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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: democracy, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 43
1. Where is Mexico going? The obstacles in its rocky road to democracy

In a recently released poll this month, 22% of Mexicans approved of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s performance in office. Data released in the same survey revealed that 55 %, more than twice the percentage of those who viewed the president in a positive light, strongly disapproved of his performance. No president since Vicente Fox, who was elected in 2000 and moved Mexico significantly along the path to electoral democracy, has ever received such weak support.

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2. Small donor democracy? Don’t count on it

Hillary Clinton says she wants to get big money out of elections, and one of the ways she wants to do it is to curb the influence of big donors by mobilizing lots of small ones. This reform idea has become very popular recently, thanks to the concern about super PACs and billionaires that has been growing since Citizens United. But the idea is an old one. The first serious small-donor programs began more than 100 years ago, and they have been working more or less continually ever since.

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3. And the lot fell on… sortition in Ancient Greek democratic theory & practice

Some four decades ago the late Sir Moses Finley, then Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, published a powerful series of lectures entitled Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973, republished in an augmented second edition, 1985). He himself had personally suffered the atrocious deficit of democracy that afflicted his native United States in the 1950s, forcing him into permanent exile, but my chief reason for citing his book here, apart from out of continuing intellectual respect, is that its title could equally well have been Democracy Ancient Versus Modern.

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4. The problems with democracy – continuing the conversation into a new year

An invitation from the British Library to give the first in a new public lecture series called ‘Enduring Ideas’ was never a request I was going to decline. But what ‘enduring idea’ might I focus on and what exactly would I want to say that had not already been said about an important idea that warranted such reflection? The selected concept was ‘democracy’ and the argument sought to set out and unravel a set of problems that could – either collectively or individually – be taken to explain the apparent rise in democratic disaffection.

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5. The European Union: too much democracy, too little, or both?

In a symbolic gesture toward creating an ever closer Union, the European Union conferred citizenship on everyone who was also a subject of one of its member states. However, the rights of European citizens are more like those of subjects of the pre-1914 Germain Kaiser than of a 21st century European democracy.

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6. On Indian democracy and justice

We have reason to be proud of our determination to choose democracy before any other poor country in the world, and to guard jealously its survival and continued success over difficult times as well as easy ones. But democracy itself can be seen either just as an institution, with regular ballots and elections and other such organizational requirements, or it can be seen as the way things really happen in the actual world on the basis of public deliberation.

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7. 10 things you need to know about the Magna Carta

This year marks the 800th anniversary of one of the most famous documents in history, the Magna Carta. Nicholas Vincent, author of Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction , tells us 10 things everyone should know about the Magna Carta.

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8. Was the French revolution really a revolution?

The French celebrate their National Day each year on July 14 by remembering the storming of the Bastille, the hated symbol of the old regime. According to the standard narrative, the united people took the law in its own hands and gave birth to modern France in a heroic revolution. But in the view of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the famous German philosopher, there was no real revolution, understood as an unlawful and violent toppling of the old regime.

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9. The greatest charter?

On 15th June 2015, Magna Carta celebrates its 800th anniversary. More has been written about this document than about virtually any other piece of parchment in world history. A great deal has been wrongly attributed to it: democracy, Habeas Corpus, Parliament, and trial by jury are all supposed somehow to trace their origins to Runnymede and 1215. In reality, if any of these ideas are even touched upon within Magna Carta, they are found there only in embryonic form.

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10. Inequality in democracies: interest groups and redistribution

We are by now more or less aware that income inequality in the US and in most of the rich OECD world is higher today than it was some 30 to 40 years ago. Despite varying interpretations of what led to this increase, the fact remains that inequality is exhibiting a persistent increase, which is robust to both expansionary and contractionary economic times. One might even say that it became a stylized fact of the developed world (amid some worthy exceptions). The question on everyone's lips is how can a democracy result in rising inequality?

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11. What Pakistan’s history means for its future

The story of Pakistan is the story of missed opportunity. As I began to write about the history of this land, I could not help feeling a sense of an intertwining of personal and national destiny in what was necessarily an account of my own missed opportunities [...]

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12. Learning to love democracy: A note to William Hague

British politics is currently located in the eye of a constitutional storm. The Scottish independence referendum shook the political system and William Hague has been tasked with somehow re-connecting the pieces of a constitutional jigsaw that – if we are honest – have not fitted together for some time. I have written an open letter, encouraging the Leader of the House to think the unthinkable and to put ‘the demos’ back into democracy when thinking about how to breath new life into politics.

Dear William (if I may),

I do hope the Prime Minister gave you at least a few minutes warning before announcing that you would be chairing a committee on the future constitutional settlement of the UK. Could you have ever hoped for a more exciting little project to sort out before you leave Parliament next May? Complex problems rarely have simple answers and this is why so many previous politicians have failed to deal with a whole set of questions concerning the distribution of powers and the respective roles of various sub-sets of both politicians and ‘publics’. The timetable you have been set is – how can I put it – demanding and those naughty people in the Labour Party have taken their bat and ball home and are refusing to play the constitutional game.

I’m sure you know how to sort all of this out but I just thought you might like to know that amongst all the critics and naysayers who claim the British constitution is in crisis I actually think that a crisis might be just what we need. Not a crisis in terms of burning cars and riots in the streets but a crisis in terms of ‘creative destruction’ and the chance for a new way of looking at perennial problems. What’s more – as the Scottish referendum revealed – there is a huge amount of latent democratic energy amongst the public. From Penzance to Perth and from Cardigan to Cromer the public is not apathetic or disinterested about politics but they feel disconnected from a London-based system that is remote in a number of ways.

The reasons for this sense of disconnection are numerous and complex but as a constitutional historian you will know better than most people that British democracy has evolved throughout the centuries with a deep animosity to public engagement. The (in)famous ‘Westminster Model’ that we imposed on countries around the world was explicitly elitist, centralized and to a great extent insulated from public pressure. These features and values – as Scotland revealed – are now crumbling under the weight of popular pressure that will not accept their legitimacy in the twenty first century. But as I said, this should be interpreted as a positive opportunity for re-imagining, for re-connecting and for breathing new life into the system.

The question is how to deliver on this potential for positive change in a way that takes the people with you?

