Monday, October 4, 2010

In praise of spectacle, or Do we need and uncivil society?

By the end of this post, I'm going to have said something nice about the Tea Party. Not about its collective views on taxation, government and mutual responsibility, which are so uninformed, selfish and insidious as to beggar belief. Nor about the racist elements that have repeatedly surfaced amongst its members and tacit supporters (think Newt Gingrich and his comments about Obama as an 'anti-colonial Kenyan'). But what the Tea Party has created is something all-too-rare in contemporary political practise.

In the twenty-first century, it has become common, both amongst self-satisfied European commentators and 'liberal' Americans, to decry U.S. politics as shallow, spectacle- rather than substance-oriented, and un-democratic. If you subscribe to this view (which I only partially accept, as frustrating as our political system might be), the Tea Party is an extreme manifestation of what is common in the U.S. I would buy the idea that personalities rather than policies tend to dominate debates; that we as citizens (and our media) are far too uncritical of the information we are presented with; and that there is often an offensively ignorant shrillness to debate.

However, there is a conflation of separate criticisms here--one that is made most trenchantly by critics who suggest that proportional representation, coalition government, stricter spending laws and dry, bureaucratic politicians (a la Angela Merkel) are the antidote to American political insanity. One criticism is of formal structure and organisation. But the other implicit criticism is of style: those unsavoury trappings that come with a Presidential system; the rallies; the hooligans who dare to call out their representatives in unseemly fashion; the flags and memorabilia; the angry town-hall meeting; and the simultaneously nauseating and hilarious performances on the part of candidates eager to demonstrate their familiarity with 'Main Street' (scarfing hot-dogs, kissing babies, referencing small towns in western Pennsylvania and 'ordinary folks like Joe').

To be sure, there is a strong link between the formal political system (with its attendant structure, voting system, and emphasis on the individual candidate) and the political culture. But I am not sure that they are equally bad. There is a condescension inherent in many critiques of our political culture, and a conviction that the best system is one in which parties staidly present platforms and voters quietly cast ballots. This ideal system should be highly representative, in the sense that outcomes should accurately reflect what voters are thinking, and should be marred by neither too much focus on individuals, nor by the drama and incivility that is seen as inextricably tied to a 'Wild West' version of something called the 'American character'.

Systems in Germany, in Scandinavian countries, and in federated Europe itself would be held up as the polar opposites of the U.S. system. But I'm not sure that the style of those models is at all up to the job of delivering real democracy.

Take the EU. The institutions for a federated Europe have historically been at their most compelling when they had strong political goals: the prevention of war between France and Germany and the idea that a political umbrella could bind a continent's long-warring people together. There was nothing in that original movement, beginning with the ECSC, which necessitated today's organisations promoting European federation in the form of vast, faceless bureaucracies run by un-elected commissioners, themselves supervised by a mobile Parliament (turnout for which at elections averages between 30 and 50%). Tragically, the politics which once animated the European project have been removed, and today Europe is ruled by a starkly economic set of concerns, which brooks no impertinence, and certainly tolerates no collective conversation about the value of the European welfare state (very valuable, I should think, as a social model), about Europe's relationship with the world, or even about what Europeans have in common, and what defines them. Politics, ideas, public conversations are all arranged around an economically-driven imperative which calls for a social streamlining which is both illiberal in that it seeks to ameliorate difference, and all-too-liberal in its economic philosophy (such that a Spaniard recently told me that Obama has become an inspiration for European progressives because unlike most of their leaders, he has chosen to emphasis public investment rather than fetishise public cuts).

And this clean, on-paper democratic and efficient system defines political participation too narrowly. It proposes that civic duty and engagement begins and ends with the casting of a ballot. Certainly, voting is important as a way of expressing political viewpoints. But there is a certain passiveness, sometimes, to the deliberate march to the polling station, the stoical marking of a box, and the anti-climatic walk home to watch returns on television. In a country without any tradition of representative democracy, long polling queues can be a powerful symbol of political participation, as in South Africa in 1994). But in countries with traditions of voting, there is something as stale about defining political participation in terms of a perennial march to the polls as there is about people depending on a jaded media to interpret elections that can be bought by those who have the capacity to flood airwaves with vapid ads.

And there is something a little strange when the public's only responsibility is to choose between pre-selected and -packaged ideas. When the public isn't actually taking part in shaping those ideas.

There is another version of political participation. It is one which, historically, has often been associated with an era of corruption, with undemocratic politicians, and with societies and social forms less enlightened than our own. In pre-1832 England, for example, elections look positively carnevalesque. Artist and commentator William Hogarth's series of four paintings shows us this election process rank with bribery, debauchery, disorder, disenfranchisement and violence. We might find Hogarth's disorderly world offensive, but there is no denying that people from virtually all sectors of society, including those who were not formally enfranchised, took part in the political process.

