terça-feira, 1 de novembro de 2016
Populist anger is ‘a gift wrapped in barbed wire’
Populist anger is ‘a gift wrapped in barbed wire’
Belgian author attempts to make sense of voters’ mounting sense of frustration.
By ESTHER KING 11/2/16, 5:30 AM CET
The Flemish author and poet David Van Reybrouck has spent his career writing about those whose voices are only rarely heard. His books include a travelogue set in post-apartheid South Africa and an award-winning “Epic History of a People” about the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In his latest work, however, he has turned his attention to a group of “voiceless” people much closer to home: voters in Europe and the United States.
A feeling of disenfranchisement, Van Reybrouck argues, lies behind the anger on display among electorates across the West. The rise of populists like Donald Trump in the United States, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France and Frauke Petry in Germany, and the fury on display during the Brexit debate all share a common cause: an attempt by establishment politicians to shut down the debate. It’s because citizens are feeling excluded that the shouting is getting louder.
“The anger of citizens we see today is not a danger for democracy,” says Van Reybrouck. “It’s a gift. It shows that people are committed and are willing to engage with their society. It’s a gift, but it’s wrapped in barbed wire.” The trick, with this gift, he says, is to figure out how to unwrap it.
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Van Reybrouck’s insights came out of the 2010-2011 Belgian political crisis, in which the country’s elected officials failed to form a government for 541 days. What most political commentators wrote off as a quirk of an unwieldy political process became, for Van Reybrouck, the symptom of a larger problem.
The idea that citizens were given the right to speak only every four or five years, and only by ticking a box on a piece of a paper, struck him as absurd — and counterproductive. “Democracy is quintessentially people talking to each other,” he says. “But our democracies have become very, very silent. We vote in silence, and then we shout … on Facebook and Twitter. But a sort of meaningful discussion with people who might have different ideas is not taking place anymore.”
“The easiest job for a politician today is to be a populist leader.”
It is not just that people feel voiceless, it’s that they are voiceless. Governments across Europe have met anger with anger. Attacks on populism have been just as vitriolic as their targets. As those expressions of anger are dismissed as ignorant, uninformed or retrograde, the gulf between the elite and the broader public has grown. “Many of the politicians today remind me of the aristocracy in 1788,” says Van Reybrouck. “The masses are shouting and yeah that’s annoying, but the crisis won’t come. One year later, the Bastille was stormed.”
The mounting sense of frustration, he says, feeds into the populist narrative. “The easiest job for a politician today is to be a populist leader,” he says. If someone with “a little more self-control than Donald Trump” had taken up the banner of populism in the United States, he or she would easily have swept up the votes of an increasingly frustrated electorate.
Referendums may have become the tool of choice for politicians trying to reassure voters that they are being heard. But these offer only the illusion of control, says Van Reybrouck. In the Brexit debate, for instance, voters were made to believe their vote mattered, but once the polls had closed and the votes to leave had been counted, they quickly lost any say in how their decision would be implemented. “The referendum has become the toy of populist leaders,” says Van Reybrouck. “I am deeply convinced that if we refuse to update democracy, we’ll see the end of democracy, and quite soon.”
People hold signs with lights that spell out 'DUMP TRUMP' while demonstrating against Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump
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In the midst of the Belgian crisis of 2011, Van Reybrouck launched G1000, an experiment in participatory democracy that brought together 704 people chosen at random to discuss ideas for solving Belgium’s political gridlock.
Participants were asked to express their feelings on various aspects of the political situation by rating the government’s response to an issue on a scale of one to 10. They proposed steps that would incrementally improve that rating by a notch or two, and then discussed the ideas with their neighbors over several rounds of debate led by academics and political experts.
When the answers were gathered by the organizers, the result was a collection of tangible policy proposals that were handed over to the country’s seven presidents of parliament. The format has since been adopted by political parties across Belgium, and the Netherlands has hosted more than 10 of its own G1000 events. The Dutch government has created a parliamentary commission to look at democratic renewal. And in the city of Utrecht, the mayor’s cabinet regularly confers with citizens for solutions to pressing policy issues, such as migration, that weren’t on the table during electoral campaigns.
“Not doing anything about our democracy is opening the gates to anarchy.”
Small European countries, especially those that have gone through a crisis such as Belgium and Iceland are more willing to innovate and should become laboratories for mechanisms of participatory democracy, he says. At the moment, Ireland leads the pack. In 2012, 66 citizens were chosen by lot to join 34 government officials in a debate on constitutional reforms. In October, the country repeated the process, randomly selecting 99 citizens to tackle some of the country’s most politically sensitive questions, including legalizing abortion and climate change.
Van Reybrouck, who has laid out his ideas in his book, “Against Elections: A Case for Democracy,” has been invited by the leader of the Belgian senate to hold an experiment in which a chamber of citizens chosen by lot would join senators in discussing issues that fall under the senate’s purview, such as constitutional reform and laws governing the organization of the federal system.
The idea, he is careful to say, is not to replace elections with a lottery. It’s to experiment with methods to bring the voices of citizens into the democratic process.
At the risk of sounding like a Cassandra prophesying the end of days, Van Reybrouck cautions that our democracies have become ticking time bombs. “I see why people fear anarchy when they hear me talk,” he says. “But not doing anything about our democracy is opening the gates to anarchy.”