Flattening the curve forwards: The new speed of politics and the new politics of speed

Josh Cowls
Apr 19, 2020 · 13 min read

The slow, deliberative nature of representative democracy seems ill-suited to the urgency of the present moment. Can it survive the new politics of speed?

This blog post has benefited from helpful discussion with the ever-insightful Jessica Morley.

CC BY 2.0 Esther Kim and Carl T. Bergstrom

Deliberativeness: vice or virtue?

In “Liberal Democracy and the Empire of Speed”, an article published in the journal Polity on October 1st 2001, political theorist William Scheuerman explored the implications for liberal democracy of what he called “time and space compression” in the modern world. In the article, and a later book on the subject, Scheuerman explains that democratic politics is being transformed by the radical increase in the speed with which information can be transmitted. Scheuerman highlighted a challenge that this shift introduces poses for the sort of careful, deliberative decision-making that had characterised western political philosophy (if not, in practice, western politics) from Locke onwards.

— a feature of representative politics rather than a bug. The calculated slowness of parliamentary debate, epitomised by the hallmark of parliamentary etiquette wherein lawmakers from “each side of the aisle” take it in turns to talk, evokes not only the virtue of considerateness for one’s colleagues but also of consideration for one’s constituents. The rule of law can be thought of as legitimate only if each individual law has been carefully and fastidiously thought- and talked-through.

This ideology of deliberation and deliberateness exerts a powerful emotive tug on the heartstrings of self-identifying democrats, evoking both the agora of ancient Greek city-states and the coffee houses and salons of renaissance London and Paris (the actual representational inadequacies of which are usually skirted over). And the survival — indeed the global spread — of deliberative bodies claiming some degree of popular sovereignty, in the centuries since Locke and Montesquieu, seem to bespeak their intrinsic appeal.

Yet in recent years,. Before we turn to the causes of this, let’s examine the symptoms. In the popular imagination, the US Congress is now almost synonymous with “gridlock”. Note here the subtle but powerful refiguration of slowness as a problem, indeed a problem comparable to getting caught in a traffic jam; note also that the implication of this metaphor is that the destination is already known at the outset, and that the only issue is the speed with which one seeks to arrive. Such road-rage style frustration is borne out in polling data: since 1974, the earliest date for which Gallup has data, the number of Americans who approve of the performance of Congress has been consistently lower than the number who disapprove — with only a couple of exceptions, to which we will shortly turn. Consider too the dark tragicomic trajectory of the UK Parliament (the mother of all Parliaments, as we are often reminded) over the course of Brexit. The people for whom the unqualified sovereignty of Parliament was the paramount argument in favour of Britain leaving the European Union in 2016 were the same people who tried to prorogue it to push Brexit through (unlawfully, as it turned out, because Parliament is indeed sovereign).

Both these examples are instructive. In the UK, it was Parliament’s resistance to a rash and hasty Brexit deal and insistence on a slow and carefully considered one that saw it briefly suspended. In the US, as noted, public approval of Congress has crossed the 50% threshold on only two occasions in the past 50 years: first, in the late 1990s, the culmination of the “American century” and the apex of pax Americana; and second, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Americans’ approval of the job Congress is doing, 1974-present. https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx

While it is customary only to note the year of academic publications, not the month and date (academics know all too well that the date that papers are released is rather arbitrary and even anti-climactic), the publication of Scheuerman’s piece on October 1st 2001 exhibits a deep historical irony, arriving roughly halfway between the attacks of September 11th and the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26th. Suitably, in light of its subject matter, Scheuerman’s article was not a rapid response to the 9/11 attacks but rather a carefully argued contribution to political philosophy. But however accidentally, it perfectly anticipated the foundational shift in American policymaking that occurred mere weeks later.

Thus far we have been examining only one of its sides, the legislature, but liberal democracy is of course a three-dimensional entity, with the executive and judiciary also accorded the right to legitimately exercise power. And . Scheuerman observes that “the association of the executive with “dispatch” seems ubiquitous in modern liberal-democratic theory”, and this ability to act at speed and scale, particularly when crisis befalls a country, is emblematic of the executive’s role.

The exercise of executive power is necessary and even virtuous, complementing or ideally actualising the intentions of legislatures. In principle, this separation of powers may simply be “a sensible institutional embodiment of the (complementary) division of labor”, a compromise between the need to govern reasonably and the need to govern effectively. Yet however appealing, power-sharing arrangements such as this are only as enduring as the willingness of both parties to hold up their side of the bargain. Moreover, co-equal branches of government are artefacts of time and place, the result of historical contingency; one need not (although one can) laugh darkly at the fin de siècle idea of an “end of history” and a permanent geopolitical majority for liberalism (itself a contradiction in terms, of course) to appreciate that any system that seems to be working must be worked on in order to be kept working. Put another way, any system borne of historical contingency is vulnerable when circumstances change — and it is just such a change in circumstances, namely, increased globalisation, the emergence of the internet, and the manifold impacts of these trends, that have recently given rise to what can be called a new politics of speed.

