What now for moderate politics and discourse?

“Emily Thornberry just took down the entire Tory party in 45 seconds” says the caption. Below is a video of Emily Thornberry at the despatch box at yesterday’s prime minister’s questions performing, it has to be said, very well.

It is the sort of thing we all see dozens of times every day, scrolling through our social media feeds whilst we wait for out train, lie in bed or pretend to listen to a friend’s anecdote.

This particular bit of clickbait came from the Independent – now, of course, an exclusively digital organisation. But it could equally have come from a dozen other news organisations I follow on Facebook, generally of solid heritage and employing intelligent, well-informed people.

It has struck me recently — and I do not think I am imagining it — that this sort of caption and headline has become commonplace in our politics: politicians and journalists are routinely, it seems, “destroying”, “taking down” and “wiping out” one another.

All of these examples have two things in common.

First, they invoke violent imagery and apply it to really quite ordinary situations.

And secondly, they are spectacularly superlative: putting forward a persuasive argument becomes a destruction; a good Commons performance, “taking down”.

Acres of copy has been written on the simultaneous rise of both social media and populism, and the cause and effect, if any, at work. But there undoubtedly seems to be a link between the decline of moderation in our politics (so presciently captured in Nick Clegg’s resignation speech) — both here and in the US — and the rise of the peculiarly insular, short-attention-span, instant gratification world of social media.

Given the unstoppable rise of the social media giants, this leads to some pretty fundamental questions — perhaps most fundamentally of all, whether the democratic polity can survive in the deadening bog of half-truth and hyperbole that appears to be the lifeblood of social media.

More immediately the sort of hyperbole of which clickbait is only the prime example has profound implications for the ways in which we consume news: the exaggeration, for commercial and partisan purposes, of comparably run-of-the-mill events undermines and serves to downplay genuinely important news. If everything “destroys” an argument then we are in danger of nothing at all doing so. It is another manifestation of the Trump phenomenon: if the waters are sufficiently muddy who knows whether what lurks beneath or even rises to the surface is significant or not?

I find it difficult to give an optimistic answer to questions like this. It may be that the technology itself will force us to turn a corner, moderating a discourse which is plainly out of control. But that is a hope more than it is an expectation.

The best that we can do, I think, is to try and craft — or, should I say, maintain? — a way of communicating that engages without either patronising or exaggerating. Whether it is possible to maintain a moderate tone whilst also being successful electorally (for politicians) or commercially (for news organisations), who can say?

But if we are to witness to the end of the moderate, tolerant politics — and perhaps even the liberal democracy itself — that has served so many so well for so long then we may as well be the ones who tried to save it.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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28 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Jul '17 - 12:53pm

    Nick, writes a very intelligent, utterly sensible article , as radical as it is moderate !

    I have often described us as a stance and party as the Radical Moderates. Many decry the concept of the radical centre. On here just this week I defended the idea of the centre in politics as an exciting place not a boring one, in response to a vitriolic attack of that sensible political place to be.

    I at such times quote Sir Peter Ustinov who said, ” the centre is is the most difficult position to defend. I have always been liberal, but a militant liberal, I do not see why the central position should be reticent because it is central. I believe the position in the centre to be the true one.”

    The overblown rhetoric that Nick alludes to here, is typical as much of politicians as reactions .

    Tim , our outgoing leader , has long been best when he tones down the level of attack or response. Too many times the Tories are “wicked !” Fair point sometimes, say it to often, nobody is listening . Brexit is always “hard !” Decisions are a “tragedy !”It is in the mouths of too many of them , as if hearing the boy who cried wolf. When you need to hear , who is ?

    The social media craze makes it both better and worse. Far better in our ability through it to speak out for that which online is , moderation , as a necessary procedure, and for moderates to share the truth. Worse in that one wonders who is really interested when the narrative is otherwise.

  • Daniel Henry 13th Jul '17 - 3:56pm

    Good article. I think a lot of us relate to how annoying “headline-based” debate is becoming, where the headline sets the tone, often with little regard for what the actual content involved.

    I remember when I first started seeing this. At first, I sort of liked it – it made otherwise dull things a bit more dramatic and interesting.

    Then gradually I got sick of it.

    Partly because I saw the other “side” doing it and found it impossible to reason with them because people were too caught up in the “us vs them” mentality to listen. But also because I saw it resulting in laziness of my own “side”. At the end of the day, even when our own “side” is doing it, it’s still just adding to the total level of BS.

    I like to think that it’s a phase that our culture is going through, where we initially find it attractive, but gradually become sick of it and then get a taste for more rational exchange.

    I mean if Glenn Beck can start getting sick of hyper-partisan nonsense in favour of more constructive conversation, surely there’s hope for us all?

