A while back I wrote a series of posts on deconstructing democracy in which I noted that this form of rule ultimately rests on the consent of the majority, and that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is the contingent outcome of repeated conflict resolution efforts made at the political, social and economic levels. Because they are contingent, the three dimensions of consent are the subject of regular re-negotiation leading to collective compromises, the terms of which serve as the threshold of consent to which the majority must agree if democracy is to be consolidated and maintained over time.
The need for majority contingent consent in order to successfully reproduce democracy as both a political and social construct leads to self-limiting, incremental gains approaches on the part of groups and factions. The strategy is to advance sectoral fortunes via institutional means that ameliorate open conflict and facilitate the type of material and political compromises that reproduce mass contingent consent over time. Self-limiting and incremental gains approaches to realizing collective and individual interests are used in pursuit of mutual second best outcomes whereby all groups accept that attempts to maximize unilateral opportunities leads to collectively sub-optimal outcomes for the society at large.
Ideological and redistributive conflicts are denatured by the pursuit of the mutual second best, which in turn facilitates the achievement of material and political compromises that are reproducible over time. When that occurs, contingent compromises on matters of material and political interest frame public expectations of what are reasonable demands and achievable objectives on and by governments of the day.
That is why democracies are replete with calls for ideological moderation and centrist voting, and why they utilize institutions such as collective bargaining and compulsory arbitration when it comes to sectoral conflict.
In another series of posts I noted the problems inherent in transitional dynamics, which are the processes by which political regime change occurs. I wrote the posts early in the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, and I noted that bottom up transitions are not always revolutionary nor do they lead to democracy, and that top down transitions are more likely to result in negotiated and relatively peaceful devolution of political authority even if these too are not always, or even likely to be democratic. For those who may remember, I repeated the view that the interplay between opposition moderates and militants and regime hardliners and soft liners would most significantly influence the immediate outcome of a given transition, and that there would likely be a purgative phase following the transitional moment in which adherents of the old regime would be ostracized or victimized by supporters of the new one (if not the new regime itself). The latter is particularly true for countries with no historical experience with democratic forms of rule.
Needless to say, the Arab Spring and its sequels have tested these propositions and added a few new chapters to the regime transitions literature. But what continues to get relative short shrift, and which is a topic pertinent to any form of government that relies on majority support for its continuance in power, is the subject of managing expectations.
Achieving and maintaining the threshold of contingent majority consent requires management of public expectations of what is reasonable in terms of demands and what is achievable given the socio-economic and political context of the times. Resource availability, trade dependency, labor force skill base, nature of political representation and a host of other factors influence what are considered to be “reasonable” demands and “achievable” goals at any given point in time.
If individuals and groups concur on what is generally reasonable and achievable, mass contingent consent based upon self-limiting and incremental gains strategies leading to mutual second best outcomes is possible. Sectoral agreement on specific issues does not have to be uniform or absolute, and instead is the subject of institutionalized conflict resolution mechanisms involving debate and negotiation.
In democracies the key element in determining what is reasonable and achievable in a particular historical moment is government framing of the issues that condition individual and group approaches to making demands on political authority. Issue framing not only allows the government of the day to define the terms of debate about the specifics on which reasonable demands and achievable objectives are construed. It also allows the government to manage popular expectations as to what is and is not reasonable or achievable.
I mention this because one major problem for nascent regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere is and has been managing popular expectations of what can be delivered by a sudden move to electoral rule. “Democracy” means a lot of things to a lot of people, from unfettered freedom of expression to free blue jeans and TV sets. Many envision democracy as being a panoply of rights unencumbered by responsibility, to include the need for tolerance of others whose views, persuasion or traits are not congruent with one’s preferred world view.
The rush away from authoritarianism also has a tendency to encourage demagogic promise-making on the part of political contenders that has little relation to (or bearing on) what can be reasonably demanded on or achieved by the new regime. The syndrome is compounded when the incoming elite has little knowledge of, much less training or skills in the complexities of macroeconomic management, social policy, international diplomacy and trade or a myriad of other areas of government responsibility. Sometimes the best opposition leaders are the least qualified to govern.
The combination sets up the scenario of failed expectations: new political regimes based on popular support often fail to adequately manage expectations so as to give themselves time to learn the intricacies of their position and to establish priorities as to what can be reasonably demanded and achieved. Popular demands for short-term remedies and immediate material gains outweigh the regime’s capacity to deliver on what was promised, much less what was implicitly expected at the moment of transition. That produces a withdrawal of mass consent and a reversion to first-best or maximalist group strategies that lead to non-institutionalized mass collective conflict. This has been evident in Egypt and, with some significant differences in terms of the specifics of what is being debated and the intensity with which it is being contested, is also apparent in Turkey.
In established democracies the issue of managing expectations has roots not so much in what is immediately promised but in what has been historically delivered. The longer and more deeply embedded the concepts of reasonable and achievable are in the public consciousness, the more difficult it is to significantly alter downwards the threshold of mass contingent consent. Should democratic governments move to redraw the concepts of reasonable and achievable in order to downgrade or reduce the combined threshold of consent, the more likely it will be the non-institutionalized collective conflict will result. That has been the case in Greece and Spain.
In light of all of this, the National government in New Zealand has a challenge on its hands. Since the late 1990s the move to narrow the definition of citizenship rights and entitlements (the subject of yet another earlier post) has responded to incrementally applied corporate logics on the subject of collective demands in market driven climates of fiscal austerity in which reduction in state-provided public goods is seen as a basic requisite for economic competitiveness. The objective is to diminish public expectations of what is reasonably achievable and what can be reasonably demanded in a small open market economy.
The effort to reforge collective identities, at least with regards to public expectations of what is reasonable and achievable, has been largely successful. That has help lower the threshold of mass contingent consent in contemporary Aotearoa to levels that more closely approximate those of Asia than those of Europe or the Americas, and which are a far cry from those that existed before Rogernomics was imposed.
Even so, there is a limit to the downgrading of the threshold of consent and National appears to be approaching it. Be it the non-response to the Pike River or Rena disasters, the third world response to the Christchurch earthquake, the passing of legislation under urgency, the attempts to intimidate the media on both large and small issues (such as the Tea Cup affair or the personal denigration of Jon Stephenson because of his critical writing about the NZDF in Afghanistan), the focus on maximizing trade opportunities rather than affordable domestic consumption, the penchant for secrecy rather than transparency in policy-making, or even the arrogance and indifference of the PM when it comes to important questions about his leadership (epitomized by his repeated brain fades and his holidaying in the US rather than attending the funeral of NZ war dead), the combined effect may be that there comes a point where he and his government can no longer manage public expectations with a smile and a wave.
I am not sure when it will come or what that tipping point may be precipitated by, but it seems that we are well down the path towards a public withdrawal of consent to this government. It certainly will not look like the events in Athens, Cairo, Istanbul or Madrid, and the opposition may not have the ability to capitalize on the moment of opportunity provided it by public repudiation of the narrow definition of what is reasonable, achievable and expected of government, but it seems to me that the debased threshold of mass contingent consent has reached its limits in New Zealand.
The question is whether, should it eventuate, the withdrawal of consent in New Zealand will be confined to “manageable” institutional channels focused on specific aspects of the three dimensions on which it is given, or whether it will evolve into something more.