When is a conversation not a conversation? When it’s a political conversation.

Violence in Bahrain as Democracy Protesters Take to Streets

This essay is cross posted from Quillette

I

It looks like liberal democracy is falling apart. But we can put it back together if we take democracy seriously enough—as seriously as the ancient Greeks.

The chaos of Donald Trump was unimaginable just a decade ago. Brexit was a similar humiliation for Britain’s political class, leading to its bewildered paralysis ever since. How do such things happen? Perhaps because I admire economists’ deployment of very simple ideas to powerful effect, I’ve come to an approach to these problems that I think is simple and compelling.

First, democracy is government by conversation. A political conversation should often be competitive—to sharpen ideas and measure their support. Yet, to remain a conversation rather than a parody of one, it must also be a co-operative search, if not for agreement, then at least for mutual understanding of where positions differ. However, this co-operative foundation for our politics has been largely extinguished by the weaponisation of political communication by professionals operating on the mass media, and, more recently by “trolling” on social media.

Second, where elections bake competition into the operating system of representation, there’s another, even more time honoured way to represent the people. The ancient Greeks built their democracy around it and it hides in plain sight today whenever a jury is empanelled in a court of law. And, whether it concerns legal or political matters, deliberation within such bodies nurtures the collaborative aspects of conversation. Giving citizens’ juries and assemblies chosen by lot a role within our beleaguered democracy could see it renewed.

II

To become a politician you compete for election. You then join party colleagues competing against their opponents. Yet democracy implies limits to competition. We remain safe for now that no substantial political grouping perpetuates extra-legal violence. Yet something more fundamental is afoot.

Though it apes the form of conversation, political communication has become as professionalised, as optimised to the competition to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers. Meanwhile, responding to similar competitive imperatives, the informational foundations of our democracy were being shorn away by mass media news values long before the internet arrived. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds.1

The singleminded goal of each player in mass media political conversation is to manipulate it to their own end. Politicians rehearse “focus grouped” talking points and slogans like “take back control” and “roll up our sleeves” available on online lists (seriously!). Spokespeople cherry pick arguments, spurious or otherwise to defend their vested interest—until the they argue the opposite for their next client or employer. As Groucho put it, “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got others.”

Our language and etiquette are being transformed by the imperatives of political and ideological combat. The repertoire of “moves” now labelled “political correctness” have grown like bacteria in a petri dish in no small part because of their success as tactics in political debate. Taking offence, “checking” privilege, and associated strictures offer trump cards to instantly ideologise and emotionalise a conversation to one side’s tactical advantage.

III

In a healthy democracy, the journalist’s role should surely be to report and probe in the public interest. Yet almost invariably, issues are framed reductively in terms of competing participants’ talking points, with disagreements reduced to “he-said-she-said.” As Paul Krugman put it, the response to one of these competitors announcing the world is flat would be the headline “Views differ on shape of Earth.”

When playing “ringmaster,” journalists simulate truth-seeking but again, their real schtick is usually reductively competitive. Their subjects’ talking points frame the issues with journalists stoking disagreement where they can—it’s so much more engaging and instantly relatable than exploring for common ground.

They then celebrate their “savvy” as insiders to the whole process with breathless “race calling” commentary on who’s winning the debate—from ‘he-said-she-said’ to ‘he’s-winning-she’s-winning’. Only this isn’t really about who is winning the debate, but whose tactics are working better, at least for those within the insiders’ echo-chamber. As Todd Gitlin put it—again long before internet campaigning—rather than being informed on the issues, the audience is invited to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement.”2

A more recent variant on similarly reductive themes has been partisan mainstream media such as Fox News. Here the journalist MC and programming goes agent provocateur, for viewers to enjoy the fun of barracking for their ideology and hounding its enemies. As Fox News boss Chet Collier put it, “Viewers don’t want to be informed; they want to feel informed.”

With these rules of engagement, political coverage becomes wall-to-wall bullshit—in the technical sense defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. The speaker’s concern isn’t with truth or (more shockingly perhaps) with its falsity, but with “putting themselves over,” whether as concerned, contrite, respectable, or compassionate. Until their next gig.

