. Those elites are now alarmed, and rightly so, at the threat to democratic norms, Sandel says. They fail, however, to acknowledge their own role in nurturing the resentment that led to the populist backlash.

Let's go in further search of dots to be connected. Our societies appear reasonably decent when we look at a country's constitution, and we make the rule of law the pinnacle of constitutionality. But what about unjust laws?

Here a take on the Finnish constitution (of my country of origin), through which to add to Sandel's considerations.

"The constitution shall guarantee the inviolability of human dignity and the freedom and rights of the individual and promote justice in society." (Section 1)

"Democracy entails the right of the individual to participate in and influence the development of society and his or her living conditions". (Section 2)

Looks good, doesn't it? These are more or less the standards that Western constitutions promise. So, what went wrong, when the "inviolability of human dignity" and "the right of the individual to participate in and influence the development of society and his or her living conditions" sounds like scorn. In addition to overt governmental policies that Sandel refers to there is also a more hidden force at play; how our legal traditions represent the haves and the have-nots.

The problems we face are not derived from the constitutions but from the legislation that further defines constitutional provisions, as well as the bureaucratic culture in which the legislation is implemented. With the neoliberal economic policies and globalisation, we have had a dismantling of working life standards since the 1980s. The fundamental problem is that labour legislation is based on work as full-time and long-term employment. No matter its frequency, deviations from the 'standard' are called 'atypical'. Such work is uncertain, often poorly remunerated and has a decreasing or no social security coverage. Labour and social security legislation have, thus, not been designed to protect people who are employed part-time, short-term or on 0-hour contracts. On the contrary, we've had a flexibilisation of protective labour standards, that has served the economic elite. And, to add insult to injury, an oppressive workfare policy has often been pursued, that makes a mockery of the constitutional provisions of human dignity and the possibility to influence one's living conditions.

When the flexibilisation of working life started in the 1980s, it took almost 20 years for the European Union to arrive at a major regulation of atypical work. Since 1982, nine drafts had been put forward by the European Commission, before a directive was adopted in 1991, extending health and safety regulations to temporary workers. Not until 1997 was there a first major breakthrough in the form of a directive concerning the regulation of part-time work. It remains to be seen, Mark Jeffrey notes in 1998, whether this directive will prove to be the culmination of all the efforts made to address the issue of atypical work, or if it is the first step towards a larger body of European legislation in this area. Whatever the case, it must be a cause for serious concern, Jeffery notes (cited in Vivan Storlund, To each one's due at the borderline of work (2002)). It is worth noting that the first regulations concerned safety and health. What about the rest? There does not appear to be any significant improvements in people's status in the labour market since the 1990s, quite the contrary.

We thus have a growing precariat despite all the rights enshrined in the constitutions. So, back to Michael Sandel for the closing remark: The elites "do not see that the upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions."

Sources I've relied upon:

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