William Hague, 2010, by . Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
William Hague, 2010, by U.S. Department of State. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Now I’m no Vernon Bogdanor or Peter Hennessy and so writing notes to members of the Cabinet is not a common task but could I just offer three little ideas that might help smooth the path you have been asked to map out?

First and foremost, please ignore Russell Brand.

Secondly, make sure all your officials are also ignoring Russell Brand.

Finally, the trick to moving forward is thinking about constitutional reform not as being like moving pieces on a chessboard or as a zero-sum game in which a ‘win’ for one side means a ‘loss’ for the other. This traditional way of thinking about constitutional politics has served us badly and the aim has to be to turn the problem upside-down and inside-out in a way that creates new opportunities. This means starting with the people – with the demos – and viewing the constitutional puzzle not like a board game but as a multi-level game that suddenly focuses attention on the existence of connections or bonds.

The real challenge is not a lack of political interest amongst the public (indeed the appetite for meaningful engagement is huge) but a lack of ways of drawing upon the upsurges of bottom-up civic energy that keep exploding in various forms – from the off-line Occupy Movement to the on-line growth of ‘clicktivism’ – but to which the ‘traditional’ political institutions seem to offer no answers. Put slightly differently, the public no longer believes that traditional forms of political engagement are actually meaningful. In this context the promises of populist movements suddenly become attractive and Mr Farage gorges on a feast of anti-politics. The focus of your committee on a new constitutional settlement might therefore adopt a quite different approach to all those committees, commissions and inquiries that have gone before you by focusing on what I term ‘nexus politics’. That is, on the institutions and processes that can re-connect the spontaneous and the local and the single issue with the pre-existing institutional framework in a way that positively channels, absorbs and welcomes civic energy and activism. In short, British politics must learn to love democracy in a manner that is quite different to the one-night stand of five-yearly elections.

The problem is that despite the Prime Minister’s pledge on the 19 September to ensure “wider civic engagement… we will say more about this in the coming days”, the days have ticked by but the plans for public engagement remain unclear. What we are experiencing is best characterized as a (classically British top-down) ‘constitutional moment’ in which the existing elite decide what they think is best for the public. However, it has not yet evolved into a truly ‘democratic moment’ in which the public decide for themselves. My note – to bring things to a close – is therefore a simple plea for the Creation of a Citizens Assembly on Constitutional Reform that takes party politics out of discussions about the future and puts power in the power of the people. What a radical thought…

Yours truly,

Matt

P.S. Did I mention avoiding Russell Brand at all costs?

Feature image credit: Union Jack and Scotland, by Julien Carnot. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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13. Umbrellas and yellow ribbons: The language of the 2014 Hong Kong protests

Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.

China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.

Lennon Wall
‘Lennon Wall’, Hong Kong. Photo by Dr Jennifer Eagleton. Do not use without permission.

The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.

The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.

Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.

How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.

traitor 689
‘Wanted! Traitor, 689 CY Leung’, Hong Kong, Photo by Dr Jennifer Eagleton. Do not use without permission.

From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.

A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”

Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).

“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.

trust the people
Jennifer’s post-it note, Hong Kong. Photo by Dr Jennifer Eagleton. Do not use without permission.

In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.

Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.

The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.

Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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14. Does political development involve inherent tradeoffs?

For years, social scientists have wondered about what causes political development and what can be done to stimulate it in the developing world. By political development, they mean the creation of democratic governments and public bureaucracies that can effectively respond to citizens’ demands. Early in the Cold War era, most scholars were optimistic and assumed that political development would occur quickly and easily in the developing world. They expected that countries would democratize and that their governments would generate lots of state capacity to provide new public services. But, as time wore on, many observers came to realize that the process was often fitful.

Some scholars became convinced that countries faced inherent developmental tradeoffs. In the 1970s, Samuel Huntington and Joan Nelson — in a book titled No Easy Choice — warned that developing countries could not simultaneously sustain democracy and economic growth policies. They felt that democracy led to pressures for economic redistribution, which would impede growth, but also recognized that excluding people from democratic participation created turmoil. More recently, Francis Fukuyama (writing in the Journal of Democracy) concluded that countries couldn’t have a vigorous democracy unless their governments possessed significant state capacity. Herein lay a tradeoff: for a central government to uphold the rule of law — something necessary for a robust democracy — it has to concentrate power. But citizens in fledgling democracies often (justifiably) worry about governments holding too much power. Fukuyama suggested that political development was double-edged: implanting a strong democracy and building state capacity were in tension.

Around the time Fukuyama wrote his cautionary article, I set out to investigate how countries in the developing world had acquired state capacity in the past. I embarked on this research as American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was making one thing clear: it’s really hard to build functional and effective states. I thought case studies might clarify how some countries had historically generated state capacity through more organic means, which might be useful knowledge for policymakers wanting to build up weak or failed states today.

Ryan Saylor - Guachos in Patagonia
Sheep Mustering In Argentinian Patagonia. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I studied six countries in Latin America and Africa — Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ghana, Mauritius, and Nigeria — and discovered a striking pattern. I found that when each of them experienced their first major commodity boom (in commodities as diverse as cattle, copper, sugar, and wheat), there were groups involved in the production and marketing of these goods that asked their governments for similar things. They wanted the state to provide new transportation infrastructure and help them obtain finance, so they could enlarge their operations. The situation seemed like a “win-win”: exporters could expand their businesses, and governments would stimulate economic growth.

But, curiously, governments often spurned these requests. I found that only when exporters were part of the governing coalition — meaning they were closely allied with politicians — did the government assist them. This was the case in Argentina, Chile, and Mauritius. When exporters were politically marginalized, governments refused to help them. In fact, governments worked against them, taxing their goods heavily and redistributing that wealth into boondoggles. Governments in Colombia, Ghana, and Nigeria essentially chose to sacrifice economic growth in order to redirect export wealth to their political cronies. These choices had lasting consequences. Over the longer term, Argentina, Chile, and Mauritius built fairly capable states, while the other countries did not.