Against all this, one can appreciate Donald Trump’s countercultural attraction—the least scripted, and most authentic, president in generations. A troll in his own cause.

IV

There’s been a flowering of marvellous political conversation on the internet. But that’s not where the political or commercial action is. For all its uncanny simulation of conversation, internet trolling completes the weaponisation of conversation.

Where mass media’s production cost makes it necessarily ponderous, social media is improvisational, a place where anyone can mount a potentially devastating disinformation attack in minutes, destroying careers in an eye-blink. And while one can imagine strategies to counter inaccurate facts in “fake news,” how does one counter trolls spreading misunderstanding of others’ motives in a way that precludes the possibility of conversation?

With mass media having done the softening up, social media is finishing the job. Our political system still delivers politicians afraid of not running the trains on time. But mainstream political conversation is a corpse, twitching as professional communicators and AI powered trolls commandeer human reflexes that evolved to foster communication and mutual understanding on the African Savannah, to stoke fear, loathing, and misunderstanding.

V

That we’re being increasingly betrayed by political elites is true enough. Until social media turned toxic, many imagined it enabling us to “take back control” (if I might use that term).3 Like the glamorous assistant disappearing once inside the magician’s cabinet, only to miraculously reappear moments later, here the populace disappear when we go looking for the culprit responsible for the toxic state of our political culture, only to reappear as our deliverer moments later.

Though our choices and votes reward the clickbait and news values of the media and politicians practicing their own dark arts, we remain the victim throughout, not of our own folly, but of manipulation by an other.

Can “we the people” save democracy by coming into our own as a deliberative force? We’ve been warned since Socrates and Plato on, that, left unsupervised, the hoi polloi become “the mob” at the drop of a hat. But surely the media diet of bread and circuses, this school of infantilism is part of this mess.

VI

Given the central role of the emotions as the motive force in political engagement, we should heed Martha Nussbaum’s advice in her book Political Emotions: not to banish them from political discourse – it would be impossible and unwise to try – but to strive for their health. Any functioning polity will mobilise and nurture the emotions of shared identity. This is necessary to the community’s survival if it must fight an enemy—as in World War Two. However, it can also be disastrous when it should talk more before fighting at all, or fighting on—as in World War One and most other wars that have ever been waged.

Yet, as we’re observing, in a diverse, liberal society at peace, no matter how much it serves the interests of mass and social media operatives in revving us up to hit their KPIs, too heavy an emphasis on identity can be highly corrosive. It’s transforming our politics into competing witch-hunts against ritualised “others” whether they’re fat cat bosses, “elites,” tax cheats, skivers, or welfare queens.

Against this, Nussbaum proposes that political emotions should inspire to worthy collective projects requiring effort and sacrifice from national defence to protecting the poor and weak. It’s partly by so doing that liberal politics must labour…

…to keep at bay forces that lurk in all societies and ultimately, in all of us: tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others. .… Disgust and envy, the desire to inflict shame upon others.

Nussbaum contrasts “masculine” emotions (associating them with competition and aggression) against the other “feminine” emotions (which build cooperation and care within the group). These emotions line up very neatly against the two ways of representing the people—by election and by lot.

VII

The same people whose eyeballs, clicks, and votes drive the toxicity of the politico-entertainment complex as served up by political elites behave differently deliberating amongst peers. When a citizens’ jury is first assembled, because its subject is political, most jurors arrive having assumed that there’ll be the usual combative fare, complete with activists revving things up—the usual politicking as road rage. They’re surprised at how respectful and cooperative others are. Then they remember that they’re just like them and things fall into place.

“I’m a man, I’m six foot two,” reported one citizens’ juror considering the safety and vibrancy of Adelaide’s nightlife. “I have no considerations for my safety. Then being with other people—older, smaller, females—you learn that their experiences are very different.”4

Imagine that issue presented on mass media. There’d be (say) feminist activists against domestic violence arguing against a hoteliers association spokesperson. The activists would want to be newsworthy to get media coverage, while hotelier’s spokesperson would present arguments we’d all know lacked all bona fides, cherrypicked to support their own interest.