And some have suggested that the great nineteenth century reforms in Britain, in 1832 and after, did not transform politics into a more democratic and representative process. James Vernon, a brilliant historian of Britain (and not just because he's my advisor), has noted that not only were fewer people able to vote in some years after 1832, but that popular participation in politics was increasingly neutered, constrained, and managed by powerful party organisations and formalised structures. Vernon writes that "despite laying the legislative foundations of liberal democracy in 1832 and 1867, English politics became progressively less democratic during this period as political subjectivities and the public political sphere were defined in increasingly restrictive and exclusive fashion".*

I think that elected officials should be a little bit afraid of the electorate. A bit of disorder, chaos and a good dose of unscripted contact with voters who see their responsibilities as going beyond mere voting is healthy.

The caucus system in the U.S. often appears to be little more than a quaint an idiosyncratic vestigial structure from unenlightened days. However, though its results are often comparatively unrepresentative in function, in form it harks back to an ideal of participatory citizenship that is increasingly falling by the wayside, and if practised as imagined, would actually be more democratic than many existing systems. In it, voters are supposed to talk and argue with each other, to be passionate about politics--which after all, shouldn't be a strange thing, because its outcomes will often profoundly affect their lives.

The British television show, Question Time, is another microcosmic example of this broader issue: the show is not at its best when members of the audience read their selected questions to a panel of public figures; rather, it is at its most compelling when one member of the audience, or the audience as a body, rounds on a panel-member or on the panel as a whole, dramatically humiliating politicians or commentators in front of a large television audience. It is the unscriptedness that makes these moments compelling, and they have the capacity (as with fox-hunting, MPs expenses, or the war in Iraq) to make public issues which are otherwise in danger of falling below the radars of the complacent political classes or public.

The fetishisation of order and discipline in politics means that a particularly passive brand of behaviour is increasingly seen in some quarters (perhaps particularly Europe) as a sign of being modern and up-with-the-times. Perhaps if we reach into the mess that is U.S. politics today, with its tragically uninformed electorate, its supine media, we can find something (by no means, it should be understood, wholly unique to our politics) positive to offer.

This, I suppose, is where I reluctantly come back to my promise to say something nice about the Tea Party. It has interjected the kind of passion that is sorely lacking in what passes for political discourse today. It calls for popular participation, for a critical public, thirsty for accountability. The trouble with the Tea Party is that most of its members take their information from a series of news networks which invite a series of right-wing commentators to pronounce on events, and they unquestioningly recycle the resulting bile as 'news'. Anyone who has seen a FOX interview of the likes of Sarah Palin, in which the so-called journalist is nodding uncritically along to each and every one of Palin's outlandish assertions, will understand what the critics of the media are talking about.

But the ability, nay, expectation, of a disorderly, poorly-behaved public (who could, of course, stand to be a little bit less ignorant) to throw a spanner into the most carefully-crafted political works; to introduce an element of contingency; to force accountability through sheer volubility and noisy, colourful presence in an era in which money often seems to do a lot more talking than the electorate...these things are important and commendable.

Their importance came home to me the other day when discussing the impending walk-out at UC Berkeley in protest of the budget cuts being inflicted on the University of California.

Over the last 15 months, I've heard a great many people make the arguments that as much as they hate the budget cuts, and as much as they might agree with the intentions of protesters, they find the walk-outs and strikes misplaced. Either, they explain, because they feel that it would be odd to protest the destruction of public education by leaving the classroom, or because they feel that the real target should be Sacramento.

There is a point in the latter argument, inasmuch as Republicans effectively run the state from their minority position and the legislature is almost unable to raise revenue that can be directed to education. But the fact remains that UC administrators are fair game: they have been utterly, criminally supine when it comes to rallying the campus community. Berkeley's chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, has by now perfected his bumbling idiot routine, in which he fumbles his hands, fiddles with his glasses, and says 'Gee, I'm just Chancellor, what can I do?' while praising the campus police department for beating peacefully protesting students with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets. And UC President Mark Yudof has evinced not an iota of commitment to the values that underpin UC, likening the university community to the denizens of a cemetery, taking a compensation package valued at upwards of three quarters of a million dollars, and bleating about 'changing the way we do business', as though UC was a corporation.

But the first point, that politics and education are different beasts, and never the twain shall meet, is more disturbing. This is the perfect illustration of the Balkanisation of our politics: we elect legislators, they legislate, and that's the end of our involvement in and commitment to the political sphere. The Tea Party has captured one way of invigorating our politics. It is incumbent upon the rest of us to follow their lead, albeit in a more critical, informed manner. In the long run, the health and survival of our democracy depends on it. Just as university students, faculty and workers, have real power to highlight their plight to the state community, campus administration, and lawmakers if they turn out in numbers, as a national community we have a better chance of being hard if we behave a bit more--at least in some respects--like our eighteenth century predecessors.


* James Vernon, Politics and the people: a study in English political culture, 1815-1867. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1993), 8-9.

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