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It is interesting and revealing that journalists are complaining about how poor the debate was during the Presidential election campaign. With some exceptions, they speak as if journalism had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The televised debates illustrate the fissure between journalism and those citizens who rely on media to deliver meaningful public debate. The questions put to the candidates on TV were deliberate, the result of thoughtful, editorial selection. If the debate was trivial, failing to deliver for participative citizens, that was determined by the questions. It could have been otherwise but that would have involved different editorial judgement and decisions.

The questions chosen reflected the campaign, referring to the news stories that had dominated. This is in keeping with the most prominent view of what journalism is about. It is a part of being dispassionate, neutral: “We don’t make the news; we simply report it.”

Let’s consider the “question” or the questionable proposition that occupied most time: That the President is variously a millionaire, a money-grabbing man who chooses to stay in fabulous hotels and travel by government jet, that he is a landlord whose property had been upgraded at state expense, that thousands were spent by the state on having his dogs groomed, that he is utterly out of touch with reality and can’t see how his extravagance appears, that he is not to be believed in attempting to address these charges etc. etc.

Clearly this was not worth the time devoted to it. At best it was hyperbolised gossip and at worst a smear, spreading accusations of corruption against a person who in a fifty year career in public service had not heretofore attracted a hint of scandal. More importantly, yes, it was incredible but it was news. It was “true” because someone really had made the allegations. Seeing a very popular President struggle to fend off allegations might make for “good” television and if it damaged his reputation and “opened up the race”, that would be a show-biz bonus. Indeed, someone with a perverse grasp of the concept could see it as a bonus for democracy.

It might be argued from principle that everything including the accusations had to be allowed rather than censored. However, the final RTE TV debate did not operate to that principle; in an effete show of outrage, the presenter/moderator came down heavily on the explicit use of the word “liar”. In effect the situation was that anything goes as long as it’s done politely. As Joan Freeman might have phrased her frequently repeated lie, “With all due respect, a hUachtarán, you – like the three dragons – are a millionaire.” She could do this because like the others she was confident that the presenter would side with news over truth.

The dominance of news is an old problem for mass political communication and this is not the place to explore it. Suffice it to say, that not everyone wants to engage thoughtfully with politics and serving those who do will very likely reduce audience numbers.

However, it would be a waste to let this occasion of unusually widespread dissatisfaction slip by without discussion of what is actually required of political journalism and broadcast politics in particular. At the very least the editors who decided on the questions owe the citizens an explanation as to whom they thought they were serving and what service was being offered.

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The conflict between those who would normalise Sinn Fein and those who would not so much as socialise with a member of Sinn Fein is deep-seated. It turns on the question of something a great deal more basic than debate.

SF want to commemorate and celebrate the campaign waged by the provisional IRA. They see that as respecting their own dead, placing their narrative alongside others in telling the story of the troubles, and ensuring that the PIRA is seen as part of the longer tradition of violent Irish nationalism.

They do not accept that the PIRA’s campaign was exceptional. They want to liken it to earlier conflicts, specifically the insurrection of 1916 and the War of Independence.

When confronted by the thought that there are worse things in wars than the horrors of battle, that war crimes are a reality, they tend to have two responses. Firstly, they emphasise the old cliché that terrible things happen in war. Indeed they often condemn all wars. In other words, they deny the concept of a war crime and the need to consider it separately. Secondly, if they accept that war crimes exist, they argue that every party to every war is equally guilty.

The dispute here turns on i) what constitutes a war crime and ii) the extent to which war crimes featured in the conduct of a particular war.

Clearly the conduct of any war is a matter of selecting targets. Very few would quibble with the proposition that when civilians are selected as targets, an unambiguous war crime is committed. Even fewer would quibble with the suggestion that all wars have featured war crimes, the intentional targeting of civilians.

Nations like to commemorate, honour their war dead, their heroes. This is usually possible because the conduct of wars is ambiguous or the incidence of war crimes is sufficiently infrequent as to permit relatively civilised myth-making and public ceremony. That is to say, the war crimes – the targeting of civilians – can be condemned or quietly and shamefully hidden away so that the overall conduct of the war can be remembered as heroic or at least necessary. Thus Poppy Day can be celebrated while carpet bombing cities isn’t mentioned, the US knows that there can never be a Mai Lai Massacre Day and the Irish State knows that while there can be a commemoration of The War of Independence or the Civil War, that must not include detonating a bomb to which IRA prisoners had been chained.

It is stark and true that we all know about the horrors of war, the breakdown of civilised conventions, the cover it gives to do evil, the collaboration – cowardly if seeking advantage and understandable if seeking to survive. We know too about the heroes who would have no part in attacking civilians. Bluntly, we know damn well the difference between a war crime and a battle.

