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Tag Archives: Brexit

 

The TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, gave an entertaining, accurate and worrying glimpse of the future of political communication and of democracy itself. It would be comforting to think it particularly British but it could happen anywhere. The conditions are certainly present in Ireland and the methods will be applied where and whenever possible.

A first glance can lead off into the mistaken view that this is all utterly new and a product of the net society. The reality is that today’s technology is being used to exploit something that has been ever present in democracy and feared by democrats.

The Brexit e-campaign
Before going on to talk about that old and feared weakness in democracy, lets look at what the Brexit campaigners did and which is available to any campaigner, party or candidate with the will and the money to emulate.

1. They studied the issues, fears, prejudices etc. which preyed on the minds of their target voters.
2. They distilled these feelings into a small number of slogans which connected the feelings of their targets to the political objective of their clients.
3. Knowing what their target voters wanted to hear, they told them: that delivery – or indeed their voters’ deliverance – was not only possible but crucially it was without any risk of negative consequences.
4. They achieved messaging that was close to bespoke. Using extensive data, amenable on-line voters were identified and sent simple, tailor-made messages – telling them what they wanted to hear.

In brief, this amounts to nothing more than routing quite particular, near-personal messages to voters, messages telling them that voting the client’s way will sort out their issues or whatever concerns them. Familiar? Of course it is. That’s because it’s not new. However, the delivery system and the scale of information on the targeted voters are new, i.e. there is now the web and the ability to mine it for masses of personal data.

There is, moreover, one other new feature – and it’s crucial. Opponents of democracy with deep pockets have become aware of something radical. They know that undesirable election results can be achieved by using today’s technology to exploit democracy’s oldest and most intractable flaw: the manipulation of passive citizens, their target audience. Mass manipulation has become both possible and affordable.*

The risk of tyranny inherent in democracy
Generations of democrats have worried about the dangers of passive – as opposed to participative or deliberative – voting. The march towards universal suffrage consisted of reforms allowing wider and wider participation in voting. Each enlargement was supported by democrats who saw all as equal – at least in terms of voting – and opposed by conservatives who feared what the uneducated mob or easily swayed herd might vote to implement.

As any democrat would be quick to point out, the conservative arguments were not only elitist but served to defend wealth and other privileges. However, the arguments were not dismissed as nonsense. Democrats could see the danger of huge numbers of votes cast without deliberation. John Stuart Mill for example feared the masses, feared that they might impose majority doctrines and limit liberal freedoms, might be easily swayed by and elect demagogues. Mill considered weighted voting – giving more than one vote to the educated – but eventually he placed his faith in people. He argued that the responsibility of voting would change voters, that – aware of the power of their voting decisions – they would engage, examine arguments, deliberate, come to judgement and only then vote. In other words, voting would improve them: make participative, engaged, republican citizens of them.

Fairly similar arguments appeared in recent decades when the democratic potential of the net became apparent. Net optimists felt that those deprived of the information necessary to full citizen participation would find it on-line; citizens would free themselves of the influence of demagogues, conventional wisdom and anyone who would stifle information.

Today’s demagogues and other anti-democratic chancers who want to win an election without winning an argument know full well that Mill’s faith and the hopes of net optimists have not been realised. Not only are there masses of voters – perhaps constituting a majority – ripe for manipulation but the technology exists to find and message them.

There is of course a question of law here. The e-Brexiteers certainly violated electoral laws – laws on funding – and they violated emerging norms, soon perhaps to become law, in relation to gathering and effectively selling personal data. This raises the question of whether electoral law is capable of protecting democracy from an inherent flaw which has been routinely exploited largely without criticism by virtually all parties and candidates.

The little anti-democratic attacks that became the norm
What the e-Brexiteers did differed only in scale and efficiency from conventional campaigns. Indeed, it’s likely that for a very long time now electoral success has been impossible without patronising passive voters who have no wish to be addressed with political arguments or talk of risks, priorities, alternatives, unpleasant consequences, clashes of interest etc. On the contrary, they want to be soothed, told that their problems will be solved or that sought-after resources will be delivered. Candidates know this and crave effective methods for delivering a simple, preferably local, targeted message. In Ireland cynics reduce this to the cliche, “All politics is local.”

Political campaigners use many different media. Taking a look at one of the oldest reveals it to be a small, inexpensive version of what the e-Brexiteers did so spectacularly on a huge scale. The similarity is so great that the difference is almost pathetic.

Now, very few people will admit to paying a blind bit of attention to political leaflets/pamphlets delivered into their domestic letterbox. Most regard these as junk mail and bin them on sight. This is well known and it can be hard to explain why campaigners resort to them. Explanations are offered: they’re relatively cheap; they give some level of public visibility; delivery can give loyalists and activists something to do; and crucially in a world of mass media, leaflets can be localised.

The most cursory look at leaflets reveals that they tend to have little or no political content in any meaningful sense of the term. They deliver useful public information on the likes of welfare entitlements or changes to the tax regime. They tie the candidate to the locality in two ways: pictures in the locale or with local notables at an event; and expressions of support for local campaigns for, say, a swimming pool, a library, playing field or school.

