Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Adele Webb has an engaging article on The Conversation about ambivalence towards democracy among electorates. It’s the start of something but by no means the end. Have a read and then consider my response here.

There’s a challenge with applying a psychological concept like “ambivalence” to groups. Electorates will have “mixed feelings” about issues almost as a matter of a definition. They are after all, made up of many different individuals with differing goals. It’s more unusual to find things about which an electorate is “unambivalent”. Commentators frequently opine that “the people have spoken” – suggesting a single, clear order when the experience is more like a cacophonous choir of voices producing an outcome that no one individual may have desired. It’s noisy.

So when we talk about ambivalence among voters – are we talking about an aggregate view or the attitudes of individuals? Webb elides the distinction between the two but I think she wants to talk mostly about individuals. She gives an example based on her field work – where middle-class Filipino voters want civil liberties but not too much freedom. She sees those as contradictory and I can see why but of course they may not be. Voters often want more freedom and resources for themselves but fewer for other people. This is only contradictory if you assume their desires are universalist rather than selfish. After all, it’s not people like us that are a threat to order. It’s them. Over there. Webb does allude to this later on when she talks about conflict over definitions of who “the people” actually are.

I’d like to add that there are different forms of ambivalence. There is the hot, intimate ambivalence of loving and hating someone intensely. Then there is the cool, distant of ambivalence towards the far away. The ambivalence that many citizens feel towards democracy feels more like the latter than the former. The disconnection makes it easy for emotions to change. Democracy becomes a screen on which we project our desires and fears rather than a space in which we interact with each other – “voters [are] transformed into… passive bystanders”. Indeed the promise of populist leaders is to rekindle the passion, to hold their followers closer, sweep them off their feet and carry them over the threshold into the centres of power. They don’t necessarily keep their promises. Treat ‘em mean ‘n’ keep ‘em keen.

I completely agree with Webb that this ambivalence should not be seen as irrational on the part of voters and it should be taken seriously. Rather it should be understood and worked with. Likewise, many will are disappointed with democracy. The compromises that make up a functioning democracy are inherently disappointing. Now disappointment is not necessarily an a negative emotion but it does provoke action. The real question is whether democracies can find productive ways of managing and channeling this disappointment.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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