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Populism is not another word for democracy. It is, however, a word for a crude kind of majoritarianism which the market-oriented right finds very attractive. Unfortunately those leftists who have abandoned universal aims and class politics feel a similar attraction.

Concern over democracy descending into a crude head count is certainly not new. Since the development of mass democracy there has been a consistent fear of what a majority might do, possibly harming a minority or overriding individual rights which have been progressively established. There are two responses to the fear. One is to limit democracy. The other is to enhance democracy by accentuating its usually ignored feature, deliberation.

And there’s the jump-off point for today’s concerns over populism. The will to democratise has always rested on a belief that citizens will be informed, thoughtful and deliberative, that they will participate in the affairs of their republic not merely as volunteers, community activists and the like or as self-interested members of pressure groups but as people who will talk, argue and participate in public discourse.

Of course no democrat could ever have been confident that all citizens would be participants. There would always be those who would opt out, having no active interest in the direction of the republic, no interest in politics, or who would be excluded, lacking resources of income, leisure, education or ability.

This then gives the most basic division in a republic between, let’s call them, passive citizens and participative citizens. The latter want public discourse, the former want leadership, simplicity and promises. Both can vote.*

It has long been possible – perhaps even necessary – to be elected by offering services, goods, promises or even a focus for anger to citizens who have no participative interest. What has dawned in recent years is a full realization of the size and political potential of passive citizens. These are citizens who don’t want to hear and discuss contending arguments but who want reassurance and deliverance. They want leadership and there are leaders and parties with simplicities who are anxious to compete for their support, populist leaders. Again, it’s not new but it has been growing for two reasons. Firstly, potential leaders have increasingly sought out data about what people want to hear so that they can patronise rather than convince voters. Secondly, passive citizens – previously content – have lost faith in a political system which they thought catered to them at least adequately.

The fear now is that meaningful democracy will be reduced further in the direction of crude majoritarianism. Before looking at how passive citizens lost their faith, it would be sensible to set down the characteristics of populism. Nowadays they are all too familiar.

Populism: its familiar features

There is an essential belief that society is composed of two antagonistic but internally homogeneous sections:

a) The “establishment”, undifferentiated but including the rich, business, banks, media, elected politicians, state officials intellectuals and experts;

and b) The “ordinary people” who are more wise and virtuous than the “corrupt establishment”.

Populists have an uncomplicated approach to democracy. They seek strong and charismatic leaders who will reflect the will of the people. They also like direct and majoritarian democracy, favouring referenda and plebiscites over representative democracy whose checks and balances might give undue attention to minorities and thwart the will of the majority.

They are strongly nostalgic, looking back to what they consider better, simpler times both economically and culturally, when industrial employment gave a basic prosperity and the prospect of inter-generational improvement, and before cosmopolitan values, multiculturalism, “political correctness” and feminism made life less certain. This can lead to expressions of support for isolated nationalism and for crude misogyny to the point of foul-mouthed sexism.

The passive citizen’s loss of faith

There is no point in pretending otherwise, things have changed for very many people who are passive/disengaged but who were formerly more or less content. Their employment is gone, their expectations are undermined, their understanding of family, gender, community and race now seems incongruent. And yet, it is clear to them that others are flourishing in the new circumstances. They feel as though they’ve been left behind and are in need of rescue, restoration, deliverance, a leader, even something familiar in which they can have faith.

When this is theorised there tends to be two approaches. One talks about economic insecurity, emphasising the low pay consequences of declining industrial production and the attendant increase in unskilled and semi-skilled work which rarely leads to promotion. **

The second talks about a cultural backlash, an objection to the progressive value changes and increased migration that were concomitant with the loss of industrial jobs.

Austerity and the decline of the left

The rise of populism is frequently contrasted with the decline of Socialism, social democracy and Labourism. The conventional argument is that people are angry over left involvement in business and especially in the defensive cuts to pay and welfare (austerity) thought necessary to stabilising – even, saving – the capitalist system.