There is no intention here to open up a discussion of local political leafleting. The practice is raised merely to illustrate that patronising local, passive citizens is a mundane, accepted feature of political campaigning. That it is so accepted is telling: democracy has been reduced to numbers and the thoughtful, deliberative, participating, republican citizen has been largely forgotten. Securing a vote has become a tactical affair of showing concern for or involvement in resolving issues. Argument is not uppermost and contradicting a voter would be almost out of the question. Indeed pointing to the existence of thoughtful, republican voters risks being dismissed as elitist or “out of touch”.

Long promised comes to pass
It is hardly surprising then that when the technology and data became available to exploit the passive citizen, it would be used enthusiastically by those smart enough to realise its potential. What is surprising is that so many who ought to know about or who pretend to know about democracy express shock at a large well-executed attack on democracy while they have been unconcerned at the thousands and thousands of small but similar attacks that have been allowed to form an accepted part of the political process. What the e-Brexiteers did was waiting to happen and the ground was prepared by activists, many of whom now appear shocked and silly.

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* There’s a seeming paradox here which will be left for now: the mass is accumulated by near-bespoke messaging.

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RTE reported a warning from the UK’s PM, Theresa May. She put it that every MP raising the issue of another Brexit referendum “needs to consider very carefully the impact that it would have”. She said: “I believe it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy. I believe it would lead many people to question the role of this House and the role of members in this House.”

She’s too late. The damage to the UK constitution has already been done by the first referendum and by its aftermath. Before the Brexit referendum parliament was sovereign. After it, even to say that parliament was sovereign invited being called a traitor.

Since then there’s been struggle and the UK parliament has failed to perform as the constitution requires. A sovereign parliament would heed the people and then decide. Today’s parliament is looking to the people (in a referendum) not for advice but for a decision.

Theresa May recognises constitutional change when she sees it and she realises the dangers for a country without a written constitution but she has presided over parliament’s decline. After the referendum parliament should have asserted its authority. Instead noisy, populist street fighters were allowed to assault with impunity the UK’s old constitution.

Paradoxically, the damage having been done, the safest course might be another referendum but it would have to be such that the alternatives are tested and it would have to deliver a decisive result. It’s a risky course but it might steady the boat for long enough to allow parliament to assume its primacy once more.

The UK might also consider a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets.

 

That old saying is the point of agreement between no-deal Brexiteers like Jacob Rees Mogg and Ireland’s old “anti-austerity” campaigners. It’s basic to political fantasists and many revolutionaries that the welfare of today’s living, breathing citizens can be sacrificed for some gain in the remote future. It’s a view pushed by the well-off and secure who will not be greatly troubled by whatever happens in the intervening years, and are prepared to tell ordinary citizens the soothing authoritarian lie: don’t concern yourselves, it’ll be alright; we know what we’re doing.

JRM is telling the UK that Brexit will take 50 years to work out. When the Irish state had just three months’ money left to pay welfare recipients and state workers, Ireland’s anti-austerity “leaders” tried to convince citizens that they should tell our only lenders to keep their money and we’d manage somehow.

This is literally “sinn féin”: “ourselves alone”, insular, proud, self satisfied. Poor or prosperous? That doesn’t matter; it’s a question for the future.

Ordinary citizens appear increasingly to be democracy’s and indeed decent, civilised behaviour’s last line of defence. In their day-to-day interactions it now falls to citizens to struggle against those who promote and support barbarism. That is to say, if it was ever sensible to remain silent – to opt for a quiet life – while someone in the company – perhaps a friend or family member – spouts nonsense or savagery, it’s no longer a safe option; democracy and decency are now under too much pressure.

During a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the rise of racist attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit poll, a social scientist made a telling point: it’s not that the racists have majority support; it is that they think they have.*

Those who hold and express vile views seldom if ever face an adverse reaction in social and family circles. Too few people or perhaps no one at all expressly disagrees with them, tells them that they should be ashamed of themselves or refuses to socialise with them. Moreover, they are allowed to take part in routine conversation and banter without reference to the knowledge that their most basic views are an affront to civilisation. To borrow a term from communication and media studies, racist thugs are being normalised. **

The same failing has resulted in the current friction over what men can and cannot say to and about women. There are those who hold that despicable behaviour is part of routine banter. The thing is, they are telling the truth and it is the truth because no one in their circle says otherwise. Colleagues, associates, friends and family – knowing their views and character – are willing to socialise with them, are willing to normalise them.

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A key moment for me came some years ago on a bus queue of all places. I tend to talk to strangers. I engaged when the person beside me started on about what was wrong with Irish society. Soon it became apparent that immigrants were the cause of Ireland’s problems. It got worse: each race, it was contended, brought particular failings and these were enthusiastically listed. Certainly I was shocked to be talking to an extremist but more shocking was that someone so extreme would be open with a complete stranger. When I gathered myself and began to argue, it was her turn to be shocked. Clearly she was unaccustomed to questioning and contradiction. She fell silent shortly before the bus arrived.

