The Democratic Paradox

How to Cite

McNair, B. (2008). Vote! The Democratic Paradox. M/C Journal, 10(6).
Vol. 10 No. 6 (2008): 'vote/citizen'
Published 2008-04-01

The twentieth was, from one perspective, the democratic century — a span of one hundred years which began with no fully functioning democracies in existence anywhere on the planet (if one defines democracy as a political system in which there is both universal suffrage and competitive elections), and ended with 120 countries out of 192 classified by the Freedom House think tank as ‘democratic’. There are of course still many societies where democracy is denied or effectively neutered — the remaining outposts of state socialism, such as China, Cuba, and North Korea; most if not all of the Islamic countries; exceptional states such as Singapore, unapologetically capitalist in its economic system but resolutely authoritarian in its political culture. Many self-proclaimed democracies, including those of the UK, Australia and the US, are procedurally or conceptually flawed. Countries emerging out of authoritarian systems and now in a state of democratic transition, such as Russia and the former Soviet republics, are immersed in constant, sometimes violent struggle between reformers and reactionaries. Russia’s recent parliamentary elections were accompanied by the intimidation of parties and politicians who opposed Vladimir Putin’s increasingly populist and authoritarian approach to leadership. The same Freedom House report which describes the rise of democracy in the twentieth century acknowledges that many self-styled democracies are, at best, only ‘partly free’ in their political cultures (for detailed figures on the rise of global democracy, see the Freedom House website Democracy’s Century).

Let’s not for a moment downplay these important qualifications to what can nonetheless be fairly characterised as a century-long expansion and globalisation of democracy, and the acceptance of popular sovereignty, expressed through voting for the party or candidate of one’s choice, as a universally recognised human right. That such a process has occurred, and continues in these early years of the twenty-first century, is irrefutable.

In the Gaza strip, Hamas appeals to the legitimacy of a democratic election victory in its campaign to be recognised as the voice of the Palestinian people. However one judges the messianic tendencies and Islamist ideology of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it must be acknowledged that the Iranian people elected him, and that they have the power to throw him out of government next time they vote. That was never true of the Shah. The democratic resurgence in Latin America, taking in Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia among others has been a much-noted feature of international politics in recent times (Alves), presenting a welcome contrast to the dictatorships and death squads of the 1980s, even as it creates some uncomfortable dilemmas for the Bush administration (which must champion democratic government at the same time as it resents some of the choices people may make when they have the opportunity to vote).

Since 9/11 a kind of democracy has expanded even to Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit at the point of a gun, and with no guarantees of survival beyond the end of military occupation by the US and its coalition allies. As this essay was being written, Pakistan’s state of emergency was ending and democratic elections scheduled, albeit in the shadow cast by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Democracy, then — imperfect and limited as it can be; grudgingly delivered though it is by political elites in many countries, and subject to attack and roll back at any time — has become a global universal to which all claim allegiance, or at least pay lip service. The scale of this transformation, which has occurred in little more than one quarter of the time elapsed since the Putney debates of 1647 and the English revolution first established the principle of the sovereignty of parliament, is truly remarkable.

(Tristram Hunt quotes lawyer Geoffrey Robertson in the Guardian to the effect that the Putney debates, staged in St Mary’s church in south-west London towards the end of the English civil war, launched “the idea that government requires the consent of freely and fairly elected representatives of all adult citizens irrespective of class or caste or status or wealth” – “A Jewel of Democracy”, Guardian, 26 Oct. 2007)

Can it be true that less than one hundred years ago, in even the most advanced capitalist societies, 50 per cent of the people — women — did not have the right to vote? Or that black populations, indigenous or migrant, in countries such as the United States and Australia were deprived of basic citizenship rights until the 1960s and even later? Will future generations wonder how on earth it could have been that the vast majority of the people of South Africa were unable to vote until 1994, and that they were routinely imprisoned, tortured and killed when they demanded basic democratic rights? Or will they shrug and take it for granted, as so many of us who live in settled democracies already do?

(In so far as ‘we’ includes the community of media and cultural studies scholars, I would argue that where there is reluctance to concede the scale and significance of democratic change, this arises out of continuing ambivalence about what ‘democracy’ means, a continuing suspicion of globalisation (in particular the globalisation of democratic political culture, still associated in some quarters with ‘the west’), and of the notion of ‘progress’ with which democracy is routinely associated. The intellectual roots of that ambivalence were various. Marxist-leninist inspired authoritarianism gripped much of the world until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. Until that moment, it was still possible for many marxians in the scholarly community to view the idea of democracy with disdain — if not quite a dirty word, then a deeply flawed, highly loaded concept which masked and preserved underlying social inequalities more than it helped resolve them. Until 1989 or thereabouts, it was possible for ‘bourgeois democracy’ to be regarded as just one kind of democratic polity by the liberal and anti-capitalist left, which often regarded the ‘proletarian’ or ‘people’s’ democracy prevailing in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba or Vietnam as legitimate alternatives to the emerging capitalist norm of one person, one vote, for constituent assemblies which had real power and accountability. In terms not very different from those used by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, belief in the value of democracy was conceived by this materialist school as a kind of false consciousness. It still is, by Noam Chomsky and others who continue to view democracy as a ‘necessary illusion’ (1989) without which capitalism could not be reproduced. From these perspectives voting gave, and gives us merely the illusion of agency and power in societies where capital rules as it always did. For democracy read ‘the manufacture of consent’; its expansion read not as progressive social evolution, but the universalisation of the myth of popular sovereignty, mobilised and utilised by the media-industrial-military complex to maintain its grip.)

