The Politics of Language

The language of day-to-day politics in the news and in legislative bodies, such as the UK parliament, has been so vitriolic, such as around the Brexit debate from 2016, that many have been stopped listening. It can be toxic to some, while energising to others. I should add that I would single out no one, as this has been a phenomenon that crosses political parties, nations, and individuals. It seems like a trend in the use and abuse of language in politics. Why?

There are many possible explanations. There is the give and take of debate in which aggressive or insulting words evoke equivalent or ratchet up replies in a vicious cycle. There is the potential for inflammatory language to capture media attention. There are many possible reasons, but one seems to best capture for me the dynamics of what we are seeing unfold across Europe and North America – one that was long ago best characterised by an American political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, in his short but wonderful book entitled, The Semi-Sovereign People.*

The essential notion of Schattschneider’s work is to compare politics with a spectator sport, but one in which there are major differences. Players can change the rules, for example, but even more dynamic is the potential and commonality of players switching sides. More significantly, perhaps, is the notion that spectators can come on the field and join one of the teams.

Considering these possibilities, it is obvious that if you are winning the game, you don’t want to change the rules, and you don’t want spectators to jump onto the field. Best to leave things alone if you are winning. And if two teams are in opposition, such as in parliament, it would be best to keep a low profile if both teams are winning through compromise, for example.

Alternatively, if you are losing, then there is an incentive to change the rules, which is most difficult if you are losing, or to get change the composition of the teams by getting players to switch sides, or getting spectators to come onto the field. It is risky, but you are losing anyway, and changing the teams on the field could tilt the game in your favour.

So what happens when – as in the case of Brexit debates in the UK – that no team is clearly winning. Every position is a minority position. Every team will have an incentive to change the rules, and to bring spectators onto the field. They are already losing, so each party is attempting to shake things up and change the dynamics of the politics in a way that might shift in their favour.

This seems to me to be a rational explanation of the apparently irrational politics of Brexit that is causing a national nervous breakdown in the UK.

*E. E. Schattschneider, (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Wadsworth.

Fake News Nation – a new book by Aspray and Cortada is out!

I’d like to recommend to you a new book, entitled Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misinterpretations in America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Information about the book is at: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538131107/Fake-News-Nation-The-Long-History-of-Lies-and-Misinterpretations-in-America

As I noted in my endorsement of this book: “James W. Cortada and Willam Aspray’s brilliantly selected and crafted case studies are must-reads because they bring historical insight to issues of fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories of our digital age.”

 

The Internecine Politics Undermining the Civility of Political Discourse?


Brexit has spawned a form of internecine politics in the UK that is a lose-lose for all – the politicians, parties, and the nations, and very likely, the public interest. Conservatives have referred to ‘blue on blue’ attacks on one’s own party members, but not as in military parlance, accidental. These are really intentional efforts to destroy other members of the parliament, and often in one’s own political party.

This blue-on-blue warfare was mentioned in the debate on 9 July 2019 between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but that is but one example of a daily dose of hyper-personal, destructive, political, hatchet jobs that leaves everyone diminished. Today, the former PM John Major threatened to take the next UK PM to court if he were to try to force a no-deal Brexit. He did not simply express his view on a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but threatened the next PM.

Of course, politics in the USA is as vicious, if not more so – consider the warfare between the late John McCain and Donald Trump. All are diminished in such exchanges.

Has politics become more hyper-personal, vicious and internecine, or has the media and social media, as claimed by some, not only a cause of this dysfunctional communication, but is it also or primarily making normal politics more visible?

Optimistically, maybe it is the latter. Perhaps politics has always be as personal and corrosive, and what we see is a social media example of what was called by Joshua Meyrowitz a ‘no sense of place‘ of the mass media. Every insult, threat, or attack is immediately tweeted, blogged, leaked, and/or reported on the mainstream 24-hour news channels. No politician can escape the constant gaze of the media (often via social media) today. A positive outcome, arguably, is that we know too much to hold any politician on a pedestal. Politicians are very human with many faults.

So maybe it is the latter n – a media impact. That might mean there is hope that politicians, the press, and media can learn to hold their fire in the public interest. But the search for followers, likes, ratings, and viewers make this unlikely.

While this is unlikely, given that such internecine conflicts generate listeners, readers, and viewers, it is also in the self-interest of any politician to not indulge in, or try their best to avoid, these political attacks. So it may be down to the politicians to address this problem.

In earlier times, one was advised to go ahead and write the angry memo to your boss or colleague to get your grievance off your chest, but then put it in your desk drawer, and read it the next day. In the light of the next day, the logic goes, the overly vituperous memos or letters would be shredded and forgotten. Well, memos are rare today, as are desk drawers, and tweets work best in live action, so restraint will be more difficult in these times. But this is possible. Draft a tweet on any other media than Twitter, and then send it the next day!

