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Unhobbling Democracy

Politics is failing. The public square in Australia, like so many other Western countries, is a broken and desolate place. Danu sifts through the wreckage looking for clues, and wonders how committed we really are to democratic citizenship.

It is now de rigueur to make the observation in Australia (and numerous other countries) that faith and trust in politics and especially our political leaders has deteriorated to what must surely be an all-time low. That the only box voters are prepared to tick is the one marked ‘None of the Above’.

This will either resonate with you or it won’t. In any case, plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject elsewhere, especially in diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) its causes and effects and I feel no urge to expend much effort arguing the proposition further here. I actually want to talk about democracy, but it will help to keep this disillusionment in mind.

It is interesting that Australia’s current government in particular should be especially pilloried — the object of a pitch and tenor of grumbling and derision not seen in some time. Whether this is because of the unfamiliar minority governing arrangements, the indelible sense of illegitimacy surrounding how the government came to power, its lack of clear vision, purpose and moral courage, the unpopularity of its policies, the scantily-clad sexism towards its leader or simply its sheer ineffectiveness, is hard to say. There are interesting things to be said about all these claims and in my view they all have some merit, but that is not our subject today.

Rather, I’d like to consider just what it is we want from our political institutions and what exactly we expect them to do. Long-time Press Gallery journalist Laura Tingle has already had a stab at this in a recent Quarterly Essay. Drawing on Australia’s historical circumstances and painting a portrait of national character, Tingle’s argument is that despite laid-back appearances, Australians are on some level an angry and self-entitled lot. We’re suspicious that somewhere someone is having it better than us and we want our share. We want governments to protect us from the world’s rude shocks, even while we criticise them endlessly for the way they do it.

There are grains of truth to this, but it smacks a little too much of pop-psychological simplicity. Constructing a unifying theme using a throwaway line from that paragon of public virtue, former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, in my view certainly doesn’t help. Tingle is on stronger ground when comparing the policies of successive governments leading up to the current one and contrasting their attitudes towards the public. She takes particular aim at the Howard Government’s cynical and profligate exercises in vote-buying as an example of what helps keep our ‘great expectations’ ticking over. All in all, Tingle’s inquiry is a welcome one and opens up a number of important points for discussion, though not necessarily some of the deeper assumptions at work in both the line of questioning and the findings Tingle comes to.

an uncomfortable and oft-overlooked truth about leadership, and especially strong leadership — it is not actually very democratic

It is to some of those assumptions I now turn.

A full critique of our public institutions would take far more time than we have available to us today, so what I offer will be, as ever, only a glimpse of a bigger picture. And as ever, we will not get very far without first setting the terms of our understanding.

My first assumption (and Tingle’s) is that the current political environment constitutes a problem in need of a solution. To me this seems an absurdly self-evident proposition, but not everyone agrees. As I’ve already said, it is not my aim to make that case today, but I will endeavour to unpack it a bit.

To claim there is a problem with something implies both that the thing in question is falling short of some ideal and necessarily that we can say with clarity what that ideal is. This gives us much to ponder well before we come to any notion of how to ‘solve’ it. What ideal does our present circumstance fall short of and in what way? Or to put it another way — what is actually happening that is bad and what is the good at which we are aiming?

Before we begin to marshall the facts in readiness for making an argument however, we need to remember something important — all facts are understood within a frame. The frame we choose to adopt will bring with it all manner of symbolic meanings and language categories which will then predispose us to thinking and talking about the matter in a particular way. This is what I mean by setting terms of understanding. It’s not merely semantic gamesmanship or professorial waffle. This stuff is real and it matters immensely. To illustrate how and why, I’d like to examine with you in detail one remarkably common way of framing our present political difficulties.

Many of my more politically-minded peers frequently vent their frustrations by focussing on the political leader, how they’re doing a terrible job and how they fall short of expectations. Presumably, if only we had a great, strong leader, they’d be able to set everything to rights. This was the basis for much of the enthusiasm for Obama’s US presidential run in 2008, yet the same kind of hope would be notably audacious this time around. I happen to think Obama is a fine leader, but one could hardly say he’s set everything — or even much at all — to rights.

