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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’ve been lazy and far too slow to write about the way in which automated systems are being designed to exclude citizen participation. As some of you may know, I was banned from FB for a period because of a particular comment I posted and I still cannot see how the comment could have caused any problem whatsoever.* I’ve failed to get an explanation from FB by way of their on-line reply forms. I discovered that they have a phone number in Dublin. I called and was met with the familiar, “Press 1 or 2 or 3 …” runaround. Selecting 1 produced a recording telling me that I was dealing with an on-line company and that I should use the on-line forms which I’d already found were ignored. OK, so many large organisations – including the HSE ** – take the view that dealing with citizens is done by way of mass media only. However, while the HSE press office will respond to a citizen, FB make it absolutely clear that they will talk only to accredited and “legitimate” journalists. If this interests you, from Ireland call 01 5530550 and select 3 to hear what for me is an extraordinary message.
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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/on-being-silenced-on-facebook-and-unable-to-discover-why/
** HSE is Ireland’s Health Services Executive.

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.