My professional self was elated by these findings, since researchers hadn’t emphasized this coalitional perspective to analyze state building. And yet I was troubled by what seemed to be a tradeoff present in my “success” stories. The countries that expanded their state capacity often did so repugnantly. The Chilean government invaded and “pacified” the lands of the Mapuche Indians. It then sold the land to established landed elites, who wanted to prevent others from ending their stranglehold on the country’s farmland. In Argentina, ranchers in Buenos Aires province got the government to go to war with the country’s other littoral provinces, where upstart ranchers were challenging the economic hegemony of Buenos Aires pastoralists. The government also launched a ghastly military campaign to subjugate Indian tribes that were preventing ranchers from moving their herds southward into Patagonia. And Mauritius created a legal labyrinth to harass people who had legally left the harsh conditions of sugar estates in search of a better life. The government intimidated many of them back onto plantations, where some historians liken the working conditions to slavery. State building came at the expense of the weak.

I wrestle with these findings because governments with considerable state capacity can do lots of good things, especially for the powerless. They can uphold the rule of law, ensure democratic accountability, and provide public goods, such as education systems and clean water. And weak or failing states are environments where insurgent and terrorist groups can flourish. So there are manifest reasons why we should want countries to expand their state capacity. Nevertheless, the lessons from my book do not translate easily into sensible policy, since state building was doubled-edged. I hope that state building doesn’t require a tradeoff between enhancing government capabilities and treating vulnerable groups fairly. But one thing is clear: state building is politically charged. Building effective states isn’t simply a technical endeavor, but a deeply political process — one with enduring consequences.

Featured image: USAID works with Nigerians to improve agriculture, health, education, and governance. By USAID Africa Bureau. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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15. Playing Man: some modern consequences of Ancient sport

Playing Man (Homo Ludens), the trail-blazing work by Johan Huizinga, took sport seriously and showed how it was essential in the formation of civilizations. Adult playtime for many pre-industrial cultures served as the crucible in which conventions and boundaries were written for a culture. Actions were censured for being “beyond the pale”, a sports metaphor for being “out of bounds”.

A quasi-sacred time and space set apart for games were a microcosm for the lives of all who played and for the spectators. Sport was a place in which individual merit was the rule and performance was regulated by the terms of the event.

The Ancient Olympic Games, an invention of the 700s BCE, preceded Athenian Democracy by about 200 years, and yet those earliest Games allowed any free citizen to participate and win the supreme Panhellenic crown. Yes, probably most of the first contenders were wealthy by token of having more leisure time to train and travel to the festival. 

Yet in the pre-democratic centuries, the sporting model showed that what counted was individual ability and acquired skill, not status by birth. So the era of rule by tyrants and elite families was balanced by models of egalitarian display in the stadium in footraces, wrestling, boxing, and other track and field events.

Chariot racing was of course still the exclusive domain of the wealthy, a vestige of heroic tradition, but the athletes contending mano a mano ushered in more meritocratic ways. The Greek custom of requiring athletes in track and field and combat events to participate in the nude underscored this democratic ethos, perhaps popularized among the communally oriented Spartans by 600 BCE, but soon adopted universally by all Greeks.

The double entendre in my title “playing man” is intentional, with allusion to the sense that sport has been for most of history and globally a performance by and for males. For the Greeks, athletics were for men only, with a few interesting exceptions, notably girls’ ritual races at Olympia to ask Hera for a happy marriage.

In the modern Olympics, there was no women’s marathon race until 1984, almost 90 years into the games. Even then, in 1984, only 25% of all Olympic participants were female; today it is still at less than half (45% in 2012). The first women boxing events came in 2012. 

A competitor in the long jump, Black-figured Tyrrhenian amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, Greek, but made for the Etruscan market, 540 BC, found near Rome, Winning at the ancient Games, British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A competitor in the long jump, Black-figured Tyrrhenian amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, Greek, but made for the Etruscan market, 540 BC, found near Rome, Winning at the ancient Games, British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Women’s participation in sports at all venues and events has slowly improved over the last 30 years, thanks to gender equity movements as a whole. Still, males have been the participants in and the most avid audiences for competitive sports globally throughout history.

Is it tradition and culture or nature (testosterone and men’s greater muscle bulk) that has driven this trend? Scholarly disagreement continues, but the answer must include nature and culture, with nature perhaps playing a heavier role. The attempts to bring women’s sports to the fore have largely not succeeded: world viewers, broadcasters, and corporate sponsors overwhelmingly prefer male contests.

Overt displays of machismo characterized the ancient Greek contest, or agôn, whence our term agony, the pain of struggle. Combat sports of boxing and wrestling topped the popularity charts and the rewards at the festivals that gave valuable prizes.

At the Olympics, there were no second or third place prizes; only first counted, and one boxer said “give me the wreath of give me death”. Many were brutalized or killed, as is shown on vases in which blood streams from the contestants.

The Greeks were overly familiar with violence meted out by men in war on a daily basis, and so violent sport here did not inspire violence. But the association of athletes with Homeric heroes maintained the display as acceptable and even superhuman (see the funeral games of Iliad 23).

Greek sport, then, is worthy of our attention as the model in many ways for our own very different contests. Yes, the modern Olympics appropriated the Greek ones for its own very different aims. But arguably the ‘deeper’ social inheritances from the Greek men who “played” are, on the one hand, a greater egalitarianism, and on the other a heroized violence and machismo with which we all still wrestle.

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16. Sharks, asylum seekers, and Australian politics

OUP-Blogger-Header-V2 Flinders

By Matthew Flinders


We all know that the sea is a dangerous place and should be treated with respect but it seems that Australian politicians have taken things a step (possibly even a leap) further. From sharks to asylum seekers the political response appears way out of line with the scale of the risk.

In the United Kingdom the name Matthew Flinders will rarely generate even a glint of recognition, whereas in Australia Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) is (almost) a household name. My namesake was not only the intrepid explorer who first circumnavigated and mapped the continent of Australia but he is also a distant relative whose name I carry with great pride. But having spent the past month acquainting myself with Australian politics I can’t help wonder how my ancestor would have felt about what has become of the country he did so much to put on the map.

The media feeding frenzy and the political response surrounding shark attacks in Western Australia provides a case in point. You are more likely to be killed by a bee sting than to be killed by a shark attack while swimming in the sea off Perth or any of Western Australia’s wonderful beaches. Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the sea and coastline every weekend but what the media defined as ‘a spate’ of fatal shark attacks (seven to be exact) in between 2010-2013 led the state government to implement no less than 72 baited drum lines along the coast. Australia’s Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, granted the Western Australian Government a temporary exemption from national environment laws protecting great white sharks, to allow the otherwise illegal acts of harming or killing the species. The result of the media feeding frenzy has been the slow death of a large number of sharks. The problem is that of the 173 sharks caught in the first four months none were Great Whites and the vast majority were Tiger Sharks – a species that has not been responsible for a fatal shark attack for decades.