In my own country — Australia — I’ve seen this cycle of hope and disappointment repeated twice in the last five years, and we’re currently spinning our wheels for a third go. Kevin Rudd was going to clean up after John Howard, Julia Gillard was going to add heart and courage to Kevin’s Tinman persona, only to end up meekly playing Lion. The Opposition’s Tony Abbott, to stretch the metaphor, appears to be playing Scarecrow. He hardly cuts an inspiring figure, so friends of Dorothy and others alike are placing their hopes in Malcolm Turnbull, one of our few politicians who has done anything besides politics (even if much of it was investment banking).

It’s all very silly, though the collective amnesia required to keep tapdancing along the catastrophe curve is a little bit frightening. Before we have to go through it all again, I want to take apart this type of thinking and see what keeps it ticking.

The problem, viewed through this frame, is that we have lousy political leaders. What seems to be missing here are the particular desirable qualities of a political leader that we might call statesmanship — a winning personality, the ability to make tough decisions, the power to persuade. Only someone who possesses these certain qualities in just the right amounts, seasoned with a sprinkling of worldly expertise, can bring the potent mix required to secure good governance and the confidence of the people.

This sort of ideal expectation of leadership is as much art as science — an exercise in earnest, though wishful, empiricism delivered with flourishes of theatrical mysticism. This is the spectacle of politics as we’ve increasingly come to recognise it — doorstop interviews, ‘hard-hitting’ questions, endless opinion polls, personalities, slogans, focus group policy testing, the listening tour, talk of momentum, leaders who are relatable or ‘unelectable’ and all the rest we know and loathe. This is politics as the horse race, the stage show, the science of leadership. Measurable. Ineffable.

If we are feeling reflective, we might pause to cast a regretful eye over the workshop of cunning artifices we have crafted to produce Leaders that can be sold to us. We might feel a pang of buyer’s remorse after the latest impulse purchase, even as we rush to fawn over the newest model.

It is entirely possible to reject this form of politics as it is currently practised while yearning for real leadership from a true leader. This is what has happened with Rudd, Gillard and Turnbull. It’s more difficult in the US because it’s not clear who would be a better Leader than Obama, who seems to tick all the boxes. That situation produces a painful crisis of spirituality which you could see lurking behind the muted enthusiasm at the Democratic National Convention.

What do you do when reality incontrovertibly disproves your firmly-held beliefs? Do we accept a factual truth and rationally change our minds? Or do we dig our heels in and cling even tighter?

It may be helpful here to recount the story of Dorothy Martin, (sometimes given the pseudonym Marian Keech), a suburban housewife in Chicago. Martin was convinced she had a private line to the Supreme Being, who informed her that the world was going to end on December 21, 1954. There would be a giant flood, but the faithful few would be saved and carried off by UFO. Gathering a small fellowship around her, Martin and her faithful prepared for the fateful day. Some quit their jobs and studies, abandoned their worldly possessions and spent all their cash.

Some social researchers, sensing an opportunity, decided to insinuate themselves into Martin’s group and watch what happened as their beliefs were put under increasing strain and finally disconfirmed altogether, the world stubbornly not ending being a pretty inconvenient fact. Psychologist Leon Festinger predicted that the group would deal with the pain of disconfirmation not by abandoning their beliefs, but by modifying and expanding their belief structure to take account of new developments. He was right. As the group of fifteen or so devotees sat uncomfortably past midnight, and then into the early hours of the morning, Martin suddenly received a new message from the Supreme Being — the force of the group’s faith had flooded the world with light, so much so that the real flood had been called off. Martin and her fellows had saved the world — it was a close escape.

Festinger gave this phenomenon what by now is a well-known name — cognitive dissonance. The devoutly religious are hardly alone in it. Martin’s story is not much different from comrades, while Soviet Russia’s real murderous and repressive socialist regime was in full flight, telling us what things would be like under true socialism, or die-hard devotees of Ayn Rand wishing fervently for true capitalism even as they live through real capitalism’s brutally unfair apotheosis. Or those of us who are waiting for a great political leader to put everything to rights. We all love to delude ourselves.

