NOTE: First published in 2012
After the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C., romans all too eagerly let Octavian take over in nearly all fields of government. He cleverly first conducted successful military operations all over the empire, then, to the astonishment of every Roman, declared he would retire. The Romans, weary of the Republic and yearning for another strong personality tried to woo him back into government, Octavian eagerly gave in to their wish, having attributed almost all military and political powers to him without actually holding any of the offices usually required for these powers. He thus ruled Rome de facto, while in iure making it seem like he was humble in not accepting any public office.
Mario Monti, quite aware of history, is currently trying the same strategy- after a mostly positive run, he declares he is retiring, but willing to come back if the people want him to. This game made Octavian and will make Monti – in the case of a reelection – look like the savior that comes to free his people despite having better things to do; a martyr so to say.
It is telling that history should repeat itself once more in this way. All over the world, political leaders try this trick. Not the least, Jean-Claude Juncker, having used his high approval rates to his advantage before by declaring that if his party wouldn’t win the national elections he might leave for a career at the European Union- resulting in all Luxembourgers voting for him and his party because they think they simply can’t afford to lose him as head of the government.
Does this game with the electorate prove strong leadership though? No, it proves high manipulative skills, it proves that democracy is dead.
One could easily blame politicians playing the martyr card, but the real problem is that the electorate likes to play along. The people want a martyr. They feel that as long as they’ve got a strong political figure that decides to stay in office to fight for them while they could just as easily retire proves that they, as a people, are very special.
As with any cult, its members want sacrifices. In the cult of democracy, this sacrifice seems to have to be a Jesus-like figure, a man or woman that takes all the sins of the country on his or her shoulder and does so with a smile. People are not interested anymore in electing people that will represent their ideas in parliament, they are interested in making politics televisable, having charismatic leaders – never mind their message.
When Germany finally had a charismatic politician that was doing well with the media (Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg), they lifted him so high upon a pedestal it couldn’t have surprised anyone anymore when he fell from the lofty heights. His downfall, too, is characteristic of modern democracy however. We strive for transparency, no matter what the price.
While transparency is in general a development in politics one should welcome, we want transparency for all the wrong reasons. Once more one can see an electorate so conditioned by modern television that they live for the thrill of seeing the rapid rise of a star and the sudden fall of a once beloved character. We want transparency not because we want to see that our politicians are clean. We all secretly hope that each and every one of them has dirty secrets we can expose so we can report about them, humiliate them. It makes us feel better about our own lives.
I therefore propose to do away with elections as we know them as they seem to no longer serve our needs. In this surreal world where keeping our own privacy is the most holy good, but exposing others’ private lives is the highest pleasure, the only format that seems to work is the casting show.
Let’s only hope that after democracy, casting shows will lose their appeal as well, because at the end of the day the people electing our government are the same people that vote for the winner of a casting show. The outcome of both votes seems deeply troubling to me.
Dark indeed is the future of a democracy where the electorate loses all interest in the outcome of the only meaningful exercise of its power in a period of 4 to 5 years, this power being restricted to the sole picking of its representatives.
Rome had a well functioning republic for a long time, yet got weary of democracy in the long run and slowly established a monarchy instead. We may think having had revolutions in the recent past that lead us to democracy is the ultimate peak of our development, but history shows it could well go back into the opposite direction. A democracy has to be taken care of by the electorate like a garden. If the gardner decides to look the other way for several years, weeds are free to grow and it will be hard to tame them once they’ve spread throughout the entire garden.