It is true that for the greater part of the 20th century socialists were complicit in a deal with capitalism which saw the system encouraged and promoted in return for relatively good pay, conditions and systems of welfare. It is equally true that right wing as well as left wing elements were deeply unhappy with this arrangement. Right wing dissent took the form of neo-liberalism which wanted a reduced role for the state and an increasing resort to markets, especially labour markets. Left wing dissent saw participation in the management of capitalism as a sell-out. They claimed a monopoly on the term, socialism, while social democracy became a term of abuse applied to socialists who operated within representative democracy.

The early 21st century economic crash was a happy day for both sets of dissenters; clearly the deal they hated could no longer deliver. Worse, the establishment – including socialists – moved to save or stabilise the system by rescuing banks, investors and industry, and cutting wages and welfare provisions.

At this point, according to conventional argument, people were no longer convinced that those who ran the deal and did well out of the deal – the establishment – would protect them, and they turned to alternative leaders who offered deliverance.

The flaw in this conventional argument is located at that word, “convinced”. The thing is that when considering populism it is a mistake to think in terms of a Demos comprised of thinking citizens who no longer hold with the argument behind the 20th century deal, who no longer agree with what has been termed social democracy. Rather, it is more accurate to think in terms of passive people who were never convinced of anything.

The truth is in a range of criticism appearing over the greater part of the 20th century which was concerned with citizen abandonment of appraisal, analysis, discussion and judgement, i.e. participation. That old fear of mass society crackles across the thoughts of democrats from Marxist alienation, through the “descent into a vast triviality” to just at the birth of the web, “The Culture of Contentment”. Then a decade and a half later there’s Barack Obama, “… in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue”. Now it’s opposition to populism but it’s the same old fear: democracy stripped of citizen deliberation. Democracy reduced to brutal majoritarianism. ***

Leaders of the passive

The right will seek power by trying to manipulate passive citizens. A revolutionary left could try the same. A left which has, however, abandoned revolution but wants to lead the masses faces a dilemma: oppose right wing demands even when expressed by “ordinary workers” and lose their support or agree with them and go over to the other side. ****

What to do?

Democrats – as opposed to majoritarians – know that without deliberation the whole point of the democratic project/tradition is lost. It would be undesirable – as well as unlikely – that liberals, socialists and some conservatives elide their differences and come together but as democrats they must always be aware that populism is a common foe. To be blunt, political controversy whether arguing individual freedom, equality or class conflict is part of the establishment that is now threatened.***** Fortunately, there remain citizens who are amenable to argument. They must be addressed. They must be encouraged to speak up, to participate as they wish. No democrat should ever patronise passive citizens; that’s partly what led to this crisis for democracy.


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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602869/manufacturing-jobs-arent-coming-back/

***

On alienation and later: https://aeon.co/essays/in-the-1950s-everybody-cool-was-a-little-alienated-what-changed

descent into a vast triviality.” Neil Postman (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.6

https://quote.ucsd.edu/childhood/files/2013/05/postman-amusing.pdf

Contentment sets aside that which, in the longer view, disturbs contentment; it holds firmly to the thought that the long run may never come.” – J.K. Galbraith (1993) The Culture of Contentment, p.173

John Waters, Amused to Death, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

Barack Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjGUUGw0pQ8

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/the-conservative-embrace-a-home-for-former-revolutionaries/

***** Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

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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/

I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.


[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.

Noel Whelan in the Irish Time of Aug. 9th drew attention to the ease with which public debate can be distorted by feeding bogus data to complacent media. He told how an unscientific survey with a rudimentary methodology concocted by the Small Firms Association was used in press releases to prompt journalists – particularly broadcast journalists – to spread a falsehood: that there had been a huge increase in crime against business people. The purpose was clear, “While publishing the “results” of their crime survey, the SFA … used its interpretation of them to support calls for a number of policy changes in how the Government and Garda deal with crime.”

It is wrong that journalists cannot be brought to account for facilitating lies and nonsense calculated to distort public understanding. We all have an interest in healthy public controversy and we are harmed when journalists fail to protect that interest. At present we can make formal complaints about a narrow range of media malpractice. However, our codes and legislation will fail to protect democratic deliberation until they are amended to invite a citizen to make a complaint about a printed or broadcast lie. Of course journalists cannot be blamed for being duped by a committed, clever liar but they should face censure for lazily – or with an eye to a “good” story – failing to provide the honesty on which citizen participation in public controversy depends.