The public continues to surf and swim, huge protests have been held against the shark cull and yet the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, insists that it is the public reaction against the cull that is ‘ludicrous and extreme’ and that it will remain in place for two years.

800px-Whiteshark-TGoss1

If the political approach to sharks appears somewhat harsh then the approach to asylum seekers appears equally unforgiving. At one level the Abbott government’s ‘Stop the Boats’ policy has been a success. The end of July witnessed the first group of asylum seekers to reach the Australian mainland for seven months. In the same period last year over 17,000 people in around 200 boats made the treacherous journey across the ocean in order to claim asylum in Australia. ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ has therefore ‘solved’ a political problem that many people believe simply never existed. The solution – as far as one exists – is actually a policy of ‘offshore processing’ that uses naval intervention to direct boats to bureaucratic processing plants on Manus, Nauru, or Christmas Island. Like modern day Robinson Crusoe, thousands of asylum seekers find themselves marooned on the most remote outposts of civilization. But then again – out of sight is out of mind.

The 157 people (including around fifty children) who made it to the mainland last week exemplify the harsh treatment that forms the cornerstone of the current approach. After spending nearly a month at sea on an Australian customs vessel they were briefly flown to the remote Curtin Detention Centre but when the asylum seekers refused to be interviewed by Indian officials they were promptly dispatched to the island of Nauru and its troubled detention centre (riots, suicides, self-mutilation, etc.). Those granted asylum will be resettled permanently on Nauru while those refused will be sent back to Sri Lanka (the country that most of the asylum seekers were originally fleeing via India). Why does the government insist on this approach? Could it be the media rather than the public that are driving political decision-making? A recent report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that the vast majority of refugees feel welcomed by the Australian public but rejected by the Australian political institutions. How can this mismatch be explained? The economy is booming and urgently requires flexible labor, the asylum seekers want to work and embed themselves in communities; the country is vast and can hardly highlight over-population as the root of the problem.

There is an almost palpable fear of a certain type of ‘foreigner’ within the Australian political culture. Under this worldview the ocean is a human playground that foreign species (i.e. sharks) should not be allowed to visit. The world is changing as human flows become more fluid and fast-paced – no borders are really sovereign any more. And yet in Australia the political system remains wedded to ‘keeping the migration floodgates closed’, apparently unaware of just how cruel and unforgiving this makes Australia look to the rest of the world. What would Captain Matthew Flinders think about this state of affairs almost exactly 200 years after his death?

From sharks to asylum seekers Australian politics seems ‘all at sea’.

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield and alsoFlinders author pic Visiting Distinguished Professor in Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and the author of Defending Politics (2012). Matthew is giving a public lecture entitled ‘The DisUnited Kingdom: The Scottish Independence Referendum and the Future of the United Kingdom’ on Monday 25 August. The lecture takes place at the Constitutional Centre of Western Australia at 6pm BST.

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17. Do we have too much democracy?

OUP-Blogger-Header-V2 Flinders

By Matthew Flinders


It’s finally happened! After years of watching and (hopeful) waiting, tomorrow is the day that I finally step into the TEDx arena alongside an amazing array of speakers to give a short talk about ‘an idea worth spreading’. The theme is ‘Representation and Democracy’ but what can I say that has not already been said? How can I tackle a big issue in just a few minutes? How do I even try and match-up to the other speakers when they include people like the pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi? Dare I suggest the problem is ‘too much’ democracy rather than ‘too little’?

The ‘three-minute thesis test’ is a relatively new form of professional training in which Ph.D. students need to provide a clear and succinct account of their thesis and why it matters in just 180 seconds.  The aim is to not only make the students think and focus on the core intellectual ‘hook’ of their research but also to hone their communication skills so they can talk to multiple audiences in multiple ways about their research. This is all jolly good and to be encouraged. TEDx talks, however, represent something of the ‘über-three minute thesis test’ in the sense that not only must you tackle a big issue but you must also do so in a way that is sophisticated yet accessible, entertaining but serious and thought provoking but not ridiculous. You get eight minutes to do this, not three, but you only get one shot at giving the talk in front of a large live audience and an even larger online audience of many millions. This is reputational poker. Here is the essence of my pitch.

The title of my talk is ‘The Problem with Democracy’. However, the problem with even talking about ‘the problem with democracy’ is that it is a loaded statement. Loaded in the sense that it suggests that (1) there is a single ‘problem’ when it might be argued a discussion of ‘the problems’ [plural] with democracy might offer a more rounded and sophisticated set of answers; and (2) loaded in the sense that it accepts that ‘a problem’ exists. I want to take on and challenge each of these assumptions in turn but before this I want to make the rather unfashionable – even heretical – suggestion [and this is my ‘hook’] that one of the problems with contemporary democracy might be that in some parts of the world we have too much democracy rather than too little. Let’s call this problem ‘hyper-democracy’.

Something seems to have gone wrong in the relationship between the governors and the governed. Recent elections at all levels display not only low turnouts but also a shift towards more extreme populist parties that offer a general message of anti-politics and a mantra of ‘If only we could get rid of all the terrible politicians then everything would be fine!’ The problem is that you cannot have democracy without politics and you cannot have politics without politicians.

28-09-2011

For all sorts of reasons, politics is increasingly viewed as little more than a spectator sport or a retail activity. Yet, democratic politics is not a ‘click-and-collect’ online shopping channel where you make your choice and expect your goods to arrive. And if you don’t get what you want, it has become too easy to heckle – or should I say to tweet or blog – from the sidelines. Could it be that we have too much of the wrong kind of democracy and too little of the right kind of democracy? Democracy is about compromise and a sense of proportion. We don’t always get what we want, as individuals or specific groups, in a democracy but that’s just the price we pay for living in a free society as opposed to a fear society (this might be a good time to remind you that, as the research of Freedom House illustrates, most of the world’s population do not live in democratic regimes).