Thinking about the incident afterwards, I was made despondent by the idea that those views had become utterly routine, that in this woman’s circles her views were accepted as ordinary. My belief now while still chilling, is a little better. Yes, her views are held by many – far too many – but she is mistaken in thinking that she enjoys near universal approval. She is lulled into assuming approval by the absence of confrontation, contradiction and criticism and by being made welcome into the company of decent people.

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Tolerance is now so pervasively misunderstood that public discourse is endangered. “I’m entitled to my opinion” has come to mean, “I’m entitled to say what I like without having to answer for it.” An added variant is, “I’m entitled to talk about drains and football without mention of my more basic, noxious views.” Too many thinking people now consider trenchant argument to be impolite. They flop into an effete silence while racists, misogynists, liars, conspiracy theorists, even supporters of war crimes, and others with similarly vile views move and operate as if they were normal citizens of a decent and democratic society.

There might have been a time when journalists were expected to act but nowadays they are almost completely in thrall to news values and have for the most part left the field of struggle over fundamental values. They prefer to report comments on current issues without reference to a speaker’s basic and sometimes vile views; bluntly, they are activists in the process of normalisation.

That leaves the last line of defence: the thinking, participative citizen, aware of three things: i) that democracy is recent and fragile ii) that it depends on effective public discourse; and iii) that beyond issues, current affairs, even the differences between conservatives, liberals and socialists, there is a small number of shared positions that mark out democracy, civilised behaviour and human decency. That is now threatened and quiet politeness is complicity.

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* About 22mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yetFgoAkrGE

** qui tacet consentire videtur

In the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, there are two distinct issues. One is crushingly obvious and should be boring but it excites media. The other is great and ignored. One is the need for ordinary – even collegiate – leadership and management within the parliamentary party. The other is coming to a decision about the nature of the party.

It is untenable that the party leader in any party be opposed by a significant minority of their parliamentary party. It is plain daft to continue when opposed by the majority. Either the leader goes, their opponents go, or one so changes as to placate the other side. Appeals to party unity just aren’t enough because it’s not a matter of one decision. It’s a matter of working together day after day – for years.

Party Leader is a difficult institution. Leaving aside more thoughtful considerations, the leader is the party figurehead for both the party generally and for its parliamentarians, and must enjoy the confidence of both.

There was a time when members played no role in electing a party leader. In recognition of their membership and in a spirit of democracy many parties changed. They developed different ways of selecting their leaders but always to prevent two outcomes: i) A leader popular with parliamentary colleagues but opposed by the wider party; and ii) A leader popular with the members but unacceptable to parliamentary colleagues. Now, it might be argued that all members are equal and that a parliamentarian should have no special role in selecting a leader. This refuses to accept that those working closely with the leader have a special interest or that that interest should simply be disregarded. In short, it is deaf to a parliamentarian’s plea, “Jaysus, we have to work closely with this person day in, day out. We must have some say.”

The UK Labour Party led by Ed Miliband devised a system of one member, one vote while effectively giving the parliamentary party a veto. Nomination for leadership is the preserve of the PLP and then the members vote for their preferred candidate. The idea is that members of parliament would hardly nominate someone whom they didn’t generally support. However, that is exactly what they did in nominating Jeremy Corbyn – while explaining that they did it to encourage contest and debate.

His election was assured by another development. Ed Miliband and co. made party membership inexpensive and undemanding. Registered supporters pay a fee of £3 and are entitled to vote for a leader. Members of long standing were lost in a huge throng of new arrivals. To complicate matters the new people are predominantly affluent and urban; they are middle class in the sense that pollsters use that term and unlike the constituents with whom the majority of Labour MPs would identify.*

Interestingly, the profile of the new member is a good match for that of a remain voter in the Brexit referendum, while the “heartland” Labour voter is a good match for a leave voter. Clearly the composition of the party and its relationship with voters is far more complex than is often presented.

Turning to the more basic question of the nature of the Labour Party, there was a time when the fundamental division on the left was between revolutionaries and those who chose parliamentary democracy. As more and more leftists abandon revolution and the nature of exploitation changes – at least in the West – a new division is apparent between those who remain with parliamentary democracy and those who see parliament as part of a wider struggle in which activism, street politics and pressure on the establishment is more important.

This is not the place to offer a critique; the point here is merely to emphasise that the two components of leftism are markedly different and cannot be reduced to policy differences, to “Corbynistas” versus “Blairites” or to “real socialists” versus “Tory-lite”. While it may be presented as a struggle for the “soul of Labour” or who represents true Labour values or who is more in touch with the people, the division is more basic. It’s about how the left should operate. It’s about parliament.

For this reason the best course now might be for Labour to split. Of course there are many arguments against that. It will be characterised as a split over policy or some tawdry question of the “electability” of Jeremy Corbyn. However, in time – most of it being out of majority or left-led government – the two approaches can contend openly in public rather than pretending that this is a mere squabble within a party.**

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/01/how-middle-class-are-labour-s-new-members

** In Ireland where the left is much smaller this essential difference focusses not on a split but on whether the tiny Labour Party should follow the other left parties into protest, pressure and campaigns or should adopt a more socialist position by opting exclusively for parliament. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.

 

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* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

*** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/