Is this it then? Shall we call time on liberal democracy? Those two words long glued together in our lexicon. They trip off the tongue so smoothly that, until recently we might have mistaken them for obvious and permanent bedfellows. Now democracy has got us into an illiberal and sticky mess. Now liberal-minded folk talk openly of undemocratic means of cleaning up that mess. Recent events may turn out to be a rueful confirmation of Joseph de Maistre’s quip, that ‘in a democracy the people get the leaders they deserve’. And what about the converse? Are leaders getting the people they deserve?
The intractable problem for liberal democracy is one of restoring confidence between the electorate and the leadership. Bertolt Brecht wrote (in his poem, Die Lösung, 1953) with a heavy lump of irony when he suggested a simple solution: ‘for the government to dissolve the people, and elect another.’ Titter ye not. Of late I’ve come to ponder and patronise: is there not a little truth, nay, necessity in this bit of Brecht?
These questions mask a more complex confusion around who – if anyone – is in the driving seat. Political influence is (at least) a two-way flux. Traditionally, leaders and followers egged each other on with more or less gusto according to the ways they willed the world to be. Today, political leaders still seek a sort of ‘following’ – but they don’t appear to do this by convincing disciples of their suitability for office, and the worth of their ideas. None of that really matters when all you need to hold-sway is to get noticed more than your opponents.
Politicians have always sought to get their voices heard by whatever means necessary. But, didn’t they used to have something to say? Something that marked them out? Back in the day we could distinguish them from each-other, from we the lesser lifeforms and from those higher-beings apparently worthy of worship: the celebrities. Not now.
In our time, the Populist outstrips the Mainstream Moderate. Populist stated aims of overthrowing the Establishment get them noticed. Aggressive professed protection of an in-crowd, veils these leaders’ desperate self-protectionism. Every word is uttered in the name of their ultimate real aim: sustaining themselves on the media stage. Their feigned outrage at progressive injustices is designed to blind us to the fact that they themselves are products of Established institutions. Elite schools, the City, various mafias, media groups, corrupt oligarchies and other self-serving bastions. The failings and corrosive effects of certain selected parts of the established order of things are ignored by Populists, according to taste, lest they unsettle the base of popular support.
Populists policies – behind the headline motivated mush – are so often impoverished and threadbare. Why put energy into formulating a plan that will hold water, when all that’s required for one’s own political preservation is a screeching sham? To bend a few of Shakespeare’s words to our purpose: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’.
Mainstreamers – wanting to steal tricks from the populist playbook – lose all authenticity, as they ape the antics, buffoonery and all-out nasty language of the extremes. This is the thing that most worries me: not so much that good political thinking will die, but that common decency will go on to be eschewed even by those with otherwise reasonable and potentially valuable things to say. They think they have to be like their opponent in order to beat them.
I include myself here. See above how I reached for an opening quote from Maistre? He’s a champion of the counter-enlightenment – committed to ‘throne and altar’ reactionary conservatism – hellbent on countering rationalism – excusing war and massacre as all part of a Divine plan we’re far too stupid to work out. All-in-all he’s not the sort of ally that a liberal democrat (small l, small d) should call on. The fact Maistre was writing over 200 years ago doesn’t make this OK. Whatever next? Should I end up quoting Hitler himself? The thing is, it really is not just leaders who bear responsibility for how things are. ‘It is not the State that orders us; but it is we who order the State!’ (From the film Triumph of Will, 1935).
It’s not, or not just, that would-be people of the people are changing the substance of their policies. What riles me is that those who may deserve a genuine hearing and following seem to be giving up on their public and its capacity to think beyond vulgar tweets and populist memes. So as to be heard, they lower their own tone of communication to the dog-whistlers, rabble rousers and wind-up merchants.
Deliberate obfuscation has become the order of the day for those in the public eye and ear. We might hazard a guess at the advice they’re getting: Don’t convey substance – that might alienate and divide your audience – just tell them enough to suggest you’re interesting. Give each soundbite the air of scandal, novelty, abuse or faux radicalism, and followers will come. In the attention economy what you say is by the by, as long as you can keep them listening and watching for your next crazy move.