We may have hit a point where our political system has become too sensitive to the public’s opinions and anxieties. Just think about the second half of the twentieth century; the growth in the number and range of ‘sleazebusters’, watchdogs, and audit bodies, the increasing role of the courts and the judicialization of politics, not to mention the role of the internet and an increasingly aggressive media in holding political processes and politicians to account. This is all good. It’s democratic progress. It’s part of John Keane’s wonderful book The Life and Death of Democracy and he calls this stage of far greater popular controls over politicians ‘monitory democracy’. But you could call this ‘hyper-democracy’ because the 24/7 news-cycle creates a perpetual storm of scandal and intrigue.

Could it be that we need to give those politicians we elect just a little more leeway and ‘space’ in order to allow them to focus on delivering their promises? Could it be that politicians have become too sensitive to the immediate demands of the loudest sectional groups or the latest focus group or what’s trending on twitter? The reason I dare to ask this question is for the simple reason that ‘hyper-democracy’ does not seem to be producing contented democrats but disaffected democrats. It seems to be fuelling increasing mistrust and mass misrepresentation by the media.

However, on the one hand I am criticizing the public for not getting involved themselves and viewing politics as a spectator sport, but on the other hand I am emphasizing that politicians need a little breathing space. How do I square this circle in a manner that offers a solution to the problem of democracy? I do it like this: the problem with hyper-democracy is too much of a shallow, disengaged, and generally aggressive form of individualized market-democracy and too little of a deeper and more socially embedded model based on active and engaged citizenship. We need less shouting and more listening, less pessimism and more optimism, but most of all we need more people – from a broader range of backgrounds – to step into the arena in order to demonstrate just why democratic politics matters.

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield Flinders author picand also Visiting Distinguished Professor in Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and the author of Defending Politics (2012).

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18. My democracy, which democracy?

By Jad Adams


I support democracy. I like to think I do so to the extent of willingness to fight and perhaps die for it. This is not so extravagant a claim, within living memory the men in my family were called upon to do exactly that.

Universal suffrage is consequently my birth-right, but what is it that I am being permitted to do with my vote, when the political parties have so adjusted the system to suit themselves?

In the coming elections for local councils and the European Parliament, two relatively recent changes have stripped away most of the choices voters had and given them to the political parties. The Local Government Act 2000 and the party list system, introduced for European elections in 1999, are both triumphs of management over content. Both shuffled power from an aggregate of the electors to a small number of people running the party machines.

When I first saw local government in action, as a junior reporter on a local paper, I felt admiration for the range of abilities and oratorical skill that leading councillors brought to their posts. They were people who not only worked unpaid, but often made real financial sacrifices in order to work for their locality. When I occasionally attend council meetings today I am struck by the poor quality of the debates, the inability to see the implications of policy beyond party advantage, the lack of intellectual rigour, the sheer irrelevance of most of this political process to the business of local government, which is now carried on by senior officers.

What happened in the interim? The Local Government Act 2000 did away with the old committee system that had run councils since 1835, through more than a century and a half of municipal progress. The government imposed a ‘leader and cabinet’ system. Active local democracy was ‘modernised’ into non-existence; only cabinet members now have any authority and even their role is merely advisory to the leader.

The leader appoints the cabinet; the rest of the councillors are supporters or impotent opponents. There is no political brake on the leader’s authority, but decisions can be criticised in retrospect by a ‘scrutiny committee.’ This is not local democracy but local autocracy.

800px-Westminster_Bridge,_Parliament_House_and_the_Big_Ben

Is it any wonder that people of quality are reluctant to come forward to be councillors when they have no influence except that can be garnered by toadying to the leader, who might then appoint them to the cabinet and put some money in their pockets? People of quality wanting to act in public affairs realise they could have more influence in pressure groups. Of course, there are still some meritorious councillors, just as under the old system there were some fools. My observation is that the balance has shifted and there are now fewer people of quality prepared to go through the system.

Voters were in fact given something of a choice over the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000: they could choose whether to have the directly elected mayor and cabinet system, or the leader and cabinet system. There was no option of retaining the tried and tested system of committees where every councillor had a voice. So it was a charade of a ballot where only votes in favour were requested and counted. This used to be called ‘guided democracy’ in east European countries.

As with every centralisation, those who already possessed power welcomed the developments of the Act with hands outstretched. It put more money into the system, gave senior officers more power (which, since it had to come from somewhere, meant commensurately less for elected representatives), paid councillors, and gave ever-increasing sums to cabinet members for special responsibilities.

In a few places the gimmick of directly elected leaders (confusingly referred to as mayors) was tried. The public were indifferent everywhere except London where candidates from both major parties have excelled as mayors, but London is more like a city state with a president than a municipal corporation. Elected mayors in four of thirty-two London boroughs have added to the cost of the process but contributed nothing to efficiency. Outside of London there are eleven directly elected mayors, with two other towns having tried but abandoned the system as an expensive flop. This local lack of democracy is one of the ways in which the system has become fragmented, the responsiveness of the elected moving further and further away from those they are supposed to represent and towards their party loyalty.

On a larger scale, there is the other election we face this month, for Members of the European Parliament, which has been entirely taken over by political parties. A system in which electors voted for a local MEP was replaced in 1999 by the European Party Elections Act with a party list system with the additionally unfriendly title of ‘closed list.’ That means voters can vote only for a party, and the first candidates on the list chosen by the party will get in — even if that person is heartily despised by their own supporters, so long as they are favoured by the party bosses.

This is not an arcane argument about supposed representation with no relevance to individuals. I have a property in Greece. I had a problem with the planning authorities there where I felt I was being discriminated against as a non-Greek. Contact my Member of the European Parliament, I thought. So who is that?

I found Greek MEPs with parties like the Popular Orthodox Rally or members of groupings such as the Nordic Green Left Confederation, but no member for the Dodecanese islands. After one and a half days of trying to make contact with people via the Internet, Brussels and party offices, I finally called a London MEP who had a Greek name so I supposed she might know something. She was in fact very helpful, but is this any way to run a representative democracy? I did not vote for this MEP, at best I might have voted for a party list on which she appeared somewhere.

In the UK we now have this party list system; single transferable votes (for directly elected mayors); the mixed member system for the Welsh assembly (don’t ask); regional proportional representation for the Scottish parliament and first past the post for general elections.