Because it was a campaign of war crimes punctuated by military engagements, the campaign of the Provisional IRA cannot be allowed these established, shamefaced distinctions and hair-splitting. For the most part, theirs was a campaign of assassinated civilians, “prisoners” tortured and their bodies dumped or secretly buried, “proxy bombs” in which a civilian was attached to a bomb and made to deliver it while his family was held hostage, and perhaps the most shameful and dishonest of them all: the public bombings.

They were shameful because they reduced civilians to mere messages (“The only thing the Brits understand!”) They were were also dishonest in their depravity. Think about what they did – time and again. They placed a bomb in a public place. Then by way of a warning, they gave their victims a “sporting chance” of escape. Subsequently, they expressed go-by-the-wall regret over the casualties (Irish and British) and said that it wouldn’t have happened if the authorities had acted more promptly on their warning or if the British were not occupying Ireland.

Thus the PIRA campaign of war crimes was a nasty episode in Irish history. Best forgotten completely? No! Let it serve as a warning that some Irish people can sink to the obscenities witnessed in so many countries. For that reason it must become part of our history, evidence that the Irish are capable of evil deeds. However, it most certainly should not become a part of us as one narrative among many. It cannot be commemorated with any suggestion of pride, let alone celebrated.

It might have been possible to put it to the backs of our minds and move on (We are constantly reminded that young people don’t remember the sordid PIRA targeting.) but Sinn Fein won’t allow that. They want it made normal that in today’s Ireland we tolerate the celebration of war crimes – worse, a campaign of war crimes.

In this they are usually facilitated by Irish journalism which hides behind conventional approaches to news and impartiality. Today SF speakers are passively granted a hearing. They state their views on public controversies of all kind as if they were an honoured part of our republic. This spineless and now established media approach is analogous to the effete silence faced by someone who habitually spouts vile nonsense. That is to say, otherwise decent people too often opt for a quiet life rather than confront a neighbour, friend or family member. In so doing they fail a basic test. A citizen of a republic has a responsibility to tell a blackguard that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and to do it day after day.

On June 5th there was a mysterious gun attack on Bray Boxing Club. The journalist covering it for RTE included in his report the views of local TD, John Brady. This inclusion prompts two questions.

Firstly, what is the purpose of broadcasting the views of a member of parliament in news reports of this kind? They seldom add significant information and they never offer a unique perspective. On some occasions similar comments are sought from a local priest. If local comment is a feature of journalism, any number of bystanders or neighbours is available. It would seem that the choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the news report or recognising local interest or effect and a great deal to do with pointing out who is recognised as important – even a leader – in a community.

When a priest is selected, atheists and non-catholics might find it anything from extremely odd, through partisan, and all the way to downright antagonistic. When a TD (MP in other countries) is selected, it might be argued that democracy is advanced, that a person elected by citizens and frequently referred to as a public representative, should be recognised as their spokesperson. It might also be argued that encouraging representation of this kind is intensely anti-democratic, that citizens in a republic do not vote to elect community leaders and certainly not to appoint those who will provide soothing – almost ceremonial – utterances for news reports of murder.

The second question is the selection of the particular politician for inclusion. Perhaps selection is not the best term. Perhaps some public representatives with an eye to publicity and re-election chase around in the knowledge that journalists consider a politician’s comment to be a standard component of their news product. This of course would constitute manipulation of journalism.

Whatever the reason, a Sinn Féin TD appeared in the RTE report of a savage gun crime. Five TDs are elected for Wicklow and eight councillors for the Bray area. Two are members of Sinn Féin. Now, there there may be editorial policy that selecting SF speakers somehow serves the peace process, that having them talk on all manner of occasions stitches them into constitutionalism. That just might be worth addressing but the immediate reaction on this occasion must be: This was a gun attack. There’s a citizen dead and two wounded. Bringing in a SF rep to comment is downright perverse. It mocks the nation.

The notion that media can serve the republic, its constitution and peace by having SF speak on all manner of issues is utterly wrong. It does precisely the opposite. It serves to normalise them and their values. It says that these are ordinary public representatives with views that are within the limits of democracy. That’s not the case. In our republic the normalisation – constitutionalisation, if you like – of ceremonies and celebrations of war crimes (bombing etc. of civilians) and those who hold those odious views has to be resisted.* Journalism generally evades responsibility by talking in terms of mere reportage, coverage, impartiality and news.** Perhaps the only resistance now will come from ordinary citizens – maybe just a handful – who are prepared to say to a member of SF, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself”. ***

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* This was manifest when SF’s relatively late opposition to the 8th Amendment (The constitutional ban on legislation to permit abortion) was hidden, while RTE presented their president as a leader of the move to repeal:

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/the-media-preference-for-mary-lou-mcdonald-during-the-referendum-campaign-showed-partiality-in-coverage-of-a-different-and-fraught-public-controversy/ 

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

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.