There are those who dispute this reading of events. In the 1960s, Habermas’s hugely influential Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere critiqued the manner in which democracy, and the public sphere underpinning it, had been degraded by public relations, advertising, and the power of private interests. In the period since, critical scholarly research and writing on political culture has been dominated by the Habermasian discourse of democratic decline, and the pervasive pessimism of those who see democracy, and the media culture which supports it, as fatally flawed, corrupted by commercialisation and under constant threat. Those, myself included, who challenged that view with a more positive reading of the trends (McNair, Journalism and Democracy; Cultural Chaos) have been denounced as naïve optimists, panglossian, utopian and even, in my own case, a ‘neo-liberal apologist’. (See an unpublished paper by David Miller, “System Failure: It’s Not Just the Media, It’s the Whole Bloody System”, delivered at Goldsmith’s College in 2003.)

Engaging as they have been, I venture to suggest that these are the discourses and debates of an era now passing into history. Not only is it increasingly obvious that democracy is expanding globally into places where it never previously reached; it is also extending inwards, within nation states, driven by demands for greater local autonomy. In the United Kingdom, for example, the citizen is now able to vote not just in Westminster parliamentary elections (which determine the political direction of the UK government), but for European elections, local elections, and elections for devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The people of London can vote for their mayor. There would by now have been devolved assemblies in the regions of England, too, had the people of the North East not voted against it in a November 2004 referendum. Notwithstanding that result, which surprised many in the New Labour government who held it as axiomatic that the more democracy there was, the better for all of us, the importance of enhancing and expanding democratic institutions, of allowing people to vote more often (and also in more efficient ways — many of these expansions of democracy have been tied to the introduction of systems of proportional representation) has become consensual, from the Mid West of America to the Middle East.

The Democratic Paradox

And yet, as the wave of democratic transformation has rolled on through the late twentieth and into the early twenty first century it is notable that, in many of the oldest liberal democracies at least, fewer people have been voting. In the UK, for example, in the period between 1945 and 2001, turnout at general elections never fell below 70 per cent. In 1992, the last general election won by the Conservatives before the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour, turnout was 78 per cent, roughly where it had been in the 1950s. In 2001, however, as Blair’s government sought re-election, turnout fell to an historic low for the UK of 59.4 per cent, and rose only marginally to 61.4 per cent in the most recent general election of 2005. In the US presidential elections of 1996 and 2000 turnouts were at historic lows of 47.2 and 49.3 per cent respectively, rising just above 50 per cent again in 2004 (figures by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance). At local level things are even worse. In only the second election for a devolved parliament in Scotland (2003) turnout was a mere 48.5 per cent, rising to 50.5 in 2007.

These trends are not universal. In countries with compulsory voting, they mean very little — in Australia, where voting in parliamentary elections is compulsory, turnout averages in the 90s per cent. In France, while turnouts for parliamentary elections show a similar downward trend to the UK and the UK, presidential contests achieve turnouts of 80-plus per cent. In the UK and US, as noted, the most recent elections show modest growth in turnout from those historic lows of the late 1990s and early Noughties. There has grown, nonetheless, the perception, commonplace amongst academic commentators as well as journalists and politicians themselves, that we are living through a ‘crisis’ of democratic participation, a dangerous decline in the tendency to vote in elections which undermines the legitimacy of democracy itself.

In communication scholarship a significant body of research and publication has developed around this theme, from Blumler and Gurevitch’s Crisis of Public Communication (1996), through Barnett and Gaber’s Westminster Tales (2000), to more recent studies such as Lewis et al.’s Citizens or Consumers (2005). All presume a problem of some kind with the practice of democracy and the “old fashioned ritual” of voting, as Lewis et al. describe it (2). Most link alleged inadequacies in the performance of the political media to what is interpreted as popular apathy (or antipathy) towards democracy.

