The most popular candidate this federal election is arguably cynicism. The April budget was read as a scramble to win votes rather than a plan for the future. The major parties sing different tunes on climate change, depending on whether they are serenading north or south of Noosa. Most of us live in safe seats where our lower-house vote won't swing the result, and we struggle to make sense of giant Senate ballot papers.
It's hardly surprising we hear jokes like "don't vote, it only encourages them" or "it doesn't matter who you vote for, a politician always ends up winning".
This vein of humour draws on a critique stretching back 2400 years. In The Republic, Plato used the image of the shipowner and the sailors to illustrate the inherent flaws of Athenian democracy.
The shipowner, representing the people, is big and strong, but has poor hearing, bad eye sight and limited knowledge of seafaring. The sailors (politicians) all clamour to be appointed captain, bribing the shipowner with gifts of drugs or wine that dull the mind, and trying to outbid one another with empty claims about their navigational skills. If one sailor gets the nod, others may gang together to chuck that person overboard.
In an era when Canberra is called "coup capital", Plato's image resonates down the centuries.
Plato's point is that the sailors are not worried about guiding the ship of state safely to harbour; they just want their hands on the tiller and control over the ship's biscuit. In the race for office, would-be leaders appeal to people's appetites and encourage a chaos of shrill, competing demands. Plato thought tyranny was the inevitable next step, as disenchanted voters turned to a strong leader to restore order.
The trajectory of Hungary under Viktor Orban, Turkey under Recep Erdogan, Russia under Vladimir Putin, the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte and even the United States under Trump, suggest Plato's fears were not misplaced. But Plato's alternative of a caste of philosopher kings perpetually ruling over us is no more appealing.
Part of the problem is the way we think about democracy. If we see it merely as the periodic chance to select our leaders, we are bound to suffer disappointment. We are surrendering our wills to whoever the contest between power-hungry sailors happens to throw up as captain.
This is to treat democracy as the preserve of professional politicians and their cohorts of expert advisers and influence peddlers. Every few years, we get a limited say about who gets to run the ship and how, but, in between, we're just passengers grumbling on the lower decks.
If we want to set the ship of state on a steady and sustainable course, we must build democracy from the bottom up, not suffer it from the top down. Politics is not just about parliaments and legislation. It is not just about how we share the pie or make the pie bigger. These things are crucial, but politics, broadly understood, is about how we live together and what we owe to one another as citizens and humans. This kind of understanding is built on the moral conversations and ethical thinking that arise from engaging with one another in the everyday details of life.
In his later years, with the spectre of Nazi Germany haunting his thoughts, American philosopher John Dewey warned that democracy was not "something that perpetuated itself automatically". Democracy, he insisted, must be "a way of life".
Democracy as a way of life does not necessarily mean joining a party or running for office, though these options are open to us. It may involve attending rallies or campaign meetings, writing letters to the editor or lobbying MPs, but for Dewey it is built up from activities that might not seem political at all: engaging with your children's school, getting involved in your professional association, joining a union, helping out in a soup kitchen, volunteering on a community project, taking an active interest in your local environment and much else besides.
In such activities in neighbourhoods and workplaces, we rub up against one another, articulate our differences and learn how to resolve them. Dewey believed these everyday associations not only created the fertile ground for democracy to flourish, but also enriched our lives. Contemporary philosopher and Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen expresses a similar view. A "life we have reason to value", he says, is a life in which we act "as citizens who matter and whose voices count, rather than living as well-fed, well-clothed, and well-entertained vassals".
If we feel demoralised at the ballot box, perhaps it is because we see voting as our only political act in otherwise private and isolated lives. If we want to restore faith in democracy and regain moral agency - to become 're-moralised' - we might start by engaging with others to care for a corner of the ship, regardless of who ends up as captain.
- Peter Mares is lead moderator with the not-for-profit Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, which helps executives develop critical reasoning and ethical decision-making.
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