Citizens’ juries also engender substantial changes in view. They tend towards compromise rather than polarisation and pro-social, less punitive strategies for solving social dilemmas. In Texas, the proportion of citizens willing to pay a little more for wind and solar energy to address greenhouse concerns went from 52 to 84 percent.5 In Oregon, where citizens’ juries now preview all citizen initiated referendums to advise the populace, a mandatory sentencing proposal enjoying 70 percent opinion poll support received just three jurors’ votes in 24 after deliberations concluded. This seems to have been part of a swing reducing the vote in favour of the proposal by nearly 15%.

VIII

Even without any formal political power, a standing citizens’ assembly would reveal the people’s considered opinion as opposed to their unconsidered opinion measured by endless opinion polls. (Would you prefer the people’s considered, or unconsidered view?) This would have its own effect on elected politicians. If politicians won’t agree to fund a citizens’ assembly initially, philanthropists large and small can crowdfund it.

Imagine how the energies of our vote hungry political elite might find more considered and cooperative ways through the dramas of Brexit or government shutdowns if there were a standing citizens’ chamber making their own collective views known.

As the community’s experience with it grows, we should expand its power. Given elected legislators’ repeated inflictions of national self-harm for partisan reasons against their own better judgement, I’d give a super majority of (say) 60 percent of the members of a citizens’ assembly the power to impose a secret ballot on other legislative chambers. This could be helpful in Britain regarding Brexit, in America regarding Trump’s more obviously ill-advised moves over the government shutdown and trade wars, and in Australia where the imperatives of political combat saw parliamentarians abolish carbon pricing against their own better judgement of the national interest.

Joseph Schumpeter was an early proponent of the idea that electoral democracy was, and should be embraced as, a competition by a political elite for the consent of the governed. This made some sense where national cultures and class structures were unitary and strong 80-odd years ago. But, taking it to its logical conclusion as we do today, reveals it as a category mistake. Democracy is not a product. It is, as Aristotle reminds us, a system in which everyone takes turn in governing and being governed.

It’s time we set out on the hefty and happy task of setting it right.

References:

1 Adatto, K., 1990. Sound bite democracy: Network evening news presidential campaign coverage, 1968 and 1988. Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Reported also in John Tierney, “The 1992: Media; Sound Bites Become Smaller Mouthfuls” Jan. 23, 1992 athttps://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/23/us/the-1992-campaign-media-sound-bites-become-smaller-mouthfuls.html
2 Gitlin, T., 1991. Bites and blips: chunk news, savvy talk and the bifurcation of American politics. Communication and citizenship, p.117 at p. 119.
3 See eg. Trippi, J. 2008. The revolution will not be televised, Harper-Collins e-books, Kindle edition.
4 The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), 2013. “Verdicts on the Jury, Views of jurors, bureaucrats and experts on South Australia’s first Citizens’ Jury”, mimeo, p. 6, currently available at https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/assets.yoursay.sa.gov.au/production/2014/08/22/01_45_56_391_Verdicts_on_the_Jury_TACSI.pdf
5 And see “The impact of deliberation on empathy and common interest”, Involve, more generally at https://goo.gl/NVrqsD

10 Responses

  1. It may be a conversation, but conversations are among small numbers of people. But this does not scale well to large countries with millions of citizens. That means the dialog is among many professional special interests, with unbending agendas.
    Thomas Jefferson envisioned dividing a larger republic among ward republics. Each might have only about 3000 citizens, who would personally know their representatives. From that basis, representatives would be elevated to state or national office.
    But would the conversation work if scaled up? Apparently not. Deliberation works best in small assemblies. The optimum number seems to be about 23. More than that and assemblies would then split into committees, each of which would contain a deliberative process, largely dispersed among a larger assembly. That also disperses the conversation.
    The conversation metaphor has it limits.

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  2. Thanks Jon

    I wasn’t intending conversation as a metaphor. It’s a description. Obviously conversations between two, ten, a thousand and three hundred million are very different. But they partake of the same basic law – which is that they need to have space for people to express themselves as individuals and as part of some collective to build shared meaning.

    We do talk about ‘the national conversation’ for a reason. There is one – or used to be. But it’s been under relentless attack from the forces I document for a good while.

