Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Politics as a spectator sport, preventing an excess of democracy

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I just came across this little video of Noam Chomsky speaking on the trend in US politics throughout its history to keep the people somewhat removed from their democracy. I can’t embed it here, so you’ll have to follow the link to watch it.

There are two things that come to mind watching this. The first is that the US has a greater quantity and quality of democracy than the UK. The US has a directly elected executive and clear checks on it by the legislature, unlike the mush of monarch, prime minister and parliament in the UK. The US has subnational entities, the states, which have a large degree of independence from central government, unlike the mostly powerless UK councils. The US at least starts from the idea of popular sovereignty (“We, the people”), where the UK has the useless compromise of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. Therefore, any sense in which the US has consistently denied the right of the people to engage in their own government over the history is amplified in the UK context.

The second thought is on Chomsky’s description of propaganda

There was an outburst of democratic participation in the 1960s, in fact it significantly civilized the society.  But it caused enormous concern among elites.  There was a major study called The Crisis of Democracy, by relatively liberal elites, basically, for example, the [Jimmy] Carter administration was drawn from their ranks, that sector, internationally.  And they were concerned about the excess of democracy—too much participation.  It’s an overload on the state, you can’t have all these so-called special interests pressing their own demands.  Who are the special interests?  That’s minorities, women, the young, the old, farmers, workers, in fact, the population.  They’re the special interests.

Then there’s the national interest, which has to be sustained and that’s the interest of the one sector that they don’t mention, namely concentrated private capital, which is overwhelming in its influence, but they represent the national interest, so it’s okay.  In fact, [James] Madison had rather similar ideas.

That’s a leading conception of social and political thought and there’s a lot of effort put into instigating it.  That’s what propaganda’s about.  We don’t call it propaganda, what appears in the media and the schools and so on, and you can see its effects.

What Chomsky is calling ‘propaganda’ here is the veneer on our political system, put about by media and schools, that it is free, fair and democratic, and, where our personal interests are ignored, national interests beyond our comprehension are worthily upheld. In the UK context, this disengagement of the political from civic society is also hidden behind a thick curtain of tradition, greatness and progress. The propaganda denies the fact that ‘constitutional monarchy’ has never been an effective means of democratic control of an over-powerful government. The propaganda suggest that the queen is a nice woman who keeps those dirty politicians in check whilst not exerting any influence over our democracy, whereas, in fact, the opposite is true: she is not able to check the abuse of power, but operates through secret meetings with ministers.

In a democracy, I get more than a vote: I get a voice.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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