  • Graham Evans 13th Jul '17 - 5:16pm

    I think it was Nick Clegg who pointed out that the German parliament is often regarded as pretty boring, but its politics are in many ways all the better for that. The House of Commons really shouldn’t be “show business for ugly people”.

  • I’ve been pondering if it’s worse than even this article suggests. We seem to have not just stopped listening to each other politely, but abandoned the democratic contract in its entirety?
    Democracy was the best alternative to two clans facing each other with muskets across a muddy field. And the vital protocol which makes democracy a useful alternative to discord is the acceptance of the result by all sides. Am I wrong in thinking we have ditched democratic protocol of ‘result acceptance’ in favour of some angry, tantrum, ‘Red Mist politics’?
    Once one side refuses to accept a democratic result, it is the natural order of things for all others to refuse likewise, wherein at that point, democracy dies.
    Do that group of angry Red Mist Remainers, seriously think an equally angry group of Red Mist Leavers are going to quietly abide by a second referendum and passively return to the diktat of an unelected EU? Not a snowball hope in hell. So what do we do, now that we appear to have abandoned the key protocol of the democratic contract, which is, the mature civility of accepting the result?

  • Sheila,

    If the vote is a vote for slavery, while we agree the voters have voted for slavery it doesn’t mean I have to agree with them or stop campaigning against it. Now if you accept that argument why is Brexit different, I don’t agree with it and don’t have to support it. While we will leave the EU it doesn’t mean going forward as bad things happen just because people voted for it i can’t point out it was a stupid decision and the people who voted for it should reflect on the decision they made.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jul '17 - 6:34pm

    We saw a play by Sir Peter Ustinov. Between the announcement of a ceasefire for 11.00 and the end of hostilities at 11.00 somebody died, hit by a bullet or an artillery shell, and became an Unknown Soldier in his family’s tradition.

  • Yeovil Yokel 13th Jul '17 - 7:15pm

    Another example of this sort of thing is “….so-and-so has car crash interview”. Reminds me of the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch in which two neighbouring newspaper vendors are competing with each other by revealing increasingly hyperbolic poster headlines, until one finally trumps the other with “Millions Mangled in Motorway Madness”.

  • paul barker 13th Jul '17 - 7:25pm

    I think we can help by avoiding any violent language & by not making an overblown case for our beliefs.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Jul '17 - 8:41pm

    I’m passionate about attentive listening, Sheila – after all I am a counsellor! – and your idea of ‘mature civility of accepting’ would actually mean stopping talking and listening, and as Frankie indicates, continuing to campaign against things we believe are wrong. As I have said in another piece, I believe we have to talk and listen more to people now, as Lib Dem politicians, and empower them by hearing their concerns and trying to meet them. By all means though as the author suggests recognise the hyperbole and half-truths being spread in the media, social and popular, and express our passionate beliefs as he writes here and Lorenzo agrees without exaggeration.

  • Little Jackie Paper 13th Jul '17 - 9:37pm

    I can’t believe that in the 1990s I thought that the internet would be wonderful for politics. I was had.

    Admittedly I think that what the article talks about here is symptom rather than cause as such. The real problem is that the world rushed headlong into the internet without any real thought about what we were doing – or even if we wanted. Easier to talk about such a debate than have one of course. But looking back we (and by that I mean global society) really needed to think much more about what we were moving to.

    It may well be that the next ‘tech revolution’ (gene manipulation) will see the same thing – sweeping, rapid changes with no real thought.

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Jul '17 - 9:46pm

    Part of me agrees with Nick but an awful lot of me wants to see that sort of headline about one of our MPs! I want to see passion about the awful future Labour and the Tories want to lead us to. I’m concerned that moderation is seen as wishy washy liberalism or worse, apathy. Anger can be a force for good and I think we as a party need it to cut the Gordian knot of Brexit politics when the two main parties are leading us over a cliff.

  • I don’t entirely agree.
    I don’t think things have changed that much at all. The American elections rarely returns a party for more than two terms. The Democrats were in for two terms and then the Republicans won. This is actually normal. The odd bit was Trump winning the nomination as the Republican candidate. But even then the Republican Party does seem to like celebrity. Reagan, Eastwood and Schwarzenegger. Also the 19th Century produced some very dodgy presidents. As for Brexit, I think what really happened is that the Collapse of the Soviet Union convinced some politicians and some of the commentariat that this meant that domestic politics had changed more than it had. The End of History and all that. London was then sold to as a sort global hub along the lines of New York.. Lots of myths were created and applied to the whole country. Then the cracks appeared, Because it turns out the British don’t actually want mass immigration (which every single survey of attitudes has repeatedly showed), are not all hip young things (demographics) and have never been entirely sold on Europe (a referendum at any point from 1979 onwards could have gone either way). So I’d argue that all that has really happened is that a fantasy version of Britain born in the Blair years had it’s bubble popped by holding a plebiscite. Some talk wistfully about the Danny Boyle Olympics and the alleged changes since then, but was it really any more representative of reality than any other state organised event designed to impress the world by projecting an image of modernity?. Sort the Guardian friendly version of synchronised El Presidente saluting a flypast as he shows of a state of the art hotel complex. In short all social media really does is expose politics to the grumbles of voters.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Jul '17 - 10:29pm

    Sheila Gee, the way you write it appeals to me !

