In several rich, post-industrial constitutional democracies, angry citizens are marching once again. And can you blame them? They watched as out-of-control banks took outrageous risks and brought hitherto sound economies to their knees. They watched as these banks were rescued with tax-payer resources. They watched as the same bankers and banks returned to their buccaneering ways, while escaping any accountability. Now, everywhere austerity measures are crushing the underclass and shrinking the middle class. The culture of impunity at the top of society is driving ordinary citizens into paroxysms of rage. Now, they are beginning to march, and march. Nobody knows where it is all going to lead.
Two quick points on all this.
First, what we are witnessing is the slow-burn nature of public opinion. Most citizens are not politics junkies. They don't immediately register transgressions at the top. When these occur, the spread of the news, analysis, debate and discussion ---both in the media and via everyday talk amongst citizens-- takes a while. It also takes a while for outrage to build, and for enough citizens to decide to do something about it. Moreover, it is not easy for ordinary citizens to act collectively, although new tools (ICTs and social media) and old organizational structures (like labor movements) do help.
Second, what is going on should remind us, once again, that democratic elections while vital do not fully solve the problem of making governments accountable to their citizens, especially in the long periods between elections. As John Dunn teaches us, elections are a fuzzy, unreliable accountability mechanism.* Elite coalitions work everyday to secure their own interests, avoid accountability, and direct all the consequences of their own misdeeds onto the weak shoulders of the poor...including the middle classes. As I like to say: Counter-reform never sleeps. Elite coalitions persist, stay in the game, fund lobbyists, subvert the political process, blunt attacks...all with relentless focus. And all this is why the work on strengthening the capacity of citizens to hold their own governments -- and bad elite coalitions --- accountable is urgent work. And one that must persist, insist, march if need be; but, by all means, never let up.
*John Dunn. 'Situating Political Accountability' in Prezeworski, Stokes and Manin (eds.), Democracy, Accountability and Representation (1999).