Conceptually, democracy is simple. All people above a certain age are eligible to vote in an election for a candidate of their choice, those candidates being anyone who is minded to stand. In practice it is very different. Politics being about power and how and by whom it is wielded, this is unsurprising.
The democratic process inevitably leads to the establishment of political parties and the dilution of choice. Further, parties are susceptible to many pressures, both internal and external, above and beyond the ballot box.
Such pressures can materially reduce their function as effective administrators and guardians of the public interest.
Candidates standing for election aspire to office, whether it is in national government or through membership of a local council. To achieve and wield such influence and power as they have, they must cohere with like-minded peers. The creation of programmes of administration and government among the like-minded requires a pooling of resources. This is the basis and function of political parties.
And the creation, maintenance, research and electioneering activities of political parties require considerable financial resources; and to ensure those resources are effectively deployed, parties choose their own candidates.
Outsiders may stand for election but this is a process seldom blessed with success. Conversely, it may be argued that too much choice leads to underfunded political parties and electoral confusion.
Although the duration of the election process and the scale of costs thereby entailed vary widely internationally, the extremes of expenditure in the US are indicative of the overall challenge. According to the Washington Post, in December of 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had campaign funds totaling USD1.4 billion, and candidate Donald Trump USD957.6 million.
And to achieve success at elections political parties must make a broad appeal to the interests of voters, or rather blocs of voters. Indeed, political parties internationally have either emerged through or been created by the efforts, organizing abilities and finances of particular interests.
In Hong Kong, the Liberal Party was established in 1993. Its basic objectives were to be pro-business, pro-Beijing and conservative. In the UK, the Labour Party was founded in 1900, initially as the representative of organized labour, the trade unions. In the US, the Republican Party has long been identified as pro-business.
Political parties in democratic societies are constantly forced to seek an elusive equilibrium between the demands of their members, their funders, blocs of critical voters and what they perceive to be the wider public interest.
The pressures from these diverse interests are manifest in various ways: the granting or withholding of money, lobbying, internal squabbles and elections, public campaigns, demonstrations, agitation by conventional and social media. And the public voice expressed through the ballot box.
But the low rates of membership among political parties demand they are constantly in search of alternative sources of funding. Donors matter.
Despite the importance of the political process and the practice of government, politics is in fact a minority pursuit.
Political parties are often coy about their membership numbers. Among the more transparent, the UK parties between them can claim a total membership of about 1.5 per cent of the population.
Being engaged in a minority pursuit, active politicians – those in office and aspirants – are representing, but not usually representative of, their voters.
In 2015, the National Law Journal in the US noted that in the previous Congress, 39 per cent of House members had been lawyers and in the Senate the percentage had been 57. One deeply respects lawyers but there can sometimes be too much of a good thing.
According to the Smith Institute, in 2015 in the UK House of Commons, the largest single professional group, 25 per cent, of MPs had an occupational background in politics. They also recorded that 52 per cent of Conservative MPs had been to fee-paying schools, 17 per cent of Liberals and 12 per cent of Labour members. The national average was seven per cent.
In France, the National Assembly membership is dominated by managers – a mix of public and private – trailed by the self-employed, and seasoned with a sprinkling of retired teachers.
In free and democratic societies it is open to anyone to voice their views and seek to influence the esoteric individuals who govern us, constrained only by legal considerations such as bribery and corruption.
Given the restricted experience of elected assemblies such representations are in fact a public obligation.
But there are concerns about the influence of some representations. Writing in Fortune on 4 December, Alana Abramson, reported that while the recently passed US tax bill was generally unpopular with voters, Republican Party business donors were very happy.
In politics, as elsewhere, money speaks with a very loud voice. Whether it speaks too loudly, prejudicing the wider public interest is an open question.
But undoubtedly, the widening gap between the rich, the middle class and the poor, between the highly educated and less educated, is a source of concern. It is an issue that Western democratic societies find difficult to address.
In 1918, Oswald Spengler wrote The Decline of the West. At the start of the 21st century democratic governments need to come to terms with relative if not absolute decline.
Whether this involves constraining the influence of wealthy donors on the political process, taking a less parochial view of national interests, avoiding immersion in internal party political obsessions – Brexit in the UK, cultural wars in the US – or seeking on some way to make politics more appealing to the young, or all of the above, is unclear.
In November 1936, Edward VIII of the UK, who later abdicated, was visiting an abandoned coal mine and remarked of the miners ‘that something should be done to get them working again’. In 2018, something needs to be done to get democratic politics working again. Right now, it looks a mess.