  • Sheila,
    I don’t think the LibDems can be accused of returning to muskets in support of their views on Brexit. Their campaign was to offer the people the chance to relive the trauma of the referendum all over again.
    Unaccountably, their voter share went down. Maybe the penny will drop. Maybe it won’t. But they haven’t subverted democracy. They’ve just been taught a lesson by it. It took UKIP over 40 years to overturn the last referendum and the way the remain side are shaping they will need at least that.
    Much though I dislike socialists, Corbyn must be applauded for his dignified manner and campaign. It’s the Tories who offered the stream of personal insults and their press the endless attacks.
    So it was nice to see the smile wiped off the faces of all those bullies by the voters’ pencils.
    But people are getting dangerously frustrated with their politicians who have elbowed their into positions of leadership to advance themselves and with no interest in the peoples’ problems.
    The only offerings are “crush the poor” or “eat the rich”. Both have been tried many times and have all ended in disaster. Attempts to find a better way seem to be drowned out by the hot heads with megaphones, on this blog and in the wider media.

  • Katharine Pindar 14th Jul '17 - 12:32am

    To present the Lib Dem policy as being ‘to offer the people the chance to relive the trauma of the referendum all over again’, Palehorse, is exactly the sort of distortion by subtle denigration which this article would seem to suggest should be considered undesirable.

  • David Evershed 14th Jul '17 - 12:46am

    Fortunately the government and opposition benches in parliament are two sword lengths apart.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 14th Jul '17 - 6:58am

    Sheila Gee, I very much agree with your comments.
    We often forget how privileged we are to live in a democracy.
    Democracy should not be taken for granted. Its foundations may be more fragile than we realise. Democracy depends on an agreement that the result of an election or referendum will always be respected and implemented. The moment that we begin to argue that this principle should be set aside if we do not happen to like the result of a particular democratic referendum, the foundations of democracy begin to crumble.

  • Philip Knowles 14th Jul '17 - 7:51am

    I think what worries me most is not the internet but the right wing press. They drip feed their distorted view of the world. Any challenge to their view is derided. The internet is a bubble where we are, generally, fed the news that we want to see and reinforces our view of the world. The Daily Mail has demonised asylum seekers for years fuelling the rise of the likes of UKIP. They sold half-truths about the EU which became ‘facts’.
    We don’t live in a democracy and can’t until opposing views are given equal weight. In marketing their is a concept called ‘share of voice’ – market share reflects the share of advertising spend. While the ‘free press’ is controlled by a few individuals and spouts their line vote share will reflect their voice share.

  • Katharine,
    I only offer my perception of what my fellow citizens felt about a rerun of what had been the cause of many bitter arguments. Many, on both sides, were passionate and debates quickly became inflamed. I began as ‘Leave’ but ended up ‘Remain’ so I fell out with everybody.
    The LibDems became the party of a second referendum and the subtleties of “it’s not a second referendum, it’s a different one” were obviously dismissed as nonsense.
    The party’s other themes such as ‘Save the NHS’ were lost in the ‘overturn Brexit’ noise. The party’s performance must you some doubts about the campaign,
    I’m sorry if you think that pointing this out is the ‘violent imagery’ of this op-ed.
    There is a tendency to shoot the messenger, here, but as the party seems to now command the support of about 5 voters in every 100 there must be a motive to reflect on, rather than Pavlovian rejection, of comments made.

  • Philip,
    Perversely, I think it was the right wing press ‘wot lost it’.
    Their sustained vitriol and Corbyn’s calm and unruffled response made him a victim and underdog.
    People have concerns, like them or not, around the question “What is the maximum sustainable population for this island?” and if these are dismissed as disgusting, racist bigotry, instead of being answered then ‘populists’ will get a free run.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Jul '17 - 8:56am

    Catherine Jane Crosland, Sheila Gee: Democracy is a continuous process, and does not end after a single vote. We continue to campaign against the outcome of the referendum, in the same way as we continue to campaign against the winners of an election. acceptance of a result does not mean acquiescence or self-censorship.