I still think I would still fight for democracy, but which democracy is that?

Jad Adams is an independent historian specializing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is a Research Fellow at the Institute of English, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research. His forthcoming book,

Women and the Vote, is published by Oxford University Press and available from September 2014.

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19. Once again, “the people” prepare to elect an American president

By Louis René Beres Apart from their obvious differences, all of the candidates, both Democrat (President Obama) and Republican, have one overriding chant in common. For each aspirant, every pitch is prefaced by sanctimonious appeals to "the people." Whether openly, or with a quiet nod to a presumably more subtle strategy, "I want to be the people's president" is always their conspicuously shared mantra. This is not hard to understand. To suggest otherwise

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20. The disconnect between democracy and Republicanism

By Elvin Lim


It should now be clear to all that the highly polarized environment that is Washington is dysfunctional, and the disillusionment it is causing portends yet more headlocks and cynicism to come.

Here is the all-too-familiar cycle of American electoral politics in the last few decades. Campaign gurus draw sharp distinctions to get out the vote. The impassioned vote wins the day. Impatient voters watch their newly elected president or representative fail to pass in undiluted form the the reforms promised during the campaign. Disillusion ensues. The gurus step in with a new round of fiesty charges, and the cycle begins anew.

At some point, citizens are going to get tired of being stoked, poked, and roped, and all for nought. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are reactions against a system gone awry. The low approval ratings for the Congress and the president are another indicator. The Republicans’ perpetual search for an anti-establishment alternative is another.

And now we are facing a spectacular new failure. The “super committee” charged with reaching a budget reduction deal has proved itself anything but super. If twelve people can no longer agree to make hard decisions, it is reflective of the larger malaise of which we dare not speak. It is that democracy has run amok in a republic founded on the idea that our elected representatives should be able to make decisions on our behalf, and sometimes in spite of ourselves, because representation is a higher calling than mimicry. Maybe that is why Abraham Lincoln did not deliver a single campaign speech in 1860.

Each of the twelve men and women in the committee are thinking about their constituencies, their parties, and their base and so bluster and bravado must take precedence over compromise and conciliation. When the voice of the people, artificially stoked for shrillness, begins to infect the deliberative process even in between electoral cycles, there is no chance for serious inter-branch deliberation. We have reduced our representatives to sycophants whose mantra is do nothing but heap the blame on the other party.

The solution is not to exploit the disillusioned by way of new campaign slogans and negative ads to artificially jolt their temporary and baser passions, but for the noise and the trouble-makers fixated only on winning at the next ballot to be weeded out of the system. To do that, citizens must realize that the lion’s share of what counts as democracy today is making it nearly impossible for the representatives of our republic to make decisions on behalf of We the People. Remember: ours is a republic, if we can keep it.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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21. Hating Democracy in the Middle East?

By Steven A. Cook


Has the Washington foreign policy establishment disavowed democracy in the Middle East? According to Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald the answer is a resounding yes. Greenwald, a lawyer by training and blogger/author by trade, has long been a trenchant critic of various “establishments.” In addition to “America’s national security priesthood,” he has often skewered the mainstream media for various transgressions such as giving the George W. Bush administration a pass on the invasion of Iraq and more recently for giving Luke Russert and Chelsea Clinton high-profile jobs. Greenwald’s work on post-9/11 domestic policies, especially the way the Bush administration and a complicit Congress compromised civil liberties through dubious laws like the USA Patriot Act is among the best there is out there. Yet on those occasions when he has wandered into foreign policy, Greenwald’s commentary is considerably less original.

In his January 2 column, Greenwald went after CSIS’s Jon Alterman for an oped he published in the December 31 New York Times. Alterman had been an election observer in Egypt during the second round of polls. In about 80 words he relayed what he saw, including large numbers of voters turning out for either the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or the al-Nour Party, which is affiliated with one strand of the Egyptian Salafist movement. Alterman, who spent three years living in Egypt in the 1990s, suggests that the best outcome in terms of American interests would be “a balance” between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt’s new politicians. The implication being, I think, that the military would retain control over important foreign policy issues like the bilateral relationships with the United States and Israel while ceding executive authority in other areas to elected civilians.

Being well…I guess… part of the foreign policy establishment by dint of my employment, it is hard to understand how Greenwald extrapolates from Alterman’s oped that Washington foreign policy establishment has collectively decided that democracy in the Middle East is bad for the United States. A few observations before I move on: 1) people outside of Washington often make claims about Washington that they would never make about anywhere else. Greenwald is a smart guy. He surely knows that the so-called foreign policy elite is a diverse group. Indeed, there are many varieties of species in this zoo, 2) I don’t know whom Greenwald has been reading, but I count exactly two people who have warned that democratic development in the Middle East is bad for U.S. interests—Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and Greg Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont. Greenwald suggests his two primary bugaboos: Israelis and neocons. He is surely correct about the Israelis who prefer to make deals with regional authoritarians whom they hope can keep a lid on public sentiment, but he has got the neocons wrong. (By the way, in order to make his claim that “many neocons” oppose democracy in the Arab world, Greenwald cites a February 2, 2011 piece—nine days before Hosni Mubarak fell—in The Forward that only references David Wurmser and Malcolm Hoenlein , hardly a representative sampling.) Take the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan group that which includes leading neocon personalities like my colleague, Elliott Abrams, and the Brookings Institutions’ Robert Kagan. Neither the Group nor Abrams nor Kagan have wavered in their support for democratic change in Egypt.

The jaundiced views of folks like Gelb and Gause does not make either of them democracy haters, though. It seems to me that they are onto something that

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22. In defense of politics

By Matthew Flinders


From Canada to Australia — and all points in between — something has gone wrong. A gap has emerged between the governors and the governed. A large dose of scepticism about the promises and motives of politicians is an important and healthy part of any democracy, but it would appear that healthy pessimism has mutated into a more pathological form of corrosive cynicism.

P.J. O’Rourke’s Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards (2010) and Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying (2005) are very different books. The former focuses on American politics and adopts a gutter-speak tone and style, while the latter examines British politics in order to make the argument that all politicians are generally self-interested, corrupt and mendacious. Both books therefore offer a rather shallow polemic; a thin and woefully immature version of the ‘bad faith model of politics’. This view of politics resonates with public attitudes and is reflected in a great body of research and data on falling levels of public trust in politics, politicians, and political institutions. O’Rourke and Oborne are not alone in being ‘disaffected democrats’.

