Marshall Memorial Fellowship Reflections: Marie Hindhede
Some words and sentences get stuck in your head. Like a catchy pop song played on the radio. As I fly back towards Europe after a month in the U.S., a certain theme is recurring in my mind: The disconnect.
One speaker in the program summed it up: “There is a long-term disconnect between those who hold office and the people they represent.” To me, it is like a bad dream that haunts you after you wake up. I work for a democratic government. I have made a career out of advising elected officials on policy. And even if the disconnect may come in different shapes in the U.S. and my home-country Denmark, the diagnosis resonates with me.
But what is the disconnect? Where do we see it? The disconnect shows up in the concern about immigration and the effects on local job markets. Or the concern for new technologies taking over could be that renewable energy is pushing out coal sector jobs or that artificial intelligence is pushing out manufacturing jobs. The disconnect also shows up when governments make moves to save big banks in the aftermath of the economic crisis in 2008, but leave ordinary people with the perception that not enough is done to save them. This disconnect can also be found when big infrastructure projects such as roads, highways, high power lines meet the everyday lives of their neighbors. What is classically known as the “Not in my backyard”- the problem is multiplied when governments fail to translate from the language of necessity, business cases, and spreadsheets to narratives that can be understood more widely and that allow for human experiences and emotions on the ground. All of these examples occur in both the U.S. and Europe.
One could ask the question if governments and the elites in power have not always been to some extent disconnected from the people and the answer would no doubt be ‘yes’. So why consider the disconnect a problem at all? In my view, the modern-day populations in democratic states are too well informed through conventional media and social media for the disconnect to be hidden from sight – and too well informed to accept that the powers that be speak over their head and do not govern for them. When the concerns of the people are then not taken seriously by the people in power – or not perceived that way at least – the reaction can take the form of backlash or protest.
Some of us have the privilege of being in positions where we are able to change the world we live in. That privilege comes with a responsibility to ensure that the way we develop ideas and policies includes the people and that we speak with and to the people in ways that reach them. We must listen to more than the usual suspects. It comes with an obligation to not shrink away from the challenges of tomorrow, but to take on the responsibility to look at the complexities of the future and find ways to make that future better. The government should be for the people and to deliver this we must lead in a way that is inclusive because it is necessary and fundamental in democracies.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.