What constitutes a healthy, vibrant democracy? It is a question that has been asked repeatedly over the centuries, since the time of Plato's Republic. The Greeks had a view that all men (and that means men only) of property (therefore not including slaves) should have a vote at the highest level, that is, in the legislature. Now while on the face of it this may appear unwieldy, it becomes less so when one considers that the optimal size of a State wherein the Greek version of democracy could flourish was one where all inhabitants lived within audible range of the town crier, presumably shouting from atop a Greek soap box. Even the Vatican would struggle to meet this criterion, not that that particular state is a beacon of democracy in any case.
And so we have moved on to representative democracy. Greek democracy was founded on core philosophical principles, many of which would be seen as alien today. Human rights were far from universal, given the accepted positions on slavery and women, and an intellectual elitism pervaded ancient Greek society that would sit uncomfortably with modern democratic theory. The ironic reality is of course that a ‘de facto elitocracy’, to coin a phrase, exists in many mature democracies. Even a peanut farmer needs to have a degree in nuclear physics in order to secure the white house!1 Nevertheless, it was a pure, idealistic vision of government, the basis of which persists in modern political philosophy. These days, however, democracy has as many versions as Hobbes Leviathan had limbs. Many proffer the argument that it's the best of a bad lot, and that may not be far from the truth. But have States become so large, has representation been so diluted, has (as the Europeans like to describe it) the democratic deficit in modern democracies become so pronounced as to make a mockery of the founding principles of Greeks dressed in sheets?
Looking at three modern democracies – Ireland, America and Britain – three recent happenings illustrate the growing gap between what democracy perhaps should be, and what it has become. In Ireland, (most specifically) the Frank Connolly affair; in America, (more broadly) the evolution of a ‘corporatocracy’ and in Britain, (most acutely) the culture – or perceived culture – of spin.
In the Frank Connolly affair, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, revealed to the philanthropist backing the Center for Public Inquiry (CPI) that its chief executive and founder, Mr. Connolly, had a murky past and connections with the IRA and Columbian rebels that were not prosecutable in the courts, but that compromised his position to the point that Atlantic Philanthropies withdrew funding. McDowell leaked documents (or a document? This point remains unclear) to the press, and personally met with Chuck Feeney, the extraordinarily rich Irish American behind the fund. The decision was one between, as the Minister put it, State Security (in his own, subjective view) and due process / presumption of innocence / separation of powers. He chose not to reveal the reasoning as to why the security of the State was threatened, leaving himself open to vitriolic assault by what a former cabinet colleague would no doubt have termed 'left-wing pinkos'.
There are a number of issues in this case. First, the absence of an appropriate explanation from the Minister represented a failure of the system of checks and balances to hold the Minister to account. Second, and following from the first, the seeming usurpation of the roles of judicial, executive and legislative power by one man in this case, which is never a good thing. Third, the lack of public outcry (it was only some journalists who complained and even then only those who were already on the wrong side of the Minister) and concern from any special interest group meant that there was no non-governmental response. There is an irony in this third point, of course, in that the CPI was one of the few organisations within the State with the remit to tackle such an issue.
Consider these issues in the context of more dictatorial regimes. Ministers, or power players, never had to issue an explanation. Power players shaped countries, and therefore, of necessity, retained control of the arms of State (consider the current plight of Mr. Khodorkovsky in another troubled democracy). On the third point, perhaps people don't complain because they don't think it will make a difference, having grown complacent in the freedoms that they now expect as a norm; in a dictatorship people don't complain because they know it will make no difference. In democracies, some complain, and are often shot down as cranks. In dictatorships, some complain, and are often shot.
