Three ways our democracy is being undermined

The articles that have appeared after the BBC’s referendum debate in Glasgow have given a lot of prominence to that one man who blamed the state of political discourse for his confusion as to how to vote.

This was too interesting not to comment on.

The audience was divided into leavers, remainers, and undecideds.

Leave and Remain both have their own ‘Project Fear’. Leavers tout a cultural crisis in the form of mass migration. Remainers raise the spectre of economic catastrophe.

Fear Projects, whereever they come from, are a concerted attempt to sway the public with threats dangerous enough to repeat frequently in scarce media time.

On the face of it my generation ought to be the most engaged generation there has ever been. Social media has turned every one of us into campaigners and journalists: we auto-report our lives and volunteer our opinions publicly. We are also happy to parrot or share anything we agree with.

Movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Anonymous, the student protests, the various LGBT campaigns, Britain First, Upworthy, 38 Degrees, and others have been born on and publicised over Facebook and Twitter.

The parties and the referendum campaigns attempt to ape their success.

Each repost from each campaign is liked and shared hundreds or thousands of times. And every one of them has a project fear (or its inverse: an ‘inspirational’ story in which Fear is defeated, but is always there).

The internet, ideally, ought to have reduced society to its individuals, each with a thoughtful and considered opinion to critique and build on. Instead, it has multiplied the number of central media hubs from which editorial opinions spring.

There is no single authoritative voice pointing the way to ‘truth’: a series of voices compete for authoritativeness using every propaganda/public relations technique developed since Pathé.

In a media environment in which factors in historical antagonisms are represented as concrete facts rather than as opinions or critiques there is no room for the democracy of reason: these sides are fighting to capture the tyranny of the majority, the plebiscite.

The people are not told lies: nuanced truths are merely simplified for their consumption.

We are not trusted with nuance. Why should we be? The electoral victories of Thatcher, Blair, and others elsewhere in the world, were built on controlling the message. The big weakness of the Liberal Democrats nationally is that the Lib Dems trusted people to understand nuanced positions and got overrun by more forceful, simple messages.

There are three currents to this story: political movements and the media that support them are taking absolutist stances to convince people of their correctness; individuals, like the man who asked if any of them believed their own campaigns, are realising that under the public debate policies and their consequences are being carried out without proper scrutiny; and a whole swathe of the electorate is turning off, away from politics, convinced that everyone is corrupt and they are all as bad as each other.

* Toby MacDonnell is a Lib Dem member. He is a graduate in history from Sussex university reading Keynes and Baudrillard in preparation for postgraduate studies.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Barry Snelson 27th May '16 - 4:56pm

    A very perceptive piece. We live in an era where all opinions count so that no opinions count. For every topic that arises, the media and the social networks quickly establish the “narrative” and once that has been done that is the truth for ever more and any counter argument is denounced or more usually ignored.

    Trump has become the nominee by poisoning each rival in turn abetted by media channels who love his attention grabbing style. He understands people merely want to be given a dream not the facts.

    The Tories have won elections based on their economic competence “narrative” despite having a chancellor who has never had a prediction come true yet (he could have got half right by flipping a coin) and whose budgets unravel before he’s had the congratulatory pat on the shoulder from the PM.

    The “truth” these days is based on the argument “a million lemmings can’t be wrong” and journalists pile into the biggest crowd, fearful of being thought to be in the minority.

  • Jenny Barnes 27th May '16 - 5:36pm

    Referendum. We have a representative democracy, and we expect our representatives to put the effort in to understand the pros and cons of complicated, difficult to predict decisions, like whether we should stay in the EU. Instead of which, for nothing more than party management purposes, we all have to think about the EU for weeks on end. It won’t make much difference. The same elite will still call the shots. It’s a sort of giant dead-cat on the table – A dead lion?.. to distract us all from what is really going on.

  • There is a very widespread subset of corruption – patronage. Jobs for the boys, old school tie, and lobbying with implied later benefit for party or individual. It runs all through British politics, and includes this party. It might be in the nature of democracy since election to high or even low office requires huge effort, plenty of cash, and lots of unpaid favours that result in obligations. Twice I have had a Tory MP booted out at a general election only to turn up months later top of an EU party list and impossible to unelect.

    Solutions… public funding of parties and no donation to exceed standard party membership fees. No private lobbying – must be in public in front of a committee. Abolish the honours system for anyone holding public office. Abolish the Lords. Primaries for party list elections. No second jobs for MPs that involve advisory or consulting services including directorships.

  • There’s an assumption that voters are acting irrationally, but in fact the opposite is true. It’s now a given, that we’re presently in a global era of ‘Let’s kick the Establishment’, but that doesn’t explain the strange rise of, …Trump, Corbyn, Farage, Le Penn, Sanders, etc.
    The first thing to acknowledge is that the public are under severe stress. They’ve undergone over a decade of ‘establishment’, saying … ‘things can only get better’,… ‘hope and change you can believe in’,.. ‘no more broken promises’, only to find that once you bought the meme and got it home,..that promises still got broken,.. there is no change or hope,.. and things didn’t actually get better. You can begin to see why the establishment are not the touchstone of truth anymore.
    But still none of this explains Trump, Corbyn,… etc
    One answer might lie in evolution. Evolution is an incremental response to gradual environment change. But if the environment acts in a rapid, abrupt, gyratory and unpredictable manner, an organism can sometimes become so randomly ‘stressed’, that incremental evolution doesn’t work quite as well. The rapid birth/death iterations of a butterfly might well adapt, but maybe not so well with higher animals?
    There is a process called Saltation, which seems to occur when the environment sends mixed, confused, non linear, or rapid gyratory signals. This saltation process, seems to respond with severe mutations that have little bearing on the original stressors surrounding them. It appears to be nature’s way saying ” I don’t know if,.. bigger beak,.. smaller beak,.. longer legs,.. shorter legs,.. works for your species anymore,… so let’s throw *ALL* the cards in the air, [even the crazy ones], to see what works.”?
    Are voters in a kind of saltation process.? They know by dint of repeated bad experience that listening to the establishment,.. absolutely doesn’t work anymore. They also recognize for sure, that many of the *crazy mutations*,.. Trump, ..Corbyn etc, are also political blind alleys. But,…. in the absence of any credible indicators as to,.. *what will work anymore?*,.. then the pursuit of any and all random and crazy political mutations, is a perfectly rational path for voters to take, until something new proves itself viable and worthy of their attention.?

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