City City Bang Bang, Columns

2017: Democracy’s ground zero?2017: Democracy’s ground zero?

2017 feels like a knock on the door in the dead of a dark night. There was no choice but to open the door, but one is filled with a sense of dread as to what exactly one has let in. Mornings and new beginnings are known to arouse hopefulness, but it is likely that 2017 will only make concrete what 2016 has darkly hinted at. When mature democracies throw up decisions rooted in hate and anger, and when policy becomes rooted in impulse or delusions of grandeur, there is reason to worry.

2016 was the year of the great dismantlings. Donald Trump. Brexit. And in a somewhat different way, demonetisation. The three events that shaped the world from an Indian perspective, respond to very different kinds of needs, but they share one thing in common- these are all focused on dismantling existing systems without having a clear idea of what the consequences are, and what needs to be put in their place. Each dismantling is in response to an angry impulse for sweeping change and each is a product of the democratic process.

The anger is directed at the recent past, and the answer is sought in returning to the idea of the past- one that is simpler, cleaner and more comfortable with older certitudes. The desire for sweeping change by challenging some dominant narratives of the day is in effect a desire to arrest change. The complexity of a globalized world, and the changing of some fundamental sources of identity such as race, gender and sexual orientation have created deep unease and a sense of losing control.

The desire for change, the more radical the better, the less pragmatic the more attractive, points to a deep disaffection with politics as it has come to be practiced. And while there are always reasons that can be summoned up to explain this anger, it is still worth asking if the world has indeed become such a terrible place, that democracies are acting in such populist rage?

Some like cognitive scientist Steven Pinker have argued that the world is in fact a better place today than it has been at any other time in history, Deaths due to war, extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are, he argues,  at historic lows, while vaccinations, basic education, and the spread of democracy are at all-time highs. And yet, very few, whether on the left or the right, share this sunny view of where humanity finds itself today. Across countries, pessimistic electorates are rejecting  the political establishment, and 2017 brings the prospect of many more regimes tuning in to more extreme appeals.

Something more fundamental is shifting and this needs to be speculated upon. One of the biggest changes we have seen in the last few years is the dominant media form of the day and the wide-ranging and deep effects of this are often not fully acknowledged. The print era retained the ability to regulate mass behavior through the power of ideas that seeped downwards from an influential educated elite. The ideals of democracy became well established boundaries within which political debate was largely contained. Liberal democracies were the aspired for destinations, even if progress towards that goal was often slow and unconvincing.

Television changed the nature of the discourse, as the world began to be framed through the lens of desire and consumption. Politicians became brands, political platforms needed to be encapsulated in emotionally resonant terms, candidates needed to be telegenic and always ‘on message’. Campaigns became dependent on surveys and pre-tests of messages- elections became an exercise in consumer marketing. Even in India, the 2014 elections were a testimony to the advent of the telecracy- Narendra Modi’s great insight was that people wanted to believe in someone strong who could provide clarity, and his campaign was sharply focused on a few carefully chosen emotional pegs, rather than a laundry list of programmatic promises.

If television massifies audiences in terms of desire, digital speaks to their primitive impulses in a more direct and personal way. The ability to acknowledge and broadcast every fleeting impulse to the world without the filter of correctness and find that there are many other people who feel the same way, creates an alliance of desires that bypasses the culturally enabled ideas of legitimate and illegitimate. In a political sense, the carefully constructed frameworks of liberal ideals is being dismantled, and a new vocabulary based on repressed anger has begun to replace it. The implicit hierarchy that placed knowledge and those that possessed it at the top has all but collapsed, in an un-presidented way.

Thinking of this change as a short-term and cyclic phenomenon might be nothing more than wishful thinking. Theorist Tom Pettit used the idea that we might be part of what he called the Guttenberg Parenthesis to signify that the brief era between the invention of the printing press and the emergence of the internet might be over for good. And while one way of reading this shift, is to focus on the empowerment that such a change enables, perhaps there is a much gloomier way to think about it. What if the ideals brought about by the age of enlightenment are firmly behind us? What if we are about to witness is a fundamental shift in the nature of a democracy? The digital era democracy might well have its own rules which make our current understanding of how democracies work largely irrelevant.

A new grammar of democracy has begun rooted not on the lofty ideals of how humanity should aspire to be, but on what it might really be deep down. The fears and hopes that are being funneled through the political process today come from a place of anxiety and insecurity. This new form of democracy is yet to find its higher self- in 2017 it is likely to be too busy battling its demons to begin the hunt for its better angels.

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