It looks like liberal democracy is falling apart. But we can put it back together if we take democracy seriously enough—as seriously as the ancient Greeks.
The chaos of Donald Trump was unimaginable just a decade ago. Brexit was a similar humiliation for Britain’s political class, leading to its bewildered paralysis ever since. How do such things happen? Perhaps because I admire economists’ deployment of very simple ideas to powerful effect, I’ve come to an approach to these problems that I think is simple and compelling.
First, democracy is government by conversation. A political conversation should often be competitive—to sharpen ideas and measure their support. Yet, to remain a conversation rather than a parody of one, it must also be a co-operative search, if not for agreement, then at least for mutual understanding of where positions differ. However, this co-operative foundation for our politics has been largely extinguished by the weaponisation of political communication by professionals operating on the mass media, and, more recently by “trolling” on social media.
Second, where elections bake competition into the operating system of representation, there’s another, even more time honoured way to represent the people. The ancient Greeks built their democracy around it and it hides in plain sight today whenever a jury is empanelled in a court of law. And, whether it concerns legal or political matters, deliberation within such bodies nurtures the collaborative aspects of conversation. Giving citizens’ juries and assemblies chosen by lot a role within our beleaguered democracy could see it renewed.
To become a politician you compete for election. You then join party colleagues competing against their opponents. Yet democracy implies limits to competition. We remain safe for now that no substantial political grouping perpetuates extra-legal violence. Yet something more fundamental is afoot.
Though it apes the form of conversation, political communication has become as professionalised, as optimised to the competition to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers. Meanwhile, responding to similar competitive imperatives, the informational foundations of our democracy were being shorn away by mass media news values long before the internet arrived. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds.1
The singleminded goal of each player in mass media political conversation is to manipulate it to their own end. Politicians rehearse “focus grouped” talking points and slogans like “take back control” and “roll up our sleeves” available on online lists (seriously!). Spokespeople cherry pick arguments, spurious or otherwise to defend their vested interest—until the they argue the opposite for their next client or employer. As Groucho put it, “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got others.”
Our language and etiquette are being transformed by the imperatives of political and ideological combat. The repertoire of “moves” now labelled “political correctness” have grown like bacteria in a petri dish in no small part because of their success as tactics in political debate. Taking offence, “checking” privilege, and associated strictures offer trump cards to instantly ideologise and emotionalise a conversation to one side’s tactical advantage. Continue reading