In late 2016, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, former Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and D66 party prominent Jan Terlouw held an emotional speech on television calling for trust. Trust from the people towards politics, as well as trust from politicians towards citizens. The widespread lack of confidence from “the people” in politics seems to be one of the most prominent issues of our time. It is hard to say whether we are more busy complaining about politicians on the one hand, or worrying about the very same perceived climate of diffidence towards politics on the other. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus about the fact that faith in politics is at an all-time low in history. But does the claim pass the test of reality?
According to Mr. Terlouw, confidence in political leaders was much more commonplace during the reconstruction after World War II. Of course, people never agreed with Government decisions; but there was no diffidence towards the political class. Not only that, but people would also have more faith in each other. People would be able to enter each other’s homes right through the front door. All of this may sound incredible, if not outright unrealistic for most people younger than 85; which is to say, most people in general. But fact is that the perception of safety and reciprocal trust among citizens was greater in the 1950s than it is today.
But what about people’s faith in Government? According to the pollsters, faith in Government and political institutions was indeed greater in those days as compared to the last few decades in most European countries. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that history does not start in the 1950s. Peoples distrust towards politics has been a prominent sentiment all around the world not merely for centuries, but for thousands of years. Ancient Rome was a prime example. Roman citizens used to celebrate the death of corrupt Emperors, only to find out they would loathe the following Emperor even more than the previous one. This may sound familiar, since similar sentiments manifest themselves every few years in many modern democracies.
Liberalism can be most accurately defined as the effort from the individual to liberate him- or herself from Government influence. The French Revolution, from which modern liberalism draws its roots, originated precisely out of the resentment on behalf of the people towards the ruling class. In some way, the contrast between the restlessness of the citizens and the complacency of the political class also laid at the foundations of D66. Should we then be nostalgic for the post-War parentheses of perceived blind trust – which was really exceptional – or should we embrace skepticism as a value and only place our faith in those who are able to prove themselves worthy of our confidence?
There is a profound difference between mistrusting politicians and mistrusting a political system as a whole. What we did learn from the War is that freedom is fragile, and ought to be defended. And the most effective system for doing that is democracy. In order to preserve our freedom, we must call out those political movements which show authoritarian tendencies; improve our debates when dealing with charming rhetoric about equality over liberty; repeal the radicals who call for revolution and anarchy. It is by now undisputable: democracy is indeed the worst political system except for all others. To doubt democracy is dangerous, to doubt political leaders is healthy.
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