The new politics of speed

Passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, the USA PATRIOT Act instituted a raft of measures which it was claimed would help the executive branch keep Americans safe in the aftermath of the most severe terrorist attack in the nation’s history. Attached to many of the more invasive aspects of the law were what are known as “sunset clauses” — provisions to ensure that certain powers would expire after a set period of time if no further action were to be taken. Though political in purpose, intended to soothe critics warning of executive overreach and a threat to due process, in technical terms sunset clauses are an ontological curiosity. If indeed “no parliament can bind the hand of its successors”, then there should be no need for sunset clauses, which merely assert the already-existing right of future parliaments to overrule the laws of their predecessors.

Studied carefully, however, sunset clauses, with their ebbing, refractive light, First, while they do not seem to grant any additional power to future lawmakers, who are (or will be) supreme, the popularity of sunset clauses underlines that the slowness of legislative governance has in many places become stillness. In the US, the unlikely persistence of the filibuster means that almost any legislation must have a supermajority (60%) of support in the Senate in order to gain support. Thus a power that is set to expire at a certain date unless and until it is re-authorised is more likely to dissipate; the friction involved in not saying yes is far less than that of saying no. This in turn highlights a second truth, that extends beyond law-making as such to institutional culture at large: once they are in place, systems that bear some power of social control are hard to dislodge. This seems especially true of digital tools, such as those used in surveillance, whose functions are often overly simplified and whose outputs tend to be highly quantified.

The final aspect of modern politics that sunset clauses seemed designed to palliate is the most important: . This may best be illuminated by comparing two bar sports: ping pong and snooker. In ping pong (formally table tennis), a single ball is sent back and forward across the net until one player fails to legally return it or otherwise commits a foul. After one point ends, another begins, until an arbitrary points threshold, typically eleven, is reached. Note that a player can be ten points down and still come back to win with a sequence of perfect points. In snooker, by contrast, 22 balls with different point values may be potted, 15 of which (the reds) are not replaced when potted. Moreover, only after potting a red may one of the higher-valued coloured balls be potted. What this means is that when a certain points differential is reached (i.e. the difference between the two players points is greater than the points remaining on the table), the trailing player cannot make up the deficit through ordinary means.

Common models of adversarial democratic politics, especially in systems with two strong parties, tend to presume a ping pong-style politics, where the ball (that is, the power to act) is sent back and forth between players, inviting a response from the other player, in a theoretically unending interplay. At the end of a point, little about the underlying nature of the game is changed, except the slow ticking over of the score. In snooker, however, the amount of balls available to be potted changes for each player on every turn, and players may find themselves unable to win the game with only the balls remaining. It may be that as circumstances change ever more rapidly, politics, in its haste to keep up, may be shifting from a ping pong model to that of snooker. In a world of climate change and nuclear weapons, the consequences of decisions taken today drastically delimit the degrees of freedom within which future leaders may act.

In-keeping with his overall discussion of “time space compression”, Scheuerman describes this shift in spatial (transnational) and temporal (generational) terms:

An atomic power plant cannot simply be closed down and the environment freed of all traces of it, in part because the plutonium cycle operates for thousands of years … new technologies of this type alter the traditional space and time horizons of human activity by dramatically increasing the significance of its irreversible consequences. By effectively transforming the future into a “garbage dump” for our present-day activities, new technologies suggest yet another way in which simultaneity increasingly becomes constitutive of the human condition: the temporal gap between past and future is eerily reduced.

All of which brings us to the present moment.

The politics of the pandemic

Apart from its tragic human cost and considerable economic toll, the COVID-19 pandemic is marked by the striking convergence of the three trends noted above: legislative inertia, the staying power of digital systems, and the so-called “exponential power of now”, all suggesting . Put simply, an absence of deliberative, anticipatory policymaking in advance of a (quite predictable) crisis mean that, now the crisis has struck, rapid, reactive responses from the executive branch are all that is possible. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a truly unpredictable crisis (albeit not without its own intelligence failings and ignored warnings), a rapid, executive-led response rubber-stamped by the legislature might have been all that could be expected. But the failure to prepare for the emergence of COVID-19 are closer to sins of commission, given what has long been known about pandemics.

In addition, digital technology in 2020 has progressed considerably from that available in 2001, and the sorts of systems presently being proposed for digital contact tracing and tracking threaten to impinge on human rights perhaps to an even greater and more widespread extent than those implemented in the aftermath of 9/11. It took more than a decade before the full picture of these systems was painted, thanks to the leak of documents by NSA contractor Edward Snowden; one wonders how long it will take, and what sort of cost will be incurred, for a similar exposé following COVID-19, if such systems are developed and deployed opaquely and without being bound by time.

