[SCMP Column]Dumbing Down

April 09, 2016

I don’t want to be alarmist or anything so immature, but I am beginning to wonder whether the democratic process we have admired and preferred for so many decades is any longer fit for purpose.

When you see so many American voters flirting with the idea of the grossly offensive Donald Trump becoming the most important political leader in the world; when you see the British Labour party delivering up the crumpled and improbable Jeremy Corbyn as shadow Prime Minister; when you see Marine Le Pen winning adulation for rank racism; then for sure, you know something is badly awry.

For so many political generations, a rising majority of communities around the world have agreed that, warts and all, a democracy is the “least worst” of all choices of political systems. Ignore that dictionaries offer dozens of definitions of a democracy, we have agreed that for all the cumbersome inefficiencies embedded in democratic systems, they are preferable to every other political system we have tested. But suddenly the “checks and balances” built into democracies that limit the scope for abuse of power seem to have fused. The process seems to be bringing dangerously close to power people who could deliver catastrophic consequences not just to electorates within political systems, but to us mute spectators living in far corners of the world.

At this point, I think most readers would argue that I am wrong, and am getting a bit over emotional. I hope they are right. There are a lot of good reasons why the present political mood is so sour, and there are equally good reasons why in due course sanity will return and anxieties be dispelled. But there are also some odd and very new forces at work that may be eating at the very foundations of democratic politics. They need to be thought about.

But first, let’s identify one of the most acute challenges for any democracy: if you want a broad majority to play an active role in making decisions, and electing our leaders, then this broad majority needs to be well informed, and ideally, well educated. They need to recognize that few decisions are black and white, and that decision-making is often tough because it involves making choices between valid, competing objectives. And they have to share a commitment to making compromises based on making – and listening to – reasonable arguments.

Even at the best of times, this is a very real challenge. It is tough and time consuming to endow a community with sufficient education, and enough free time, to deliberate on the important decisions that shape our lives. Hardly surprising then that so many still hanker for the benevolent and intelligent dictatorship of people like Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, in the belief that if you leave the decision-making to a small and focused team of smart and well-informed technocrats, and all will be well.

But a successful democracy needs more than just well educated and well informed people. We have shockingly realized since the “great recession” engulfed us eight years ago that politicians need growth to get elected. No politician ever got elected promising “less bad” than his rival. Growth in an economy allows politicians to promise new and exciting goodies. It generates the wealth needed to invest in communities and to improve the amenities we value. Growth fundamentally underpins a mood of optimism that encourages cooperation and compromise.

Lose growth – as we have done in the past eight years – and see what happens. Antagonism towards outsiders, even rank racism. Jealousy towards those luckier than ourselves. A loss of confidence in the value of good education – after all, where are the good jobs that a good education is supposed to deliver? Cynical disrespect for our leaders and other social elites. It is easy to see in such circumstances how thoroughly unpleasant people like Donald Trump can emerge as credible champions. From this point of view, it is not Trump or Corbyn or Le Pen that is the problem – it is the malign environment, protracted over time, that has made so many suggestible to their incoherent and thoroughly disreputable “manifestos”. Call it CRS – Chronic Recession Syndrome.

Perhaps more systemically troubling than the recession – after all, in due course presumably our economies will recover – are the new social media and the perverse effects they are having on the political process. First, they are making it easier than ever before for prejudiced people to discover and circulate anecdotes that “validate” their prejudices. Instead of being forced to give someone with opposing views a reasonable hearing, all you need to do nowadays is “Unlike” someone. It is easy and comforting to embed in a tribe of like-minded people, and live dreams that do not reflect or confront wider social truths. Social media have created and empowered such pockets of prejudice.

As one Financial times journalist mulled last week: “Rich democracies may have to live with a caucus of permanently aggrieved voters amounting to a quarter or a third of the whole.” If he is right, then restoring growth, or reducing the rich-poor divide, or making homes more affordable, will do nothing to dismantle these groups: they have become “5Ps” - permanent and impregnable pockets of political prejudice. Such populist forces may have become chronic and permanent, to be managed but not cured, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that they are after all still a minority. They cannot be allowed to thwart the broad interest of the majority.

Paradoxically, our social media seem to have empowered information, at the expense of knowledge, or wisdom. It was TS Eliot in his 1934 play The Rock, who seems to have anticipated this problem:
            Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
            Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Our challenge is to ensure our voters remember and respect the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom. In this regard, I fear Facebook and Tweets may be Donald Trump’s friends, but are clearly democracy’s enemy. You think I am old fashioned?
[ Back ]