To those who are willing to promote or believe the ‘bad faith model of politics’ let me dare to suggest that you are wrong! Let me dare to suggest that democratic politics delivers far more than most people realise and that no politics can ever satisfy a world of ever-increasing public demands and expectations. Let me go further and suggest that most politicians, particularly in those more economically developed parts of the world where trust in politicians is so low, are actually fairly normal people like you and me. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’; just like there are no simple solutions to complex social problems. Across the world millions of people reap the benefits of fundamentally honest political systems and it is possible that those who remember the pain, death, and devastation of the two world wars that shaped the twentieth century might have a slightly more personal understanding of why democratic politics matters and what it delivers.

As Bernard Crick famously argued exactly fifty years ago in his In Defence of Politics democratic politics revolves around conciliation, compromise, and squeezing collective decisions out of a vast range of conflicting demands. It is therefore inevitably messy, often slow, and nearly always cumbersome; but it is also a civilising and quite beautiful activity for the simple reason that it allows people to live together without resorting to violence. In the current context of political disengagement and distrust, Crick’s argument is more important and valid today than when it was first made half a century ago. Let me push this argument just a little further, for those who really want to understand why politics matters and what it delivers they might read Tim Butcher’s book Blood River and the raw violence, corruption and fear that he sees as he journey across Africa. Politics therefore matters because it allows fear societies to become free societies. It is for exactly this reason that people across North Africa and the Middle East are currently dying in the name of securing open democratic politics.

Let me be very clear about my argument. I am not saying that democratic politics is perfect or that all politicians are angels, but I am arguing that politics delivers far more than most people appear to realise. A braver man than me might even suggest that the younger generations have become ‘democratically decadent’ in the sense that many of them appear to take so much for granted, while at the sa

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23. “A man without a vote is a man without protection.”

Don’t forget to vote! The lines may be long, the community centers may be crowded, the ballots may be old fashioned, but it’s a small price to pay for a right many gave their lives for.

from John Lewis in the Lead

In the words of Lyndon B. Johnson, “A man without a vote is a man without protection.”

I Voted sticker

Happy Election Day!


Filed under: Holidays, Musings & Ponderings Tagged: democracy, voting

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24. Social media and the culture of connectivity

By José van Dijck


In 2006, there appeared to be a remarkable consensus among Internet gurus, activists, bloggers, and academics about the promise of Web 2.0 that users would attain more power than they ever had in the era of mass media. Rapidly growing platforms like Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006) facilitated users’ desire to make connections and exchange self-generated content. The belief in social media as technologies of a new “participatory” culture was echoed by habitual tools-turned-into-verbs: buttons for liking, trending, following, sharing, trending, et cetera. They articulated a feeling of connectedness and collectivity, strongly resonating the belief that social media enhanced the democratic input of individuals and communities. According to some, Web 2.0 and its ensuing range of platforms formed a unique chance to return the “public sphere” — a sphere that had come to be polluted by commercial media conglomerates — back in the hands of ordinary citizens.

Eight years after the apex of techno-utopian celebration, a number of large platforms have come to dominate a social media ecosystem vastly different from when the platforms just started to evolve. It’s time for a reality check. What did social media do for the public — users like you — and for the ideal of a more democratic public space? Do they indeed promote connectedness and participation in community-driven activities or are they rather engines of connectivity, driven by automated algorithms and invisible business models?  Online socializing, as it now seems, is inimically mediated by a techno-economic logic anchored in the principles of popularity and winner-takes-all principles that enhance the pervasive logic of mass media instead of offering alternatives.

Most contemporary social media giants once started out as informal platforms for networking or “friending” (Facebook), for exchanging user-generated content (YouTube), or for participating in opinionated discussions (Twitter). It was generally assumed that in the new social media space, all users were equal. However, platforms’ algorithms measured relevance and importance in terms of popularity rankings, which subsequently formed the quantifiable basis of data-driven interactivity wrapped in “social” rhetoric such as following, trending, or sharing. In this platform-mediated ecosystem, sponsored and professionally generated content soon received a lot more attention than user-generated content. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook gradually changed their interfaces to yield business models that were staked in two basic variables: attention and user data. By 2012, once informal social traffic between users had become fully formalized, automated, and commoditized by platforms owned and exploited by fast growing corporate giants. Although each of these platforms nurses its own proprietary mechanisms, they are staked in the same values or principles: popularity, hierarchical ranking, quick growth, large traffic volumes, fast turnovers, and personalized recommendations. A like is not a retweet, but most algorithms are underpinned by the norms of popularity and fast-trending topics.

The cultivation of online sociality is increasingly dominated by four major chains of platforms: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. These chains share some operational principles even if they differ on some ideological premises (open versus closed systems). Some consider social media platforms as alternatives to the old mass media, praising their potential to empower individual users who can contribute their own opinions or content to a media universe that was before pretty much closed to amateurs. Although we should not underestimate this newly acquired power of the web as a publishing medium for all, it is hard to keep up the tenet that social media are alternatives to mass media. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly obvious that the logics of mass media and social media are intimately intertwined. Not just on the level of platforms mechanics and content (tweets have become the equivalent of soundbites) but also on the level of user dynamics and business models; YouTube-Google now collaborates with many former foes from Hollywood to turn their platform into the gateway to the entertainment universe. Newspapers and television stations are inevitably integrated in the ecosystem of connective media where the mechanisms of data-driven user traffic determines who and what gets most attention, hence drawing customers and eyeballs.

This new connective media system has reshaped the power relationships between platform owners and users, not only in terms of who may steer information but also who controls the vast amount of user data that rushes through the combined platforms every day. What are the larger political and social concerns behind deceptively simple interfaces and celebrated user-convenient tools? Where in 2006 the notion of user power still seemed unproblematic, the relationship between users and owners of social media platforms is now contentious and embattled. In the wake of the growing monopolization of niches (Facebook for social networking, Google for search, Twitter for microblogging) it is important to redefine and reappraise the meaning of “social,” “public,” “community,” and “nonprofit.” The ecosystem of connective media has no separate spaces for the “public”; it is a nirvana of interoperability which major players argue for deregulation and which imposes American neoliberal conditions on a global space where boundaries are considered disruptions of user convenience. Common public values, such as independence, trust, or equal opportunities, are ready for reassessment if they need to survive in an environment that is defined by social media logic.