In the spirit of enquiry, what then does the true, great political leader of our fantasies look like? Interestingly, the people we have nominated as great leaders don’t necessarily have to be likeable. In fact, some of them seem to derive their status as great leaders precisely from their lack of social appeal, or from their intransigence.

John Howard, one of Australia’s least likely leaders, falls in this camp. He certainly had more ‘ticker’ than that other bloke Beazley. Paul Keating, generally agreed to be a prize arsehole, is nonetheless missed for his idealism and disembowling wit. As for Robert Menzies, well! — we’ll never see his like again. Similarly, the UK has its Thatchers and Churchills and the US its Kennedys and Reagans. Forceful personalities all. Divisive at times, to be sure, but greatly admired, even sometimes begrudgingly by their enemies. Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, they Got The Job Done.

This suggests that one quality is absolutely necessary in true leaders — they need to be strong. Curiously, they sometimes seem more highly regarded the further their leadership recedes into the past.

Looking around at the field of contenders today, it’s certainly hard not to lament the lack of talent. Indeed, at least in Australia, it would be hard to find a less inspiring bunch of party bots, unctuous career climbers and gormless incompetents than the present crop. Where’s the vision? The inspiration? The selling of grand reforms to the public? Bringing home the bacon, as Keating would have said, cultural cringe notwithstanding. The sheer dearth of political ability goes some way to explaining why Malcolm Turnbull so stands out. No-one has yet managed to maintain consciousness long enough to explain the UK’s Ed Miliband.

There is something about this sort of sentiment that is a bit sweaty-palms and starry-eyed, if not downright sexual. The calls to be dominated by strong, sensual commanders certainly smacks of masochism of some kind. Theodor Adorno might have said it reflects an authoritarian personality. Political theorist George Lakoff has opted to frame the phenomenon instead as the Strict Father mode of leadership, as opposed to the Nurturant Parent. Whether the sexual connotations still exist in that frame depends on how sympathetic you are towards Freud. Regardless, it does seem that in the political sphere, we have all regressed to thinking about mummies and daddies.

This brings us to an uncomfortable and oft-overlooked truth about leadership, and especially strong leadership — it is not actually very democratic. In fact, to say strong leadership isn’t a good match for democracy is like saying that Henry VIII wasn’t a good match for Anne Boleyn.

Democracy, we should remember, is a practice with a long and chequered history and one that has taken numerous forms. As almost everyone knows, it began in ancient Athens, making it a crucially important Western tradition and gift to civilisation. But as with so many matters, almost everyone is mistaken. Democracy did not in fact begin in Athens – its history is much older than that. The evidence, though fragmentary, shows incontrovertibly that the first recorded incidence of democratic practice occurred nearly 2,000 years prior, in what we now call Syria.

Given its many and varied incarnations, what do we mean exactly by democracy? I would offer the following minimum conditions as a working definition — democracy is the sincere conviction, borne out by practice, that a group of people are able by some means to govern themselves in a manner where each citizen has roughly equal say. For this helpful clarity I am indebted to John Keane, whose definition I am paraphrasing here.1

Democracy, as it was practised in Syria-Mesopotamia and later in Athens, was based on assembly. That is, everyone (at least everyone who counted) had a direct say in matters of public interest that were put to a vote. We sometimes refer nowadays to this idea as participatory, or direct, democracy. It is a form with numerous variations, each with aspects to commend it as well as attendant flaws and disparities.

During the last several hundred years, a different style of democracy has prevailed which makes concessions to the restraints placed on the practice of public administration by the time-commitments of citizens, their expertise and their sheer number. Instead of direct participation, citizens elect someone to represent them in such matters. This is usually referred to as representative democracy, as it expresses the idea of making present something which isn’t — in this case, the wishes of the citizenry.2

It is a matter of contention and some vexation as to what the proper role of a ‘representative’ really is. As Keane puts it, should they act as a delegate, expressing the people’s wishes regardless of their own opinion? Are they elected instead to use their own judgment and discretion? Or is the proper role of a representative to vote as a voice in concert with the party they belong to?3 It helps in no small way in understanding the state of US politics when you consider that representatives in that country often appear to be trying to apply all three approaches at once.