All parties need to realise that clicks, views, and news coverage are not indicators of agreement or support of a comment. This member of the public is becoming exhausted and disappointed by these internecine, hyper-personal political hatcket jobs. Sadly, they alienate many of others among the public. Surely it may seem naive, but in everyone’s interest to be more civil, less personal, more restrained, and more empathetic. Politics is the art of compromise, and not war carried on by other means.

Coda

I was pleased to see some aspects of my concerns reflected in what might have been PM Teresa May’s last major speech as Prime Minister. She spoke about the decline of public discourse, talking about what she called the “coarsening [of] our public debate”, noting that “Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.” While she attributes some aspects of this to online media, she did not put all the blame on digital or social media, but on an increasing factionalism and what she called an ‘absolutism’, which for example is so apparent in debates over Brexit. I find support in her voicing some of my concerns with public discourse albeit she has put these points across much better and to a far larger audience. 

Getting to No: Name-calling Politics

Every morning it seems I am stunned by any given political actor (celebrity, politician, journalist) in the UK or the USA calling another politician an idiot, a fascist, a communist, a liar, a populist, nationalist, …. the list goes on. What are they thinking?

You don’t need to have read Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (Random House, first edition 1981) to realise that name-calling in politics is likely to end badly. It is blindingly obvious that this is not a route to agreement. So as Fisher and Ury argue, among other rules, you should focus on the problem versus the personalities involved in the dispute. Name-calling focuses everyone on the personalities in the dispute.

In the 1980s, I found that urban development conflicts were often facilitated by modeling – at that time the use of computer models of the fiscal impact of alternative development strategies (Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Ablex Publishing, 1985). The modelling process focused the attention of contenting actors on the assumptions and data relevant to the model – the modelling process. In some cities this worked, but not all, but when it worked, it was a classic validation of Fisher and Ury.

With respect to Brexit, there have been attempts to focus on a process, such as a referendum, then a second referendum, or general election, to resolve the conflict between the leave versus remain alternatives. So arguably, the referendum did not resolve the issue, but actually has been blamed by many for the intractable position that the UK finds itself. But what about this idea of a citizen’s jury, which has been put forward by Rory Stewart?

My view is that it would be a potentially useful input to the process, but not a route to resolving the issue of Brexit. As one of a number of efforts to get to a yes, it could surface new ideas. However, if it is consider as the way to resolve the issue, it would be too politicised to be credible.

So a focus on any particular process rather than the personalities is not a panacea. It is important to find a process that garners support, that representatives of all aspects of the issue can actually participate in, and have sufficient transparency for the public and officials to ensure that it is accountable to members of the parliament, government, and the public at large. It that respect, the suggestion of a citizen’s jury is moving in the right direction: away from name-calling and towards a focus on a process for resolving disagreement.

Maybe everyone knows how commonsensical this advice might be. So what should we think of those who insist on name-calling? Generally, when it looks like someone is behaving irrationally, it often turns out that they are focusing on a different objective. For example, they may not be trying to find a solution or resolution to a negotiation. They may be simply trying to enhance their visibility to their supporters. My impression is exactly this. The name-callers among journalists, politicians, and celebrities are primarily seeking to be liked by like-minded people in their own self-interest, and not to solve a problem in the public interest.

Modelling Creating a Process for Getting to Yes

Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

A rising discourse on the dangers of ‘populism’ seems to be expanding the concept in ways that literally demonise the empowerment of citizens – the people. There is evidence of a rise of populist parties, but that is being used as a hammer to bash a more general empowerment of individuals or citizens and networks among the public as dangerous.

This may be a consequence of too simplistic of a dichotomy being drawn between the empowerment of individual citizens and the empowerment of democratic institutions, such as elected and appointed officials, or a tradeoff between the ‘people’ versus ‘elites’. Instead, the role of the Internet and social media in helping individuals to be more informed and better able to hold politicians, business and government more accountable is also an element in the increasing vitality of democratic pluralism.

To make my case, it is useful to go back to some of the key terms in describing different forms of democratic control? So let me try, and ask others to correct me if I don’t get this right.

Pluralistic forms of democracy emerged inductively from studies of power structures. It conveys the degree that ideal forms of democracy are an impossible dream, but one feasible approximation of democratic control in practice is through governance by a pluralistic set of elites. While the few who are active, knowledgeable and committed to an issue are likely to govern the many, in the sense of Michel’s (1915) ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, elite empowerment in modern liberal democratic states is relatively democratic in that it is specialised across separate sets of elites. Elites influential in education, are not influential in defence, and so on. We have separate and pluralistic elites, including politicians and public officials, and this pluralistic control is more democratic than influence being concentrated in a single set of elites. The concept of pluralistic democracy is linked to many, but perhaps most often to Robert Dahl and his classic, Who Governs? (Yale Un Press, 1961), which described the power structure of New Haven, Connecticut.

