Historical story

Are we tired of democracy?

Municipal elections will be held again on March 19. Research agency TNS-Nipo has calculated that less than half (42 percent) of eligible voters intend to vote. The willingness to vote for local politics has been declining for years. Aren't we getting tired of all that deliberating and co-deciding?

When the De Jong cabinet abolished compulsory voting in 1970, the turnout in municipal elections fell immediately. In 1966 more than ninety percent of the votes were cast, in 1970 it was only around seventy percent. With that seventy percent, politicians on the eve of the March 19 elections would have been quite pleased. Research agency TNS-Nipo expects a historically low turnout of only 42 percent. According to TNS, the prognosis is a good predictor of the actual turnout.

Interest in municipal politics is traditionally lower than in elections to the House of Representatives. That is not surprising, because national elections are about major, often fundamental issues. Where do we want to go with the country? How many asylum seekers are still welcome? How do we distribute wealth? How fast can we drive on the highways? These questions are less important in municipal elections. Moreover, the media goes the extra mile with every parliamentary election to make it an even bigger circus than the year before.

But local elections are becoming a concern, also for national politics. The leaders of the major political parties all say they are concerned about the low turnout. It is therefore not an incident. Since the 1970s, there has been a slow but consistently declining trend in attendance figures. All that deliberating and co-deciding – also about matters that are not very close to our heart – are we perhaps starting to get a little tired of it?

Metal fatigue

“Politics is largely to blame for the fact that people are turning away from politics,” is the view of Gijs van Oenen, associate professor of practical philosophy at Erasmus University. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the government relinquished its own authority. She started outsourcing all kinds of tasks because she thought that private parties could do it better. (Think of transport and electricity companies, ed.).”

“If the government is outsourcing more and more of its tasks, then what is politics? 'Machinability' has become individual. Citizens are given the idea that they can do everything best themselves.”

But there is more going on, according to Van Oenen. Within the NWO project Contested Democracy, he has conducted research in recent years into what he calls 'interactive metal fatigue'. “The 1960s and 1970s marked the end of a long process of emancipation,” he says. “I don't just mean the emancipation of certain groups, such as the emancipation of women. The aim is a general process of liberation from subordination and oppression that already began in the Enlightenment. Since then, in principle, everyone has the opportunity to lead a completely free life. But we are only now beginning to see that this also has a downside.”

In his book 'Not Now! On the interpassive society', Van Oenen argues that there is 'too much of a good thing' when it comes to emancipation, with all its acquired freedoms and options. “The fact that everything is possible also means that everything has to be done,” he says. “This leads to choice stress such as so-called thirty-something dilemmas. I recently saw a documentary in which a girl was asked what her greatest fear is. "That I can't get the most out of myself," she replied. That answer would have been unthinkable at any other time in history.”

Refuse horse

Democracy is the political implication of this completed emancipation process. So that 'too much of a good thing' in principle also applies to democracy. Emancipation and democracy are now threatened by their own success, says Van Oenen. The interactive involvement, which the completed emancipation and democracy require, have become a kind of duty, according to Van Oenen.

We do others, but especially ourselves, a shortcoming if we are not willing and able at all times to participate in the discussion and decision-making about the rules that apply to us. This excessive load leads to a kind of refusal, in a manner of speaking like a horse refusing in front of an obstacle. Sometimes it just gets too much. In his book, Van Oenen speaks of the 'tragedy of successful emancipation.'

According to Van Oenen, the attempts of politicians to 'close the gap between citizens and politics' are counterproductive. “There is actually too little of a gap between citizens and politics,” he says. “Bringing politics closer to the people leads to higher expectations, but ultimately only to voter disappointment. It robs us of the illusion that we can blame the perceived failure of politics on incompetent politicians. The fact that politics is close to us means that if politics fails, we actually fail ourselves. And that is a confrontational message.”

“Populist politicians often give the idea that there is a kind of magical power from politics, that politics can do a lot, as long as there are reliable, capable people. “Politicians are all pickpockets,” you often hear. Populism is a kind of dream that politics can be two things at once; tough guys who put things in order but who also listen closely to 'the will of the people'. Viewed in this way, populism seems like a final convulsion of the idea that the world can be made through politics. But that manufacturability has become individual.”

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