Sunday, December 16, 2018

Don't blame democracy's decline on ignorance.
The problem lies deeper

from The Guardian:

Shining a light on authoritarians’ actions is not enough – the media need to focus on trends behind the day-to-day news
Democracy is in crisis and, for some, ignorance is to blame. Take the slogan of one major American newspaper: “Democracies die in darkness.” It represents a simplistic answer to the rise of authoritarian and populist forces around the globe. The reason for its popularity is, undoubtedly, its appeal to an Enlightenment logic, in which knowledge means power and progress. Hence, the argument goes, if people would only know how bad politicians like Donald Trump are, they will turn away from them, and democracy is saved.

There is no doubt that transparency is vital for liberal democracy to flourish, but that does not mean that it creates liberal democracy, nor that its absence kills liberal democracy – as centuries of national, and decades of European, democratic rule show. The problem of this idea is that it is based on a broad range of false assumptions, most notably that just shining light will lead to enlightenment.

In reality, few democracies have died in darkness. Even the paradigmatic case of Weimar Germany, in which Adolf Hitler came to power by democratic means to subsequently abolish democracy and throw the world into the most deadly abyss in history, did not happen in “darkness”. Everyone knew, or should have known, what Hitler stood for. His bestseller Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he wrote in prison after a failed coup d’état, might have been badly written, but it repeated his antisemitic and antidemocratic ideas ad nauseam. And he dismantled the democratic system while independent media were still alive and kicking.

More recently, authoritarian leaders have rarely abolished liberal democracy overnight. Rather, they slowly but steadily chip away at its liberal foundations first, and its electoral foundations later. From Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin, and from Niclás Maduro to Viktor Orbán, liberal democracies are carefully and often cautiously dismantled, piece by piece, in the spotlight of, at least initially, a relatively free and independent media. These leaders openly express their authoritarian impulses, their disdain for (the) opposition, and their intent to fundamentally change the political system.

In many cases, authoritarian leaders defend every individual “chip” by pointing to similar policies in other western democracies. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is a master at this, taking individual institutions and rules from a broad variety of EU member states to build, what the US sociologist Kim-Lane Scheppele has aptly called, a “Frankenstate”. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, which is created from all human body parts, the Frankenstate is made up of democratic rules. Each individual rule is, or can be, democratic, but the specific combination of them, creates an undemocratic regime.

Shining light on each individual component, in isolation, will therefore not expose the Frankenstate. As long as the individual components are not connected, each measure is also, in and by itself, not enough to create a sense of alarm, let alone urgency, among the citizenry and internal organizations. Look at the hapless responses of the European Union to Orbán’s near-decade of attacks on democracy in Hungary, or the lukewarm responses to voter suppression in many US states (including my state, Georgia).

Democracies can as easily die in the spotlight as in darkness. Media that simply “report the news”, rather than analyze it, miss trends, and only see the real threat when it is too late. That is why the media critic Jay Rosen has been arguing for a new media logic for several months now, as authoritarian leaders have mastered the old one, and play it to their strength. This is one of the reasons why he, like me, supports a new media initiative from the Netherlands, The Correspondent, which promises to bring “unbreaking news” and focus on trends behind the day-to-day news.

We need the media to break out of its mutually beneficial addiction with mediagenic authoritarians like Trump, and shine its spotlight on the real threats to democracy, rather than the deflections offered by the authoritarians. But even if the media do that, democracies will still die when mainstream elites – cultural, economic, political and religious – continue to collaborate with authoritarians rather than openly oppose them. And they will continue to die, if democratic politicians do not offer better alternatives than the authoritarians.

The best example of this sad state of affairs is Hungary, which this week took the final step towards a (competitive) authoritarian regime, by abolishing independent judicial control on the government. While it is true that this step was taken “in darkness”, at least within the country, as Orbán’s cronies control practically all Hungarian media, most previous steps were taken in full light, scrutinized by various still independent media.

Moreover, international media have covered Orbán’s creation of an “illiberal state” in detail, but complicity of foreign elites, from the German car industry to the European People’s party (EPP), has left the EU unable, and unwilling, to act. Both hide behind the false excuse that collaboration leads to his moderation, while exclusion will further radicalize him. But they also rightly note that Orbán is the most popular politician in the country, and that the heavily divided, and partly complicit, opposition offers no viable alternative.

Perhaps the media can shine more light on all these factors, and connect them in enlightening analyses. We need to look at trends that underlie the “news of the day”, and not be distracted by every Trump tweet or focus almost exclusively on the low-hanging fruits (like the latest raucous White House press conferences or palace intrigues). After all, while democracies cannot flourish in darkness, autocracies cannot flourish in the light.

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