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  3. Walter Bagehot concluded that Parliament was too large to be the forum for the national conversation, hence his view that at his time (c. 1867) it had already shifted to the cabinet room. I agree with Jon that the use of the term “conversation” for groups larger than a couple of dozen (in fact some deliberative democrats set the bar even lower) is purely metaphorical. Bearing in mind that the notion of a political conversation originated with Habermas’s study of the London coffee houses in the eighteenth century, it was always an elite notion — which (according to Habermas) was destroyed by the onset of universal suffrage. Michael Oakeshott was probably the last political theorist to talk about government by conversation (although it was a good description of Tony Blair’s sofa cabinet), and he was no democrat.

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  4. Jon:> [conversation] does not scale well to large countries with millions of citizens. That means the dialog is among many professional special interests, with unbending agendas.

    Yes, that’s exactly how Habermas described the transformation (death) of the public sphere in his 1962 book, and it was an inevitable consequence of the expansion of the franchise. Conversations only occur within small groups — how to structure the conversation within allotted groups in such as way as to accurately reflect the conversation of a large multicultural state is a non-trivial problem. Building a “shared meaning” is a noble aspiration, but it’s the sort of language we are accustomed to hear from archbishops, rather than political theorists.

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  5. Thanks – very interesting and at times amusing reading.

    I think that it could indeed be argued that the artificiality and mendacity of the politicians and their allies in the media that creates the most immediate sense of disgust from the existing system.

    However, to hammer again a nail I often aim at: this is not the real problem with the present system. The real problem with the system is the inherent elitism of the electoral system that inexorably leads it toward ever more exploitative policy outcomes. One could stomach quite a lot of political theater when one’s quality of life is increasing. On the other hand, when one’s quality of life is being progressively degraded, one tends to be resentful toward the status quo no matter how honest and free of pretense it is.

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  6. Inequality has increased Yoram, but a tiny fraction of it has been due to policy. Most of the tax cuts for high income earners have been balanced by base broadening measures. The market has become more unequal in many ways through similar mechanisms of elitism and ‘insider favours’.

    Yes, the wealthy have vastly more access to politicians than the poor, but still elected politicians fear the electorate’s wrath, and actively take money off the average person with great reluctance. So the main reason people see their standards of living rising so much more slowly than twenty years ago is 1) increasingly unequal outcomes in the market and 2) slow growth. Other things being equal politicians always want to maximise growth. Of course they’re not entirely equal, it’s true. Tories in the UK pursued austerity because it worked for them politically, but that’s not really the story in the US, or Australia.

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  7. > Inequality has increased Yoram, but a tiny fraction of it has been due to policy.

    This statement is almost logically self-contradictory. Unless every conceivable policy would have resulted in essentially the same level of exploitation – are you really arguing that this is the case? – then the exploitation is a result of policy.

    Also, it is important to realize that we are not talking about “inequality” in the sense that everybody is better off but some are much more better off. No – a large portion of the population is actually worse off.

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  8. I don’t really follow what you’re saying Yoram.

    But whatever you think my literal words mean, why don’t you address yourself to what you think I might have been trying to say?

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  9. I also agree with the opening sections about the inevitable failings of politician-centered deliberation, but don’t immediately embrace your use of the term “conversation.” I agree that the seeking of common ground is missing in politics and must be restored. But we must also promote well-structured agonistic debate. As Bernard Manin observed, “Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views. It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.” [Bernard Manin, “Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather than Discussion,” December 2, 2005, Paper delivered at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University, October 13th 2005, New York University School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris), page 17 http://politics.as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/2792/delib.pdf%5D

    As for Yoram’s response about policy… Any negative (or positive) outcomes arising from “slow growth,” or “markets” are fundamentally POLICY based. As Adam Smith himself noted, markets can only exist in a modern society if facilitated by governments, (enforcement of contracts, courts, etc.) and the nature of those markets is the result of public policy.

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  10. It’s ironic that Manin’s 1987 paper is often cited as the foundation stone of deliberative democracy when the deliberative style that he advocates is forensic/agonistic — certainly not ‘conversational’.

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