Representation is hardly a straightforward matter — neither is the question of who ‘the people’ is or are. Regardless of how we address these thorny issues, we are still left with the two requisite conditions of democracy to satisfy — self-government and equal say. It is hard to see how either of these are especially compatible with strong leadership.

Indeed, the one thing we should be able to agree on when it comes to Howard, Keating, Menzies, Thatcher, Churchill, Kennedy, Reagan and Obama is that they all pursued courses of action that contradicted, or indeed rode roughshod, over democratic principles and institutions. That is leaving out an account of some really strong leaders of course (e.g. Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler), who were all tyrannical bullies and self-professed enemies of democracy, though curiously we continue to lionise the two former while reviling only the latter. Perhaps in time Hitler will take his place among the pantheon. That is not merely idle polemic, I intend it as a serious proposition. Ask a school student today what they know about Hitler, or their opinion of him. Time and distance cloud all our memories.

Which goes to underline a most important point about democracy. Times change, memories become foggy. The practice of democracy changes. Why then do we often act as if it is some timeless or immutable truth, or insist on mythologising it as such? Democracy is hardly some glistening prize at the end of history — there is no grand narrative that bequeaths us what we have today. Democracy is utterly contingent on circumstances of time and place. Nothing predestined its arrival, nothing guarantees its future.

Except us.

This is why calls for strong leadership are self-defeating. It is not up to the leaders of our imaginations to save us. In fact, the real-life leaders we install are more likely to divide us, enslave us or destroy us. It’s really up to us to get it right. That is, if we truly believe in democracy. But how many of us really do?

The Lowy Institute’s 2012 poll found that only 60% of Australians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, and among 18 to 29 year olds the figure drops to just 39%. Around one in four (23%) Australians say ‘in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable’.

These results, while alarming, should not really surprise us. Some in the media, including the disingenuously-named Institute of Public Affairs, have been quick to place the blame on the usual suspects — liberal educators teaching cultural relativism, disengaged youth with an entitlement complex, interfering governments fighting culture wars.

It seems to me that a bigger problem is the level of thoughtlessness and unclarity about what democracy actually is and what it’s good for. It needs to be more than a facile prop we throw around when really we have other things on our minds.

If it’s not democracy that people have in mind when they call for strong leadership, what is it? For an answer, we need to turn to the powerful and persistent ideas of 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes can be credited with setting loose both the modern idea of the individual, and a particularly enduring idea of freedom — specifically, freedom from each other. Living in the time of the English Civil War, he despaired of watching people get involved in conflicts that were not in their own interests, becoming needless casualties of other men’s battles. Left to their own devices, he observed, people tend to quickly descend into a ‘war of all against all’. In this state of nature, as he famously put it, men’s lives are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’

To keep this ever-present threat of violent anarchy at bay, Hobbes proposed an act of enlightened self interest — people should agree to come together and be ruled by a powerful governing body — a ‘leviathan’ state. Only that way, through the use of brutal yet legitimate force, could a people hope to be protected from each other and their own base natures.

Hobbes’ Leviathan state achieved and still commands great influence among many political thinkers, and I would argue is the dominant paradigm that informs a large portion of the general populace, or at least a great many of those who read The Herald Sun (Australia’s best-selling newspaper) and its stablemates.

Like all important philosophers, Hobbes’ thought is far more intricate, subtle and complex than my oversimplification allows, but it is still helpful to paint the broad strokes of the big ideas. Indeed, the broad strokes are often all that large numbers of people know, which is likely how such ideas come to be so widespread in the first place.

Democracy is utterly contingent on circumstances of time and place. Nothing predestined its arrival, nothing guarantees its future.

The first wrinkle in Hobbes’ account is his claim that people only ever act out of self-interest. Even seemingly altruistic acts can in some way be reduced to ‘enlightened’ self-interest. For instance, ‘Grief for the calamity of another is Pity’, says Hobbes, ‘and ariseth from the imagination that the like calamity may befall himself.’ This is still a fashionable idea, especially among economists, but it is piteously inadequate at describing how people actually behave and the wide range of complex motives that inform their actions.

