The global political climate is constantly changing. While the model of liberal representative democracy tends to be the norm around the world today, things were not always this way.
When the surface of political science was just being scratched in Ancient Greece, Plato, critical of classical democracy, prescribed that in the ideal society–a republic–the most virtuous people would rule others in a corporatist manner. Aristotle, however, was more progressive. He conceded that different people should be ruled according to different constitutions. But, he did leave a margin for autocracy, claiming that barbarians could be justifiably ruled by tyrants. Under feudalism, social mobility became nearly absent and it was accepted that, in exchange for land and protection, the common man would be subservient to a monarch endowed with a divine right to rule.
This would change with the enlightenment, when people rejected the idea of unquestionable submission to kings and demanded to have the same political representation as aristocrats and clergy. As a mainstream solution to the people’s demands, representative democracy imposed several restrictions on who could voice the claims of the people. The institutions of modern democracy restricted political representation through electoral laws, campaign laws, party politics and behind-the-scenes politicizing, producing a distinct political class. It seems, however, that the present situation is seeing yet another paradigm shift in politics. There is increasing rejection of the political class and the image of politicians is deteriorating.
Perhaps the most poignant example of said phenomenon was the 2016 election of Donald Trump for President of the United States. An unprecedented event in many aspects, his meteoric rise to political prominence is completely unrivaled in its spontaneity. Never before in American history had a president been elected without having held any previous political office. Even previous presidents who would have normally been considered political outsiders, never having been elected to government, had at least served as cabinet members or as military leaders, whereas Trump’s experience was entirely concentrated in business and television. The fact that Trump was elected despite having no political experience is reflective of a broad societal resentment of established politicians and the political class.
One could argue that Trump’s candidacy and election was an isolated incident, given how he did not win the popular vote, but his promises of being the much-need voice of change in the worn-out political establishment were echoed by both Ben Carson, a heart surgeon, and Carly Fiorina, a businesswoman. All three candidates sold their absolute lack of political experience as positive qualities, with Ben Carson going as far as declaring in the announcement of his presidential bid, as paradoxical as it may seem for a presidential candidate, “I’m not a politician. I don’t want to be a politician because politicians do what is politically expedient”. He wanted to do “what is right”. Of all recent Republican primaries, this was the one with the most non-politician candidates.
In the United States, the decline in government and politicians’ favorability is an empirically established phenomenon. According to Pew Research in a survey conducted in 2015, only 16% of Americans can trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time and in a Gallup poll from December 2016 asking subjects to rate the honesty and ethical standards of different professionals, only 8% of people viewed members of congress as highly or very highly ethical or honest.
Senators were rated at 12% and state governors at 18%. For comparison, at their highest, in 1964 Pew’s trust in government rates peaked at 77%, while in November 2001, after the September 11 attacks, the ethics and honesty of congressmen and senators both reached 25%–governors were rated at 31% the year before. The term “politician” has become so synonymous with undesirable qualities that distancing oneself from the label is, ironically enough, the most politically expedient measure for candidates to take.
To be fair, all these measurements have in the past seen lower rates than the most recent ones. In 2011 trust in the federal government, and the ethics and honesty of congressmen both reached their lowest levels at 15% and 11%, respectively. The honesty and ethics of senators and governors’ lowest points were 11% and 15%, both in 2009. And as an additional note of skepticism, these measurements have not been taken by the same organization or with the same frequency, so there are some chronological gaps in the records. These are, however, valid means of quantifying Americans’ feelings towards their politicians and of getting a general idea of the nation’s political climate in order to more effectively read into it. What is most important to point out is that, although the most recent measurements are not the worst in history, there seems to be an overall downward trend in them. And perhaps even more poignantly, 2016 saw the lowest recorded values in an election year, which may help understand Trump’s election as a reflection of the issue at hand: the deteriorating image of the American political class.
Outside the United States, on an international scale, the issue is harder to quantify, but it seems other countries seem to be going through the same. The results from France's recent presidential elections seem to indicate the same underlying sentiment towards their politicians. Neither of the country’s two traditional parties made it to the second round, meaning it will be the first time in the history of the French Fifth Republic when the President will not belong to a mainstream party. Instead, the winning candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is backed by his own political party, En Marche, which he founded a little over a year ago and already managed to garner more than twice as many members as the traditional Socialist Party of former president François Hollande. A former investment banker and adviser to Hollande, Macron has never been elected to public office before, and now, Macron will be the youngest president in French history.