Pluralism is most often contrasted with elite control, which generally assumes that power is concentrated in a relative small set of economic elites. While government most often held formal symbolic power in cities and nations, real, informal power was lodged primarily in the hands of a so-called ‘power elite’ of those with the wealth and institutional resources to control public affairs. This concept has been linked to the work of Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Un of North Carolina Press, 1969), as case study of Atlanta, Georgia, and before this, to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Compared to an elite power structure, pluralism was good news. Economic elites might be powerful with respect to some issues, some of the time, but others are powerful as well, including public officials, the press, educators, and so forth in their particular areas of expertise and focus. But an interesting normative twist on the value of pluralistic democracy was the notion that this is not only the most feasible form of democratic control in practice, but also the most desirable. This is because, according to those adhering to what has been called ‘democratic elitism’, it is only the elites in society that will protect democratic institutions and processes. This and other elite theories basically assume that:

‘the masses are inherently incompetent’ … and ‘at best, pliable inert stuff or, at worst, aroused, unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty.’

Peter Bachrach, The Theory. of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Little, Brown and Company, 1967: 2)

Citizen therefore should rely on a pluralistic set of elites to govern, as they have the expertise and judgement, honed by democratic values, to rule. For example, while Americans might agree with freedom of expression as a basic human right in the US, they are unlikely to protect freedom of expression in particular, concrete circumstances, such as by not allowing an extremist to speak in one’s community or online. So those who adhere to the concept of democratic elitism generally support pluralistic elite rule as not only feasible but also desirable, given that the public at large is by and large too fragmented, unorganised, and ill-informed to govern, except in limited respects, such as voting for elected officials (also E. E. Schattschneider, 1960).

In the digital age, the rise of the Internet, social media and related information and communication technologies, such as mobile Internet, has been associated with the empowerment of individuals and networks of citizens, what I have called the rise of a Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009). Put in the most simple terms, the idea of the Fifth Estate is that use of the Internet and social media can enabled digital citizens to get access to information and network in ways that can enhance their communicative power relative to others and enable them to hold governing elites more accountable. The empowerment of individuals does not mean that these digital citizens are antagonistic to elites, but that they realise that intelligence is widely distributed and that the Internet enables them to get access to information and networks more easily and effectively than ever before.

For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, they might search for information about the problem diagnosed by the physician to learn more about what problem they have and how it is treated. This does not mean that they quit going to a doctor, but that they can have a more informed discussion with their doctor, such as by being able to ask intelligent questions. In other words, information and expertise is more distributed, less concentrated in the physician.

In contrast, populism tends to view elites self-interested or corrupt to the point that they do not trust such elites as elected officials or scientists. This is the problem as populists may fail to listen to experts and authorities in particular matters because they don’t trust elites in general. The reaction to rising signs of populism has been an increasing reification of democratic institutions and processes, and a demonisation of the people – a return to democratic elitism but in the digital age.

I’m an inductivist and see pluralist democracy as achievable and desirable, and more pluralism as a positive step for democratic control. The empowerment of digital citizens, such as suggested by the rise of a Fifth Estate, is therefore a contribution to the ideals behind democratic control. A fear of the people gaining more influence generated by the rise of populism is feuling the return of a democratic elitism unfit for the digital age. Just as populists are wrong to dismiss experts and authorities, it is wrong for elites to dismiss the people as a modern day digital mob.

 Trust in the Public
Trust in Elite InstitutionsLowHigh
HighDemocratic ElitismPluralist Democracy
LowBroken DemocracyPopulism

Democratic pluralism suggests that we use the Internet and related ICTs to inform, educate, and empower digital citizens, not to distrust them as incapable or unruly and dangerous. Likewise, it suggests that digital citizens retain a learned level of trust in elites and institutions, while being comfortable with maintaining a level of scepticism in any given pronouncement, opinion piece, or policy, because they are equipped with the tools to discover information and participate in networks of individuals that can inform and empower their understanding of policy and practice.

The Fifth Estate can broaden democratic processes at every level, from the household or neighbourhood to globe, but only if digital citizens respect the role of other actors, including experts, as sources of information and learn how to distinguish the valid arguments from deluded conspiracies.

References

Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company).

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dutton, William H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, William H. (2015), ‘The Internet’s Gift to Democratic Governance: The Fifth Estate’, pp. 164-73 in S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (eds),Can the Media Save Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler. London, Abington: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michels, Robert (1959), Political Parties, trans. by Eden & Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright (1951), The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Naming and Blaming Does Not Foster Compromise

One of the key points in Robert Fisher and William Ury’s insightful book about ‘Getting to Yes’ was that you should make every effort to focus on the issues and not the individuals in a debate. What are the assumptions, facts, unknowns, major decisions? Once you begin focusing on the positions of individuals, those individuals are more likely to be less amendable to compromise. It makes great sense. Fisher and Ury refer to this principle as one of separating the people from the issues.*

One of the most decisive aspects of the Brexit debate is the degree that it has devolved into a politics of blame and of calling out the positions of individual parliamentarians, former politicians, and public figures. It is all about naming and blaming, rather than focusing on the issues at stake.