  • @Sheila Gee
    Democracy can only exists whilst it holds a broad consensus. The majority must always be aware of the sacrifice being made by the minority to hold that consensus together. The minority accept the majority decision only whilst they value the general benefit of the system in the whole. Once that consensus breaks down we have the tyranny of the majority and schism. We saw this in northern Ireland. We saw it developing in Scotland. It is the insensitivity to this aspect of democracy by the Tory government and aspects of the media which is aggravating so much division. The Brexiteers have not tried to find consensus. It is our way or the threat of civil unrest. I am deeply disturbed by the mood of the country at the moment. Revolutions have a nasty habit of going horribly wrong when things don’t quite turn out as people expect.

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Jul '17 - 12:47pm

    Democracy doesn’t mean that the side that wins has power for ever. It means that people are free to argue against policies they don’t agree with and try to convince the electorate at the next election. The problem with Brexit is that it’s being taken as a permanent decision that no one can question and that it is so complicated that no one knows what the outcome will be. Unfortunately, if it becomes obvious that it was the wrong decision, it may be too complicated to reverse our slide into economic decline. Even if we want to rejoin it’s unlikely that financial services, for example, will return to London having set up new HQs in the EU.

  • Max Wilkinson 14th Jul '17 - 2:01pm

    I wonder whether, in the current context, it’s possible for most politicians to be electorally successful with a moderate message. By that I mean a moderate tone.

    Indeed, we witnessed a fine example yesterday. Tim Farron issued a statement saying we would make the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill ‘hell’ for the government. These comments made the first edition of the Standard. What he meant, of course, was that we would hold the government to account. Had he pledged in his statement to ‘hold the government to account’, he would not have been noticed.

    As it happens, I feel Vince Cable is one of the few politicians who can get away with using a more moderate tone. People already think he knows what he’s talking about, so he doesn’t have to resort to hyperbolic statements.

  • P.J.
    I agree with much of what you say, but on the point of ‘tyranny of the majority’, if you look hard enough, you’ll find tyranny in the unlikeliest of majorities.
    Take Blair and his original Centrism. He thought he was creating a middle ground consensus. He did to a point, and so far so good.
    But centrism attracts a core middle vote of people who are broadly happy with their lot, and ‘doing O.K nicely thank-you and happy to keep it this way’. But what about the people who were not ‘doing O.K ’, for which centrism’s’ majority’ had no answer?
    The success of Centrism had unintentionally, become the tyranny of the ‘comfortable middle’ majority, against the ‘barely managing’.

    No wonder they got angry. From the ‘barely managing’ eye-view, Centrism had become the political lock-down, like a high walled castle protecting the ‘comfortable’ and shutting them out.
    So when centrism ‘for the comfortable’, had become a tyranny to the ‘barely managing’, it became inevitable that they would scatter in a vexatious mood looking to the left and right for answers.

    And back to the broader point of vexatious political discourse.
    At one time a Burgomaster standing in the village declaring more taxes on the peasants would risk everything from rotten tomatoes to threats of a ‘lynchin’. Today an MP tells the peasants that they have more bedrooms than they are entitled to, and endure social media vitriol and death threats.
    So is political vexation worse today, or has it just gone ‘digital’?
    From any fixed point of political history, it appears that the ever present vexatious and angry nature of political discourse underscores a simple fact. Politics is not a victimless crime.

  • @Sheila Gee
    I think you mistake my advocacy for consensus for one of centrism. The one is completely independent of the other and I would not defend tyranny of the center any more than of the left or right. It merely means that the majority should temper its demands in respect of the level of majority and the strength of the minority view. That is a balanced democracy.

  • Geoffrey Payne 16th Jul '17 - 10:39pm

    I certainly agree it is getting harder to debate on social media especially when the person you are debating with gives the impression he wants to strangle you for the crime of disagreeing.
    What we are seeing on social media from the left is the mirror image of the Daily Mail and Sun.

  • Reading this thread, I was reminded by an article by Charles Kennedy a decade or so ago https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/aug/04/comment.politics bemoaning the loss of faith in party politics because politicians won’t debate the big issues.

    Kennedy wrote: “Several factors militate against mature debate. The growing influence of focus groups means we are all in danger of being excessively cowed by their feedback.”

    “A second increasingly corrosive element in British elections is the ruthless targeting of swing voters in key target seats. As competing parties we have to channel our resources and campaigning energies into particularly important seats, but the broader effect of this process is to marginalise many more voters in areas where the electoral outcome is considered largely inevitable.”

    “But it is not just the general election campaign itself that matters; the period in between elections seems to be causing just as much damage. Public perception of the Westminster arena, with all its posturings, does little to engender a sense of voter belief. There is a case to be made – one that would fall well short of some sort of descent into parliamentary anarchy – for a lessening of the whipping regime and more opportunity for legitimate and constructive dissent.”

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