There’s a reason I want to tell you about my experience teaching at a drug rehabilitation clinic but first the story:

Some years ago the then head of UCD’s Adult Education Dept. asked me if I’d be interested in presenting a lecture series to recovering drug addicts. Now generally I do politics with an emphasis on political philosophy and specifically I do political communication. I asked what he had in mind. He said the request was for a politics course and that was as much information as he had. I jumped at the chance of a new experience while doing – I hoped – some good. 

My first day was alarming. I was welcomed into an environment that I found very stressful. It wasn’t that I was scared. Far from it, the people there were nice to me. It was the chaos; I could find nothing familiar and dependable. It was the world of addiction. However, up a few flights of stairs and I was introduced to the students. Here there was no chaos but a group of people, recovered from whatever had been their problem and focused on making their futures.A short time into the course it became obvious that their primary interest was theory. Sure, they wanted to know basics about how elections worked, how the Taoiseach was elected and what was the function of the president but that was too easy for them. They were far more interested in hearing about equality, justice, democracy etc. I was fascinated and motivated by them; they were sharp.

The course progressed well and as I got to know them, we exchanged personal stories but there was one question I wanted to ask and my opportunity eventually arrived. I asked why was I there, talking to them about politics, what had prompted such a course in this clinic. The answer was fundamental and affecting. They had looked at the list of likely courses facing them – the “practical” courses – and said, no thanks. They wanted what they called “real subjects”. They had argued their case but believed their success came down to a succinct claim to normality. It had been put bluntly by one woman to a centre manager, “I said to her, ‘Look, we’re junkies, not fucking eejits’ and she said OK, that she’d organise proper courses.”

They did get real subjects and proper courses. They were well able for them, enjoyed them and did well.

Here’s where I reveal the purpose of telling this story now but I’ll return to the students and something that will always bother me.

When I’m told that “ordinary voters” or “ordinary working people” don’t want “intellectual argument” and want only “practical answers”, I wish the patronising, elite chancers who assume such nonsense, would be challenged by the likes of that student saying, “Look, we’re citizens, not fucking eejits.”

Of course there are citizens – millions of them – who don’t want political debate, intellectual material, ideologies, values etc. Some really don’t understand, some pretend not to and may even try to flaunt ignorance as a virtue, some are culpably uninformed, and most simply don’t want to be bothered.

On the other side are republicans (real ones – unlike US Republicans or Irish nationalists) who want to participate in the affairs of their republic, who demand to be addressed with respect and who want to think, talk and come to decisions. In this they don’t need leadership.

So, there is a divide in society between, let’s call them, passive and active citizens but that division does not break along class lines. Let no one say that ordinary people or ordinary working people – never mind the working class – are on one side and cannot cope with real politics. *

Ending the clinic story, I taught two groups, as far as I can recall, at the clinic in successive years and then it all stopped. I assume there was a change in management or in the programme itself. Here’s what bothers me. Those students were clever and wanted to continue with “real subjects” but there was nothing for them when they parted with the clinic. I pointed them towards university Access courses, in particular UCD Access on which I teach but I never saw them again. I’m left with the thought that a door was opened, giving them a glimpse of higher education, and then was slammed shut again. Sometimes that seems more cruel than forcing them to do “ordinary” training courses.

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* Here’s some more on this divide: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

There is a report in today’s Irish Times on papers presented to this year’s McGill Summer School on the theme, “How stands the republic?” The report headlines the contribution of Professor Diarmuid Ferriter. ( http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/seanad-abolition-a-grubby-power-grab-ferriter-1.1478603#.Ufa-e8C0aQY )

Diarmuid says, “If we accept a definition of republicanism that is about participation, a say in our fate, civic engagement and realising freedom and self-determination among citizens, we face the conclusion that any exaggerated celebrations in 2016 will mask the persistence of ambiguity and the endurance of the gulf between rhetoric and reality.”

That definition would be at odds with a minority staging a rising and with the views of the founding elite of the new state. Moreover, there has never been a gulf between rhetoric and reality. Apart from misuse of the word “republican”, their rhetoric matched the reality they created.

He also says, “One of the chief causes of the contemporary crisis was the absence of alternative views and insufficient scrutiny of flawed decision-making,”

In a republic the media provide citizens with challenging viewpoints and citizens are expected to think, speak and come to judgement. This did not happen because we tolerate poor performance and lack of personal integrity particularly among our professional elite – journalists, academics, teachers, managers etc. The crisis was certainly caused by political policy and ideology but it was also caused by very many people failing to do what they were paid to do and thereby letting down their fellow citizens. Those people are still in place: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/they-are-known-to-be-useless-and-they-are-all-still-there-a-reminder-from-eddie-hobbs/

The McGill choice of theme, “How stands the republic?”, is revealing. It implies an argument: that we are engaged in evaluation of an ideal or a project, that we can go on as we are with some minor changes. A better theme would be, “Should we create a republic?” Such a starting point would argue that we are thinking about doing something that we’ve not done before, breaking with the 1916 founding myth and its tawdry legacy of oppression, cruelty and malfunctioning elites.