It is never too late to begin moving the discussion away from the personalities and egos involved to focus on the issues. But all of their seven principles might be worth revisiting as soon as possible in the Brexit debate.

*See: https://www.beyondintractability.org/bksum/fisher-getting

Has Brexit Broken Parliament? No. This is Democracy!

The frustration of so many people over the machinations of the UK Parliament during the debates and votes over Brexit is understandable. So it is not surprising to see article after article, and opinion pieces piled on one another about how parliament, if not democracy itself, is broken. The GuardianJournal on 16 March notes: ‘Brexit – a niche production that brought the house down’. The Guardianon 16 March talks of the ‘UK Divided: Disbelief and anger as faith in politicians evaporates’ (p. 15). The political editor of The Guardian writes in The Observer on 17 March of ‘The Week that all but broke British politics (p. 38).’ As an American residing in Britain, I respectfully disagree.

British Parliament Debates Brexit

EU Parliament Debates Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt but that this debate is extraordinary, by British, or any liberal democratic standards. Of course, these are not normal, routine debates, but among the most serious in decades for the UK and Northern Ireland. But to say this is the democratic process at work, I am sure I will be branded an enemy of whatever position seems to be prevailing at the moment. Yet I am not evaluating the process on the basis of its likely outcome. No one knows what the outcome will be – still.

Let me explain why I believe this is democracy in a good way – not broken. First, and foremost, it is a real debate. Take a look at the British parliament and the EU parliament. Both are liberal and democratic bodies. But which looks better managed? Which looks like a more democratic process? Which looks more interactive? Given the scale of the EU parliament, the British parliament would be unworkable. But the British parliament remains the model of a democratic political body.

But, you may say, “the parties have lost control, there is no discipline”? Yes, factions have developed within the parties, and individuals seem to be following their own guidance at times. But I see this as a consequence of how serious the issues are (leading all members of parliament to inform themselves) and how much time has been devoted to the issues. In normal legislative processes, most members vote most of the time on the basis of cues. They do not have the time to read every paper on every motion or proposition put before their body. In most cases, they look for cues from their party leaders, from the committee that reports the motion, from experts in the area. In the case of Brexit, every member of parliament has had abundant time and motivation to develop their own positions on the matter. That is good in light of a classic rational model of democracy, but in the real world of politics it means that there are many individually honed and differing judgements on what to do. Therefore, it will take a great deal more time than normally expected to sort out what the collective body will decide.

However, we live in a time of live media coverage of every debate, every repositioning, motion, leak, speech, mistake, raised eyebrow, etc. In earlier days, so much of what is reported routinely today would never be seen or heard, much less broadcast live, and spread on social media. The saying that legislation is like sausage in that it often tastes good in the end, but you don’t want to see it being made. Well, we are seeing negotiations over Brexit unfolding in real time and it is not pretty, but it is what is necessary in order to find ways to accommodate multiple, intense, and firmly held opinions on the way forward. To say that this is not well managed is actually a compliment.

Somehow, whether it is this week, this year, or over decades, decisions will continue to unfold in the Brexit process, or UK-EU relationship. The process may be frustratingly slow, but the most critical issue is that the process seeks to accommodate as many interests or positions as possible and is (and is seen) as legitimate at the end of the day. Not managed. Not rammed down anyone’s throat. But led to accommodate as many individual, strong-minded parliamentarians as possible to achieve a majority – an inevitable compromise to all of the minority opinions in the mix.

In contrast, think whether you would be happy if this were brilliantly ‘managed’ and the position of any one parliamentarian reigned supreme in this process. The idea of having a citizen jury comes close to this idea of doing something, anything, to get this over with. No, the key is to ensure that the end will be the result from a truly democratic process.

Postscript

The day after I wrote this blog, the Speaker of the House of Commons ‘plunged’ the government into ‘constitutional chaos’ by stopping the Prime Minister from resubmitting her same motion to the House unless it included substantial changes. Given the many constraints on the withdrawal agreement from the EC, the DUP, and various factions of the Conservative party, this threw a proverbial wrench into the machinery of the legislative process. But it brought home the degree that Brexit will be the outcome of an ecology of many games being simultaneously played by actors competing and cooperating to achieve a variety of other goals. And in contrast to board or parlour games, in the real world ecology of games, players can sometimes change the rules, as Speaker John Bercow did by invoking his interpretation of a rule from the 17th century. But this is democracy. It is how it works.