José van Dijck is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam; her latest book, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media has just been published by Oxford University Press (2013).

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25. Why the lobbying bill is a threat to the meaning of charity

By Matthew Hilton


On 30 January 2014 the UK government’s lobbying bill received the Royal Assent. Know more formally known as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, it seeks to curb the excesses in election campaign expenditure, as well as restricting the influence of the trade unions.

However, as various groups pointed out throughout its controversial parliamentary journey, Part 2 of the legislation will also have implications for charities, voluntary societies and non-governmental organisations once it comes into effect. Specifically, in restricting the amount of expenditure that non-party political bodies can spend ahead of a general election, it will severely curtail their lobbying, campaigning and advocacy work that has been a standard feature of their activities for some decades.

Understandably the sector has not welcomed the Act. The problem is that the legislation conflates general political lobbying with campaigning for a specific cause that is central to the charitable mission of an organisation. Sector leaders have critiqued the Bill as ‘awful’, ‘an absolute mess’ and ‘a real threat to democracy’.

It is not difficult to see why. The impact of charities on legislation in Britain has been profound and the examples run into many hundreds of specific Acts of Parliament. To mention but a few, a whole range of environmental groups successfully lobbied for the Climate Change Act 2008. Homelessness charities such as Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group fought a battle for many years that resulted in the Housing Act 1977. The 1969 abolition of the death penalty can be partly attributed to the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment and two pieces of legislation in 1967, the Sexual Offences Act and the Abortion Act, were very much influenced by the work of the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Abortion Law Reform Association.

A group of campaigners from Christian Aid lobbying for Trade Justice. Photo by Kaihsu Tai. CC-BY-SA 3.0

A group of campaigners from Christian Aid lobbying for Trade Justice, Oxford, 2005. By Kaihsu Tai. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The list could run on and on, but the impact of advocacy by charities on the policy process has become far more extensive than the straightforward lobbying of MPs. Charities have been key witnesses in Royal Commissions, for instance. From the 1944 Commission on Equal Pay Act through to the 1993 Commission on Criminal Justice, voluntary organisations contributed over a 1,000 written submissions. At Whitehall, they have sought a continued presence along the corridors of power in much the same manner as commercial lobbying firms. They have achieved much through the often hidden and usually imprecise, unquantifiable and unknowable interpersonal relationships fostered with key civil servants, both senior and junior.

In more recent years, charities have taken advantage of early day motions in the House of Commons. Once infrequently employed, by the first decade of the 21st century, there were on average 1,875 early day motions in each parliamentary session. The most notable have managed to secure over 300 signatures and it is here that the influence of charities is particularly apparent. The topics that obtain such general — and cross-party — support have tended to be in the fields of disability, drugs, rights, public health, the environment, and road safety; all subjects on which charities have been particularly effective campaigners.

Not all of these lobbying activities have been successful. Leaders of charities have often expressed their frustration at being unable to influence politicians who refuse to listen, else being outgunned and out-voiced by lobbyists with greater financial muscle supporting their work. But the important point is that charities have had to engage in the political arena and it is the norm for them to do so. To restrict these activities now — even if only in the year in the run-up to a general election — actually serves to turn back a dominant trend in democratic participation that has come increasingly to the fore in contemporary Britain.

Having explored the history of charities, voluntary organisations and NGOs, tracing their growing power, influence and support, we found was that rather than there having been a decline in democracy over the last few decades there has actually been substantial shifts in how politics takes place. While trade unions, political parties and traditional forms of association life have witnessed varying rates of decline, support for environmental groups, humanitarian agencies and a whole range of single-issue campaigning groups has actually increased. Whether these groups represent a better or worse form of political engagement is not really the issue. The point is that the public has chosen to support charities — and charitable activity in the political realm — because ordinary citizens have felt these organisations are better placed to articulate their concerns, interests and values. As such, charities, often working at the frontier of social and political reform, but often alongside governments and the public sector, have become a crucial feature of modern liberal democracy.

One might have expected a government supposedly eager to embrace the ‘Big Society’ particular keen to free these organisations from the bureaucracy of the modern state. But it is quite clear that the Coalition has held a highly skewed, and rather old fashioned, view of appropriate charitable activity. The Conservatives imagined a world of geographically-specific, community self-help groups that might pick up litter on the roadside in their spare time at the weekend and who would never imagine that their role might be, for instance, to demand that local government obtains sufficient resources to ensure that the public sector — acting on the behalf of all citizens and not just a select few — would continue to maintain and beautify the world around us. There are clearly very different views on what charity is and what it should do.

Indeed, it is remarkable that when government spokespeople did comment on the nature of the charitable sector, they were quick to condemn the work of the bigger organisations. Lord Wei, the ‘Big Society tsar’, even went so far as to criticise the larger charities for being ‘bureaucratic and unresponsive to citizens’. With such attitudes it is no wonder the Big Society soon lost any pretence of adherence from the many thousands of bodies connected to the National Council of Voluntary Organisation.

It is tempting to see the particular form the Conservatives hoped the Big Society would take as part and parcel of a policy agenda that is connected to the lobbying bill. That is, there has never been an embrace of charities by Cameron and his ministers as the solution to society’s – and the state’s – ills. Rather, in viewing these developments alongside the huge cuts in public sector funding (which often trickled down to national and community-based charities), there has actually been a sustained attack on the very nature of charity, or at least it has developed as a sector in recent decades. It is no wonder that many charity leaders and CEOs, feeling cut off at the knees by the slashes to their budgets and damaged by the sustained abuse in the press for their mistakenly inflated salaries, now feel the Lobbying Act is seeking to gag their voice as well.

Matthew Hilton is Professor of Social History at the University of Birmingham, and the author of The Politics of Expertise: How NGOs Shaped Modern Britain, along with James McKay, Nicholas Crowson and Jean-François Mouhot. Together they also compiled ‘A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945′ (Palgrave, 2012). All the data contained in these two volumes, as well as that found above, is freely available on their project website.

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