Selfishness, in the sense that is meant here, is, as Mary Midgley points out, to be ‘devoted to or concerned with one’s own advantage to the exclusion of regard for others.’ This is possibly a provocative way of describing self-interest, but it’s hard to see what else it could mean. It may not mean you have no regard for others at all, but when it comes to making a choice — the kind of choices we make all the time — to choose in your own interest is ultimately to place your advantage over another’s. To regard this pejorative term as a universal human condition should make little sense to anyone who has spent any time observing human beings, or even economists. To regard it as somehow moral strikes me as perverse. On the subject of selfishness, Midgley offers an innocent thought:

We wonder how, if this is so, the word could ever come to be invented at all? Just as there would be no word for white if everything was white, there could surely be no word for selfish if everyone was always selfish. As things are, however, we notice that some people do consider others less than most of us, and we use words like selfish or mean to record this fact.

How much truth is there to the idea that left to our own devices we would quickly descend into a war of every person for themselves? A war in which Hobbes says ‘Force and Fraud are … the two cardinal Virtues’. It’s a nightmare that has been vividly depicted in art and literature — William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies being a particularly notable example — but the evidence for it outside of people’s interpreted imaginings is fairly thin. We have discussed previously, in these very pages, people’s troubling propensity to do unimaginably nasty things to each other willingly, sometimes cheerfully, but that is to make a different point. The psychology of conformity and obedience and the moral order of groups can have powerful effects on people’s ethical decision-making, as can being fervently committed to an ideology which requires certain things be done in the name of good. This is not the same as the claim Hobbes is making.

On the contrary, left to their own devices, the human animal has proven to be surprisingly adept at mediating conflict and managing its affairs within groups. Perhaps not as adept as the bonobo, whose approach to conflict resolution is attractively effective, but evolution has made us decidedly social animals. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that our language and speech may be an adaptation that has grown out of our inherently social status. This suggestion comes to us from none other than Darwin himself.

To observe that humans are sociable is not to overlook the fact that we are also prone to aggression and intense brutality. Indeed, our social co-operation is often employed precisely in the service of hostility to other groups. This poses a different set of problems to be discussed another time, but the fact of our ‘nature’ is nevertheless a far cry from Hobbes’ insistence on supreme individuality and overriding self-interest.

The other big problem is the conception of the ‘self’ as curiously detached from any point of reference, as if the constituent matter of our individuality could simply be picked up and plonked down wherever, while somehow retaining all its characteristics. This is largely a hangover from the early Enlightenment, for which we can especially thank Descartes and Kant. Lest it need pointing out, our human minds are not free-floating entities that somehow exist independently of the rest of us, as traditional Dualism would have it. Nor, as we have latterly liked to think, is the mind located in the brain. As Antonio Damasio and others have convincingly demonstrated, our minds are embodied. Our bodies, in turn, are embedded in an inescapable social, environmental and cultural reality. Consequently, it is not really very helpful to talk about completely independent individuals or a state of nature at all. We did not somehow leave our natures to form society, nor can we truly leave behind the fact of our social existence. There are some who would say that a wholly solitary human being, deprived long enough of human contact, is no human being at all.

We could briefly mention Ayn Rand here, if only because her ideas (however inchoate) continue to enjoy considerable purchase, particularly in America. Whereas Hobbes was concerned with creating a strong state to mediate in the war of all against all, Rand wants to suggest that we should embrace such a war and attempt to win it, at least those of us who are heroic individuals and not ‘parasites’ or part of the ‘mindless hordes’. Curiously, few of Rand’s adherents ever suppose themselves to be in the latter categories.

All this of course poses great difficulties, not just for Hobbes (and Rand), but for all of social contract theory, including that of the late great 20th-century American philosopher of justice, John Rawls. I am arguing that contractarian thinking fails to offer us a satisfactory account of human affairs, because the notion of a social contract is itself a misleading fiction.