The media are blamed for the lack of public engagement with democratic politics which declining turnouts are argued to signal. Political journalists are said to be too aggressive and hyper-adversarial (Lloyd), behaving like the “feral beast” spoken of by Tony Blair in his 2007 farewell speech to the British people as prime minister. They are corrosively cynical and a “disaster for democracy”, as Steven Barnett and others argued in the first years of the twenty first century. They are not aggressive or adversarial enough, as the propaganda modellists allege, citing what they interpret as supine media coverage of Coalition policy in Iraq. The media put people off, rather than turn them on to democracy by being, variously, too nice or too nasty to politicians.

What then, is the solution to the apparent paradox represented by the fact that there is more democracy, but less voting in elections than ever before; and that after centuries of popular struggle democratic assemblies proliferate, but in some countries barely half of the eligible voters can be bothered to participate? And what role have the media played in this unexpected phenomenon?

If the scholarly community has been largely critical on this question, and pessimistic in its analyses of the role of the media, it has become increasingly clear that the one arena where people do vote more than ever before is that presented by the media, and entertainment media in particular. There has been, since the appearance of Big Brother and the subsequent explosion of competitive reality TV formats across the world, evidence of a huge popular appetite for voting on such matters as which amateur contestant on Pop Idol, or X Factor, or Fame Academy, or Operatunity goes on to have a chance of a professional career, a shot at the big time. Millions of viewers of the most popular reality TV strands queue up to register their votes on premium phone lines, the revenue from which makes up a substantial and growing proportion of the income of commercial TV companies. This explosion of voting behaviour has been made possible by the technology-driven emergence of new forms of participatory, interactive, digitised media channels which allow millions to believe that they can have an impact on the outcome of what are, at essence, game and talent shows.

At the height of anxiety around the ‘crisis of democratic participation’ in the UK, observers noted that nearly 6.5 million people had voted in the Big Brother UK final in 2004. More than eight million voted during the 2004 run of the BBC’s Fame Academy series. While these numbers do not, contrary to popular belief, exceed the numbers of British citizens who vote in a general election (27.2 million in 2005), they do indicate an enthusiasm for voting which seems to contradict declining rates of democratic participation. People who will never get out and vote for their local councillor often appear more than willing to pick up the telephone or the laptop and cast a vote for their favoured reality TV contestant, even if it costs them money.

It would be absurd to suggest that voting for a contestant on Big Brother is directly comparable to the act of choosing a government or a president. The latter is recognised as an expression of citizenship, with potentially significant consequences for the lives of individuals within their society. Voting on Big Brother, on the other hand, is unmistakeably entertainment, game-playing, a relatively risk-free exercise of choice — a bit of harmless fun, fuelled by office chat and relentless tabloid coverage of the contestants’ strengths and weaknesses. There is no evidence that readiness to participate in a telephone or online vote for entertainment TV translates into active citizenship, where ‘active’ means casting a vote in an election.

The lesson delivered by the success of participatory media in recent years, however — first reality TV, and latterly a proliferation of online formats which encourage user participation and voting for one thing or another — is that people will vote, when they are able and motivated to do so. Voting is popular, in short, and never more so, irrespective of the level of popular participation recorded in recent elections. And if they will vote in their millions for a contestant on X Factor, or participate in competitions to determine the best movies or books on Facebook, they can presumably be persuaded to do so when an election for parliament comes around.

This fact has been recognised by both media producers and politicians, and reflected in attempts to adapt the evermore sophisticated and efficient tools of participatory media to the democratic process, to engage media audiences as citizens by offering the kinds of voting opportunities in political debates, including election processes, which entertainment media have now made routinely available. ITV’s Vote for Me strand, broadcast in the run-up to the UK general election of 2005, used reality TV techniques to select a candidate who would actually take part in the forthcoming poll. The programme was broadcast in a late night, low audience slot, and failed to generate much interest, but it signalled a desire by media producers to harness the appeal of participatory media in a way which could directly impact on levels of democratic engagement.

The honourable failure of Vote for Me (produced by the same team which made the much more successful live debate shows featuring prime minister Tony Blair — Ask Tony Blair, Ask the Prime Minister) might be viewed as evidence that readiness to vote in the context of a TV game show does not translate directly into voting for parties and politicians, and that the problem in this respect — the crisis of democratic participation, such that it exists — is located elsewhere. People can vote in democratic elections, but choose not to, perhaps because they feel that the act is meaningless (because parties are ideologically too similar), or ineffectual (because they see no impact of voting in their daily lives or in the state of the country), or irrelevant to their personal priorities and life styles. Voting rates have increased in the US and the UK since September 11 2001, suggesting perhaps that when the political stakes are raised, and the question of who is in government seems to matter more than it did, people act accordingly.

Meantime, media producers continue to make money by developing formats and channels on the assumption that audiences wish to participate, to interact, and to vote. Whether this form of participatory media consumption for the purposes of play can be translated into enhanced levels of active citizenship, and whether the media can play a significant contributory role in that process, remains to be seen.

Author Biography

Brian McNair