By not knowing who we are, we designed Putin.
Often, when I see points that are made supposedly from a ‘pro-liberal democracy’ viewpoint, I’m reinforced in the view that liberal democracy is not really understood by many of its supposed defenders.
(Yes — this post is prompted by developments in Ukraine).
Liberal democracy has an essential motor that runs it: Representation.
Representatives get informed. They consider things, and they act accordingly — with policy or legislation. All of those things can happen well (good governance, fair outcomes) or badly (cluster-shambles governance, special interests being served).
It’s basic stuff. Find a fair way of picking people. Ensure that they represent the interests of the whole polity, and do so in close communion with those they represent, while all the time applying their own moral & practical judgment.
They then use their distributed moral wisdom to run things — usually by appointing an executive. That’s how we make the laws. Once upon a time, this happened almost exclusively in various parliaments which were publicly owned and regulated.
But then parliaments chose to let cameras in. Meaningful decisions migrated into a Public Sphere which is much more privatised & corruptible.
The picture is very different when we look at the application of the law — how courts & public bodies work — the rules of evidence, the role of judges, jurors, etc.
This is all well understood and articulated. It has a Praetorian Guard to defend it, known as the legal profession. We know where it’s flawed and where there are practical improvements that could be made. But there’s a shared understanding here.
No one who cares about the application of the law would allow the kind of developments that those who make laws seem to have allowed. It’s hard to understand why this is. The people who you would expect to care, and to notice, didn’t.
But for some reason, because politics is the water that democratic representation swims in, we all seem to have accepted that simple stuff can be obfuscated into nonsense. Take this tweet from a few years ago:
For a Professor of Politics to post that, is - to me - the equivalent of a boffin who specialises in internal combustion engines asking “so … petrol … remind me … what does that do again?”
Following the 2016 Brexit vote, the job of elected representatives was changed to suspending their “unbiassed opinion … mature judgment … enlightened conscience” (Burke) in favour of some bizarre calculus around how they think their constituents voted in a referendum.
We (should) know that, however much the definition of democratic government is contested, it should primarily aspire to be as fair as possible.
It should also be an efficient form of government — making decisions as quickly as needed, without getting in the way too much.
We can write long essays about how compatible democracy is with ‘wise’ government, and with fairness and/or wisdom in mind, it should also aspire to be as participative, and as consensual as it is practicable to be, etc.
But none of this is possible if it isn’t sustainable, resolute, and robust in itself. No democracy that has good guardians would allow the changes that have been allowed to happen to liberal democracy in recent decades.
Allowing democratic deliberation into the privatised public sphere is the democratic equivalent of scrapping rules of evidence. Allowing the kind of funding arrangements that we permit in the official political world (i.e. parties, MPs funding) is the democratic equivalent of allowing juries to be bribed.
Allowing the kind of funding arrangements that we permit in the unofficial political world that is inhabited by opaque think tanks is the democratic equivalent of putting organised crime and hostile foreign powers in charge of your jury system.
The news media and opaque political bad-actors have waaaaay too much influence now. For us to then make big constitutional decisions using referendums is a bit like using trial-by-combat to decide who wins a peace prize.
And it brings us back to the fact that people who are senior actors and commentators in politics seem unaware of foundational ideas like the Burkean notion of representation.
So, why mention this in the context of Ukraine?
At some point, nearly 50 years ago, because we didn’t have a concept of representation that was expressed and shared (like we have with the processes of justice) we started to make some very basic mistakes.
We allowed the cameras into Parliament. We moved the locus for democratic decision-making into the TV studios. Suddenly, the incentives that representatives worked under were transformed.
Their constituents were downgraded in favour of presidential politics. The winners were party bosses, media owners and anyone who could afford to make the political weather.
And as our politics became more plebiscitary, the public became the gallery to play to. Public opinion started to Trump (pun intended) the outcomes of deliberation. It was a demagogue’s charter. You could achieve more with reality TV skills than you could with a capacity for reason.
We allowed democracy to be re-modelled in a way that rewarded spending on messaging-research and presentation. We created a new arms race, and our ‘populists’ cheer-led while OUR representatives were disarmed.
For years, media demagogues degraded electoral representatives, campaigning for successive pay-freezes while lobbyist’s earnings soared. Then came the humiliating checkmate — the expenses ‘scandal’ of 2009.
And as plebiscitary politics put public opinion up for auction, we allowed big-data companies to compile extensive dossiers on us and sell them to the highest bidder. As Peter Geoghegan showed, a clever use of data was the battering ram deployed by crude populists everywhere.
So while liberals everywhere missed the point, fretting about the database state a privatised one went from Beta to Alpha stage, and liberal democracy’s enemies didn’t have to hack or steal anything. They could just buy it over the counter.
And they did. At, supposedly, its moment of triumph, The End of History, liberal democracies did those things that no-one who cared about making representative democracy sustainable would do.
We televised parliament. We promoted plebiscitary politics. The participatory bit of the public sphere has become a playground for blowhards and political hobbyists.
We created a financial arms race that put public policy up for auction.
We denigrated and degraded elected representation. We created structures that selected elected representatives who would connive in this process.
Our current government has a grifter at the helm. We have had an obvious crank leading the main UK party of opposition until very recently. You don’t have to be some deluded old sentimentalist to think that 2022’s MPs are a pale shadow of previous parliaments from a moral or intellectual point of view.
We showed that a small investment in the political dark-web could have extraordinary rewards.
We offered huge prizes to people with demagogic skills at the expense of decent representation everywhere.
We allowed ‘disruptive’ corporations to harvest the kind of data that any totalitarian would die for — and then allowed any opaque bad actor to buy it.
And then we wonder why some countries treat us with contempt. We wonder when they will start the war that they have already been fighting by other means for decades.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen western diplomacy and statesmanship swimming around like toddlers among sharks. But we can’t be surprised to be facing someone like Putin now, can we? When you leave so many open goals, you leave your enemies no choice but to shoot at them.
We made Putin because we don’t understand the fundamentals of our own system of government. We’ve taken no care to protect the foundations of the building that we live in.
That foundation is the concept of good representation, with all its main incentives intact. For a democracy to work, it needs endless vigilance.
Democracy must be sustainable, resolute, and robust in itself. Until we change this, the tower will keep toppling.