This is a line of thinking taken up vigourously by Amartya Sen, once a pupil of Rawls. The hugely influential theory of justice as fairness that Rawls set forth uses contractarian logic to argue that we must consider what is fair as if we were stripped of any positional advantage or social position, and as if we did not know what place or position we would occupy within the world. Only from this ‘original position’, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, says Rawls, can we can truly make an unbiased judgment of what is fair, and hence what is just.

In this sense, Rawls’ thought of course contains the same flawed notion of a free-floating rational individual that we have already discussed, and Sen is quick to point this out in his polite, understated way. When considering the question of justice, he says, it is not actually all that helpful to set out by constructing an ideal of a just society. The world is a real place with a real past full of real, manifest injustices, and presumably it is those injustices that we wish to address, Sen says. Therefore, we should base our reasoning on what we actually have, rather than some abstract ideal. As he puts it: ‘if we are trying to choose between a Picasso and a Dali, it is of no help to invoke a diagnosis that the ideal picture in the world is the Mona Lisa.’4

And this is the point. We need to learn to see and work with what is really there, rather than be driven by fearful imaginings of what might be but probably isn’t.

The Hobbesian view to which so many of us subscribe is based, ultimately, on mistrust of our fellow human beings, characterising them as Others who are both everything and nothing. It is a meagre and fearful perspective that points to a paucity of generosity and a meanness of spirit. There is certainly nothing democratic about it.

Which brings us back to our original question — what is the good of democracy? I believe simply that it is the best, if not the only, form of governance through which we can achieve genuine human flourishing.

Flourishing is an old-fashioned word, and the sense in which I mean it goes back to the ancient Greek word eudaimonia. The Greeks, according to Aristotle, believed eudaimonia was the highest human good. These days the word is more commonly translated as ‘happiness’, which offers us a significantly less sumptuous sense of what is meant, but that is also a discussion for another time.

Human flourishing is an idea notably absent from much of our political and public discourse. I would argue it represents the ideal we ought to strive towards — its absence I think is the reason we fall short of that ideal, and is the driving sentiment behind ‘None of the Above’.

What would our political culture look like based on flourishing and virtue? That’s a question I plan to take up within these pages for many issues to come. For now, let it simply be said that flourishing will not be possible without recovering the capacity to trust. It seems a most basic observation that to have any hope of successful self-government on any sort of equal basis — that is, to have any hope of a working democracy — one has to place no small amount of trust in one’s neighbour to ‘get it right’. But just as love and forgiveness are the most basic tenets at the heart of The New Testament, they are also the bits almost everyone is most reluctant to put into practice.

This mistrust is what’s really skulking behind calls for strong leadership. We need to let it go.

If democracy is up to us, clearly we need to do better. We can’t simply project our desires onto a strong leader or outsource them to a professional class of political experts so we can get back to buying our new home entertainment system or planning our next shopping trip to Europe. Both Rand’s Objectivists and a certain kind of progressive liberal have mistaken what freedom is for, even as they claim it as humanity’s highest aim. The Objectivists have mistaken it for being the freedom to doggedly pursue one’s own happiness at the expense of others, while liberals have mistaken it for the freedom from being put upon by the demands of citizenship, a freedom that allows them to retreat into a private well-heeled ‘lifestyle’ of travel, personal enrichment and well-being. Both are about individual happiness, but neither are about flourishing.

We need to recover the principles of and a commitment to the ideals of citizenship. The unenthusiasm for democracy among today’s youth is less a failure of imagination on their part than it is a failure of adults to model what democratic citizenship looks like in practice.

It falls especially on those who make a living from the ‘public sphere’ (e.g. politicians, journalists, academics) to take seriously the truth that the ground we stand on — the public plaza that such groups seem so intent on muddying, exploiting and befouling — is hardly solid or secure. All that we have built and striven for can just as easily be unmade, to slip away and disappear.

Take a good look at your neighbour, maybe it’s time to start trusting them again. We’re all in this together. ◾

Offline References

1 John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, 2010, Simon & Schuster, UK.

2 Keane p. 553.

3 Keane p. 554.

4 Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, 2010, Penguin, London, p. 16.

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