Democracy is a Fragile Thing

Apologies in advance.

This won’t be a glib column. This column won’t give you a chuckle, a guffaw or even a rye smile. This is a plea for all of us to wake up and smell the rising tide of excrement that will engulf us as we become inured to its stench. Democracy is drowning.

Across the world, the norms and guard rails are falling. Trump and his enablers are permitted and permissioned to lie about the content and conclusions of the Mueller report and defy the constitutional oversight function of Congress. This subversion of democracy is met with a cheer by his supporters and weary resignation by his detractors. In Turkey, Erdogan’s loyalist candidate was defeated in Istanbul’s mayoral election so the result was simply annulled. It may be the last free election the people of Turkey will ever have. Thus, a strongman becomes stronger. And that is just this week.

Across the world, the unscrupulous have noticed that we have hardly noticed.

We in the UK cannot look at such outrages against democracy and feel any smug sense of superiority. It is happening here too. The purveyors of populism- formerly known as mob rule, totalitarianism, juntas etc.- aren’t swanning around Westminster in faux military uniforms or shooting dissenters in the streets (yet) but, we can no longer lull ourselves into thinking that Britain isn’t heading that way.

The institutions we have always trusted to act in the national interest are no longer doing so. They have forgotten that defending truth, the essential ingredient of democracy, is hard. We have allowed truth to become relative and this was how we got Brexit. This is how one of our great political parties became institutionally racist. This is how we’ll follow the same path as the countries we mock and pity.

We have simply stopped demanding truth and, in part, this is because we have forgotten what the word means. The social media marketplace is very busy and those who tweet and retweet the loudest get our attention. Opinion has replaced fact, and pile-ons and outright threats have drowned out those who oppose the voice of the mob. We were so busy lauding free speech that we missed the point when lies became a twisted received wisdom.

Accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party are ‘a smear’ to those who pay no attention to demonstrable evidence. Corbyn’s fanclub can easily dismiss information that doesn’t fit their chosen narrative. The same silos of selective truth have fooled Labour voters into believing that the Party supports both Leave and Remain even though they are diametrically opposed positions. John McDonnell can pose with a beaming smile in front of hammer and sickle flags, with IRA terrorists and apologists for every architect of every failed totalitarian state but a proportion of the faithful will dismiss the evidence of their own eyes. They have wilfully blinded themselves to truth. They will not defend democracy because they are ignorant of history and too willing do enable demagogues.

Sometimes the truth that undergirds democracy is difficult to quantify and this is one of the biggest dangers facing twentieth century politics in a twenty-first century digital age. We cannot put exact numbers to what effect lies have. We can never know for sure how many voted Leave on the basis of Facebook posts financed by shadowy sources and driven by algorithms to hit their targets.  It should frighten every one of us that our government is too terrified to even investigate what was patently election fraud and interference. Leave won with the help of Russian money and troll farms and some are simply parroting the line that democracy must be respected. Yet, it was precisely a digitally driven lack of respect for democracy that they now defend. Our politics is still on a setting that would comprehend ballot stuffing or intimidating voters at the polls but Brexit happened with keyboards. The cyber-manipulators won the Brexit vote and put Trump in office and they will keep doing it. Our current leaders are too cowardly and too craven to admit that they have given in to a geopolitical bully. They will not defend democracy because it is too hard.

Our press should have performed its duty to hold the powerful to account during such a grave national moment but it too has failed. Healthy democracies cannot function without investigators and interrogators and ours did not do its job. Our press has lost the stomach for calling out those who lie. In part, our national temperament of civility is to blame. Lie is an ugly word. Most of our press is still under the assumption that interviewees who are evasive will be perceived to be lying and no further judgement on their part is necessary. Alas, we are in an age of confirmation bias and relative truth. The Brexiteers and their sunny uplands came across as victims of press intimidation to the already credulous. The rest of us were left shouting ‘call them out on their lies’ to no avail. With a few notable exceptions, our broadcasters are duelling with swords against liars with machine guns.

This supine press coverage is also the responsibility of the individuals who make editorial decisions. Public perceptions were formed by those decisions to all of our cost. It may be that the metropolitan bias of some editors compelled them to take their vox pops almost exclusively in working mens’ clubs and market stalls in deprived parts of the country. Angry makes for better television. It was a preemptive response to an accusation of partiality that had not been levelled. That would be a charitable explanation. However, it created a national narrative that discontent was widespread and attributed to the EU while rarely allowing pro-EU voices the same opportunity. The risk in this is that an artificial narrative of ‘the will of the people’ has been created. They will not defend democracy because it is less exciting than the angry mob.

We have arrived at a point where politicians can say with a straight face ‘We had a referendum and that’s it. We won. End of story’. We have laid the groundwork for an inevitable future leader with no respect for norms who can use our unwritten constitution to say ‘We had a general election. We won. End of story.’. Democracy is in peril when politicians make the argument that more democracy is anti-democratic. We are living in Orwellian times when we don’t fight kicking and screaming for untainted campaigns and when our press operates without discrimination in favour of facts- as if all sides of a debate are equal. Democracy is a fragile thing. It is worth defending for our children and their children. And we are failing.

Rebecca Strom Trenner is a writer in the moments when she stops screaming into a pillow in a darkened room.

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