In the globally publicised corporatisation of American politics, dating back to Eisenhower's warning of the military-industrial complex and its impact on America, there is another kind of coup d'etat of sorts. Only rich people get elected, that's the first thing. But we can discount this as an issue – even Plato suggested that philosophers and property owners were the only true rulers, that is, people with lots of time on their hands who didn't need to do any 'real' work. The fact is that poor people are possibly more susceptible to bribery and corruption, although admittedly there are many greedy rich people who seem to equate every increasing wealth with ever increasing personal quality. Nevertheless, the 'rich people get elected' thing is universal in all democracies, with the odd exception proving the rule. In America, however, buying the presidency has become a national pastime. The McGraw-Hill group of companies, which publishes such titles as Business Week, noted in its recent financial statement that advertising revenue had fallen in its broadcast group due to it being a non-election year. Such is the fervour with which messaging, advertising and media blitzing is carried out, one wonder's if Orwell's 1984 might be arriving by deceit – it's not about a dictatorship restricting what you can do, say or think, but perhaps about a dictatorship that makes sure that there are few options in terms of what you can see, hear or think. It uses, in effect, the freedoms of the individual to deny choice.
The media is omnipresent now, and everyone consumes it. Everyone takes their lead from media. If you're a Republican, you watch Fox – or is it the other way round? If the Republicans are in government, Fox goes Republican. Or is it the other way round? Does Rupert Murdoch control the White House? Media can consume – and has consumed – volumes on this subject. Let's look at Eisenhower's military-industrial complex. Halliburton, Boeing, Big Oil all contributed massive donations to both Democratic and Republican campaigns for the White House in 2004. All three are profiting handsomely in the post-election era, and generally doing OK. It is difficult to argue, however, that had John Kerry consigned George W. Bush to his father's fate of a single term, that they would have done less well. Iraq was a done deal, and therefore Halliburton's usefulness would not have dissipated. Perhaps – in an ironic twist – the
alleged corruption in Halliburton would not have been exposed so forcefully had the Republican's lost in 2004. Boeing represents America versus Europe, in this global AirBus – Boeing subsidies thing that has rumbled and will continue to rumble for some time. It would remain subject to the diplomatic wranglings between Europe and America, and Jack Welsh and GE certainly didn't profit from the Bush administration's influence when the Honeywell deal was scuppered by the EU Competition Authority. So why bother?
One can argue, on the one hand, that the security and wealth of the nation rests in the success or otherwise of America's economy. It is the economy itself that bestows protection on America, the loftiness of the dollar, the technological innovation that has set it apart for so many years. America certainly does not have a significant standing army – even Syria has one million soldiers in its armed forces – but it is set apart by technological advancement. 'Shock and awe', they call it. Technological advancement is made possible by economic advancement. And economic advancement is made possible by friendly government. The wealth of the nation of course is established through vibrant export markets, and reliable, cheap sources of raw materials. The sourcing of raw materials is the single biggest problem, in particular energy. Hugo Chavez is enjoying the program giving cheap Venezuelan oil to impoverished citizen's of Massachusetts, who can't afford the prices at the pump. Iraq, to a greater or lesser degree, was about oil. Sure, there are other considerations, but at the heart of America's drive for a stable Middle East is an awareness that instability increases the cost of oil, and the cost of doing business generally.
Therefore, before we make up words like corporatocracy, then perhaps we should consider that it is the economy that runs the government in the US, and not the other way round. From the economy is derived wealth, security, and general contentment. And the major players in the economy are corporations, who happen to be in a position to facilitate democratic elections.
Blair's Britain has since 1997 been dominated by arguments over spin and substance. About playing the media, and governing by media. An ancient stereotype that might apply here is that in Britain, one of the most mature modern democracies in the world, government is a high art, a civic responsibility, a noble cause, while the Americans are more base in their approach, appealing first to the pocket rather than the heart. While perhaps crass, it is not wholly untrue. It's just that in Britain, such crassness is de rigeur, and perceived nobility in one's work is important. At the heart of it, however, they are both the same, seeking the same wealth, the same security, and the same contentment for their countries.
