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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Western Voter Patience Is Wearing Thin

LONDON - One of the few reasons to remember William Ernest Henley, a minor English poet, is that he was once on the wrong end of a well-turned witticism from Oscar Wilde. "He has fought a good fight and has had to face every difficulty except popularity", Wilde observed.


One wonders if it would be unfair to direct the same barb at the politicians currently governing the main Western democracies. Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, John Major and the others must have enjoyed a degree of popularity at some stage in their careers, since they have all won at least one national election. But at no point since 1945 have the Western public as a whole been so disillusioned with their leaders.


Clinton stumbles from crisis to crisis, his $200 haircut exposing his ears to howls of outrage from liberals who think he is selling out to the right wing, and from conservatives who think he and his wife Hillary are the incarnation of intolerant, self-righteous Political Correctness.


Mitterrand's Socialist Party has been annihilated in France's parliamentary elections. Major squirmed in embarrassment last week when Norman Lamont, a close friend whom he sacked as finance minister, publicly warned him that, unless the British government improved its performance, it would neither survive nor deserve to survive.


It is tempting to look for common themes to explain the leader's unpopularity. The prolonged economic recession in Western countries, causing high unemployment and stagnant living standards, is doubtless one factor. But when the United States was in the grip of the Great Depression of the 1930s, that did not stop Franklin Roosevelt from achieving popularity.


Another reason may be that the world has changed in dramatic ways since 1989, with problems so unexpected, numerous and complicated that Western leaders cannot solve them all in a manner satisfactory to their electorates. But if we take German unification as one such problem, then it is arguable that ordinary Germans are taking revenge on Kohl for deceiving them as to the true cost of that process.


More significant, perhaps, are the tone and quality of politics in the West. Recent corruption scandals in France, Spain and above all Italy, where an entire governing class has been discredited, indicate that too many politicians are failing to uphold standards appropriate to public life.


Voters suspect that their leaders are too interested in power and its trappings. It does not help when these leaders and their opponents substitute mutual abuse, exaggeration and sloganeering for reasoned debate. This is an insult to people's intelligence. Politicians should remember that, in democracies, they are there on the sufferance of the people. They should learn humility.