Finally, the present pandemic has demonstrated, with deadly vividness, the “power of acting now” when it comes to managing a crisis that has the ability to spread rapidly and indiscriminately. The vastly different impact of an identical action, such as a lockdown, that arises purely in terms of when the action is taken (e.g., this week or next week) illustrates the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of the executive branch’s “dispatch function”, and the potential lethality of legislative slowness, in extreme circumstances. Not for nothing is it that the first question asked of an incoming British Prime Minister is how nuclear submarines should respond in the event of the demise of them and the larger part of the country. Such a contingency is not a case of forward planning, as such — it is setting out terms of engagement “as if” such an action were taking place right now, and an immediate response were required.

Or we can look to another crisis spreading across the globe, not as rapidly as COVID-19 in human terms but moving at the speed of light by geological measures. This, of course, is global climate change — or “the climate crisis”, as progressive media outlets and political parties have recently taken to calling it, in a telling acknowledgement of the importance of urgency as a spur to action. Over the course of decades, the science of climate change has become increasingly and abundantly clear, with lingering questions first over its existence, and then over its anthropogenicity, overwhelmingly answered. Yet despite the fact that climate change threatens to inflict an even greater volume of misery on humanity, not nearly enough is yet being done to combat it. This is of course a reflection of our human nature — as Al Gore once put it, we are the ducks in a bucket of water that is slowly warming, blissfully unaware of our fate before it is too late. A combination of ignorance, denialism, and well-funded disinformation held us in a convenient stasis, and it is only now, as the true social and economic costs are visible on a time-horizon we can actually feel — our own lifespan, or even perhaps the term of office for an incoming elected official — that a coordinated response even seems plausible. In absolute terms, the timespans of COVID-19 and climate change are aeons apart, but relatively, the same logic applies: . And tomorrow, it is more likely that such actions will have to be implemented by executive fiat, once again leaving deliberative politics at the wayside.

9/11, the use of nuclear weapons, climate change, and COVID-19 are crises with different temporalities and different geospatial implications (the former two are considered acts of war, the latter two emerge from a misplaced illusion of peace between us and our environment). Yet they all represent a failure of preparation or imagination of representative democracy, and all have had devastating consequences as a result. They are all also, in one way or another, terminal and irreversible, or at least reversible only at very great cost, from the millennium-long inhabitability of an area decimated by a nuclear disaster to the risks of runaway climate effects, from the generation of instability unleashed by 9/11 to the countless lives cut short and businesses permanently shuttered by the current pandemic. For these examples, at least, we are undeniably in the realm of snooker politics: every action (or every failure to act) inflicts enduring damage that cannot be undone, and every crisis that occurs removes our human agency to collectively sketch the future we want, rather than the one we are merely left with.

Flattening forward: Taking back time without turning back the clock

The picture painted thus far is a dark one, but not — yet — irredeemably so. For as long as we have imagination we can will ask ourselves what an alternative future looks like — and for as long as we have agency, we will have a chance to implement it. Once the current round of responses are hastily made to deal with this latest crisis at the last possible minute, we will be long overdue a rethink about how representative democracy can be made to work in the adolescent century.

One fringe benefit to have emerged from the early stage of the pandemic is a new understanding and appreciation of data visualisation. Specifically, the phrase “flattening the curve” and the image it evokes has gone from nerdy neologism to global mantra overnight. The idea of flattening the curve is to push back and spread out the COVID-19 caseload, in a bid to allow authorities more time to prepare and public health infrastructure more capacity to cope. As we cannot time-travel, pushing the curve back is the only option presently available to us. But before the next crisis arises, we have it in our power to enact “” — that is, pulling the curve forward from the moment of crisis to the present day.

This does not mean literally inviting a plague or pestilence to hit us any sooner than it might naturally otherwise (although this is indeed the logic behind childhood inoculation against virulent disease). It means deliberatively and deliberately taking actions in the present in anticipation of future threats (and in anticipation of the opportunities that tackling future threats will bring, like a green economy, cleaner air and water, or improved animal welfare). Preparing for future threats and opportunities means , if only in experimental forms. In particular, it requires a society-wide conversation about the role of digital technology and the guardrails that should guide its adoption and deployment.

Such steps are a still a little way further down the path. To get there, we will have to deal with our present emergency in the only way that we seem to know how — belated actions hastily taken. We will also have to finally admit to ourselves that we live in an era of snooker politics. But for now, at a time of great fear and uncertainty, we can allow ourselves hope for a different kind of future. How fast we get there is up to us.

Josh Cowls

Writing about the ethics of data and AI; political…