The media in Blair's Britain have occupied the focus of public debate on several issues of central importance to the government. The Dr. David Kelly affair was more about Campbell versus Gilligan than the weapons of mass destruction (or lack of them) in Iraq. The Tory attack of spin versus substance again placed pressure on the government over media management. Even the sit coms (The Thick of It being a notable recent addition to the canon) have taken the baton. While the government that was elected in 1997 placed media management high in its list of priorities, once that strategy was outed, the media itself became the problem. So bad stories could be made to go away with good media management, and when even worse stories came out, the media's handling of the issues came into focus. Witness the Brian O'Driscoll affair in New Zealand, when the appalling performance of the Lions rugby team was brushed aside in favour of the more juicy take of an All Black assault. Midnight press briefings, timings set for media deadlines, it became more about how it was reported than how it was done. Not politics, perhaps, but nevertheless orchestrated by the same Campbell of what has become known as the Gilligan affair, or the David Kelly affair. Certainly not, of course, the 'Where-are-the-bloody-nukes? affair'.
So in the most noble of noble democracies, we have media management not as the old press room, but the cornerstone of government. Is this wrong? Perhaps not – it's certainly one way to do things, and one would have to be critical of any government that in this age of modern communications did not manage its communications properly. But perhaps the media becoming the story in Britain has demonstrated the fickleness of large populations, the extent to which people's expectations need to be managed, and above all, the power of media to drive public opinion on both controversial issues like top-up fees and health policy, and opinion on the government itself.
So three stories, three governments, three modern democracies. What would Plato think? Well, for starters he'd get one of his slaves to get him a cup of tea, and one of his concubines to rub his shoulders while he thought the matter through, a vision that would no doubt compromise any ensuing opinion issued to a modern audience. What is true is that this world is not the world of Plato. It is smaller, with instant global audio, visual and satellite communications. It is more interconnected, with all countries now having a foreign office view on just about every other country, and links into all of them, even the most isolated such as North Korea or Zimbabwe. Students from every country in the world study in every country in the world.
Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and countless others have argued the case for cosmopolitanism, in one sense an extension of Greek or Platonic democracy, in another sense fundamentally undermining its principles. Greek democracy is about government by the people, but retains an inherent hierarchy; cosmopolitanism denies hierarchy, albeit as a commentary on morality more than politics. Greek democracy acknowledged and catered for human weaknesses, while cosmopolitanism seeks to uncover the moral commonalities in the human species. Karl Popper famously derided Plato in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) as portraying a vision that was unfree, and closed. Yet we must acknowledge that Plato lived in different times, when the world was a much larger, scarier place. Can you imagine what Ireland would be like without its army to defend us? It probably wouldn't be much different, would it?2 This country needs to protect its citizens largely from themselves, not from the threat of invasion. That reality drives the kind of government that is needed. Ancient Greece, on the other hand, had borders around its city states that moved almost with the wind. That reality drives a different type of government.
What is doubtless is that democracy is different now both in scope and interpretation to any precedent, and also it is different in Ireland when compared to Britain, and Britain compared to the US. Democracy cannot be spread, as the messaging from the White House is wont to distill, until one defines what democracy is. Democracy today is shaped by different, competing forces. The only unifying theme of modern democracies seems to be that it is not communist. And this comes fifteen years after the acknowledged end of communism. In the absence of a negative against which to define our (or your) democracy, we must define it once more, but we must do so proactively. We cannot sit idly by while McDowell acts as judge and jury, with no safeguards; while Blair covers up his mistakes by presenting a more juicy deflection to the media; and while the non-economic goals of a nation are ignored by supposedly enlightened government. The people must once again reclaim their civic responsibility, and opinionate, shout, scream, or simply write a letter to the Irish Times. And remember, Plato, it's 'Dear Madam' these days…
1 Jimmy Carter's celebrated humble origins were coupled with a degree in Nuclear Physics, which came in handy while serving on a nuclear submarine, before returning home to work the farm, and, no doubt, in managing the global nuclear issue while president.
2 No disrespect is intended towards the Irish armed forces, who do very good and important work. But they're unlikely to make a significant difference should Britain, for example, decide to invade in the morning.