It was reported in The Irish Times of Jan. 4th that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, was concerned about where Irish journalists’ denigration of politics will take us. He is essentially correct. However, his approach is far too simplistic.

He seems to think that better reporting would be a remedy. He neglects to consider that there is a consensus among journalists that amounts to a political theory. The informed, deliberative citizen of a republic does not feature. Rather the customer is supplied with revelations of wrongdoing and “unfairness”. Not convinced? Think about what even the best journalists say they want to do: investigative reporting! Politics is seen as antagonism between the “political class” which has control over endless resources which they are too mean (“not in touch with reality on the ground”) or too stupid (“It’s not rocket science.”) to spend, and pressure groups who force the “political class” to spend on whatever mobilises effective “activists” at the expense of groups less powerful.

It is both a complex and a deeply conservative political viewpoint and Pat poses no challenge to it other than to raise again the decades-old worry about the derision of representative democracy. A challenge, I’m convinced, will come only from siding with a republican/participative model of citizenship (as opposed to a liberal/consumerist model) and thinking about what – very approximately – the citizen requires of media. Then consideration of regulation can follow. After working out citizen service Pat could start with a broadcasting bill whose core is citizenship and not existing structures, practices and conventions.

Here’s Vincent’s piece marking Rousseau’s 300th birthday. http://www.politico.ie/irish-politics/8644-rousseau-distrust-representative-democracy-well-founded.html

There are two basic arguments for the move away from direct democracy to representative democracy. Firstly, there’s the numbers argument: The population is too large for everyone to attend the meeting, so we’ll elect representatives. There is a debate emerging on changes being made possible by the ICTs but I don’t want to pursue it here.

The second argument is generally forgotten. This is the argument that taking part in informed debate requires a level of education, absorption of facts and arguments, deliberation and judgement, and that all of this is so time consuming that we have to professionalise. However, representative democracy shouldn’t lock the masses out of the consideration of great issues because we have media to promote and relay the information and arguments to the citizens, facilitating a functioning public sphere.

The whole thing goes off the rails when the representatives don’t deliberate and argue, the media don’t demand deliberation and argument, and the citizens are generally content with political gossip.

It used to be possible to contrast the liberal notion of citizenship with its more participative republican rival. The liberal citizen would like to be left to a comfortable private life unconcerned – apart from voluntary work – with public affairs. The republican citizen would like to be involved in all matters of controversy concerning the republic. Something different has now emerged or re-emerged: the peasant.

Of course I’m being provocative by using the word “peasant”. I could come up with an obscure term that would offend no one and would hide the connection with a genuinely peasant approach to politics.

Peasant societies were characterised by inequality, acceptance and occasional revolts. Rulers knew that there were limits. Peasants made demands. A little change here and a little change there kept the system going until …    I could write a long essay on the emergence of the modern world but I’ll spare you.

The point is that we now have a considerable degree of acceptance that there is a “political class” which is seen to be essentially bad and all powerful but which can be frightened into concessions on “issues” organised and defined by “activists” who “work on the ground” or “in the communities” to “raise awareness”. This leaves the universal approaches of socialism, liberalism, conservatism and their derivatives seemingly irrelevant.

When someone says that they reject right and left, that the political class is all the same, he/she should be taken very seriously. It is an expression of post-political beliefs reinforced by media professionals who deride politicians, see no need for rigorous political discourse and treat all information and argument equally. That person who rejected left and right might be happy to be labelled, say, “a post-politics activist” but would very likely go ape at “peasant” or “peasant organiser”.

There is course another view: that what we are looking at is complex capitalism and again a whole other essay beckons. Suffice it to say that Marx knew a peasant when he saw one!

 

In a republic the citizens are engaged in public controversies. They rely on their mass media for the information and arguments necessary to deliberation and discussion. If the media fall short, the republic is ill served.  

 
Glib references to “the politicians” is, as Michael D. Higgins argues in the Irish Times of 22nd August 2009, evasive but it is also poor journalism which does nothing to provoke or nourish public debate in the republic.  
 
It is long past time that some prominent journalist, editor or media manager in the state-owned or private sector media initiated an editorial guideline which would serve to limit the use of the term “the politicians” to the odd occasion on which it might have relevance. On all other occasions the citizen would be better served by language which seeks to categorise and divide politics and politicians.