Whether it is used to destabilise (as Putin’s henchmen deploy it) or pretend to a policy you don’t believe in (as Corbyn), or put-off the inevitable fall-out of division (as May), or distract from one’s own recklessness (as Trump); ambiguity, constructive or destructive, is in the ascendancy. Some are adept at this dark art. Many aren’t. But they’re all at it.
There is this cringing way in which otherwise capable politicians, who are usually inept media performers, try to cause a stir. It has the effect of distancing them yet further in the polls from natural born shit-stirrers; those with the money, media profile, suits, teeth and egos to influence for their own ends. Aren’t these the real generators of the zeitgeist? Those that are to their own selves true, though they aren’t bothered to be true to anyone else. ‘Say what you like about X but they speak their mind. You know where you stand with them. They’re authentic.’ Countering this kind of inanity is key to upholding an effective democracy – but it requires our sustained effort to see show-offs, bullies and charlatans for what they are. We, the people, currently have tremendous influence over the leadership – but in a very corrosive way: through our social media accounts and followings, we encourage ‘thought-leaders’ to startle and entertain rather than provide well thought-out solutions. We must find, or at least hold-on to, more sophisticated ways of communicating true needs – and we must look elsewhere for our leisure fixes.
For those less-extreme leaders, there is little confidence to find and use an authentic voice of moderation. One which would calmly and patiently put cases for or against. One which would refuse to boil everything down to a tweet, because the world is messy and much larger than standard populist messaging can convey.
Amongst the people, the problem to overcome is one of bandwidth: How to nurture an ability to handle wide and diverse streams of information? Exposure to alternative views can help. Cutting-off options for connection certainly won’t. The problem to overcome amongst mainstream political leadership is, to my mind, one of style and platform. Learning from your adversaries doesn’t mean adopting all their underhand techniques. See these for what they are and do better. Find some territory to defend, hold your ground and do it your way – find new ways to reach out that complement your views, rather than undermining them.
So these are a few things that make me depressed about the future of liberal democracy: there is little effort, in the electorate, to go debate, challenge, or take apart a newsfeed. No time for anything other than off-the-shelf-ideologies. And then just buying one of a couple of leading brands. There is little expectation by politicians that we, their constituents, can cope with complex debate – nor that we will, if trust is again built, be content for them to do it on our behalf.
Is there any hope left? That something like liberal democracy may be resuscitated or rejuvenated in the next generation? If I have some hope left for this, it can be summed-up in three deaths.
Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by one who contested her belief that: ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’. That sickening week in June 2016 someone painted this slogan of hope on the window of my local charity shop. A small act of remembrance in defiance of despair. And recall how the Mainstream Moderate parties responded. They agreed not to contest the Batley and Spen by-election that resulted from Cox’s killing. Respect was shown. A common decency was, by and large, observed.
When US Republican Senator John McCain died this year, one recording stood out from his obituary. On the 2008 Presidential campaign trail, a rally attendee asked him about Obama: ‘I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not — he’s an Arab.’ McCain takes the microphone from her straight away, shaking his head: ‘No ma’am, no ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.’ The contrast between McCain’s attitude and that of the current US president couldn’t be more marked. The media response to McCain’s death (and Trump’s continued snubbing) reminded me a little of the late Jim Bowen on that teatime TV favourite Bullseye: ‘Look at what you could have won!’ It shows that there are healthy divisions and political conflicts that can be carried out in a respectful way. There is another way to lead which sometimes involves not giving followers what they want to hear; being brave enough to live in truth. At McCain’s rally and at his death, respect was shown. A common decency was, by and large, observed.
The other day I heard the artist (singular) Bob and Roberta Smith speaking about a terrifying moment of his childhood. His mother, in April 1968, screaming at her radio: ‘Why do they have to kill all the good people?!’ She’d just head about the assassination of Martin Luther King. This event had left such a deep impression on the little Smith, he couldn’t relay the story without breaking down and filling up. His tale left such impression on me, I wept too, thinking: where will we find today’s good people? True leaders, like King? I’m still not sure where best to look, but I’m heartened that his legacy – as with those of Cox and McCain – is being remembered; their loss bemoaned. Respect is being shown. A common decency, by and large, observed.
From these sad stories, I’ve sprung some optimism: that there may be a renewed thirst for a respectful politics – through which common decencies can again be observed and encouraged. Whether or not this is a true reflection of the way liberal democracy used to be carried out – it’s what I hope it – or something like it – might do for us in the future.