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Democracy as concentration

By Matthew Flinders


Nietzche’s suggestion that “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne” is a powerful phrase that has much to offer the analysis of many political systems in the world today, but my sense is that it is too crude, too raw, and too blunt to help us understand the operation of modern forms of democratic governance. It is certainly not a phrase that enters my mind when I reflect upon the election and presidency of Barack Obama. American democracy is, just like American society, far from perfect. Yet to see democracy as some form of social distraction or to define elections as meaningless risks descending into nihilism.

All out for defense of democracy: Informed opinion counts. WPA Federal Art Project, 1935-1943. Source: Library of Congress.

Democracy generally succeeds in turning ‘fear societies’ into ‘free societies’. It provides a way of allowing our increasingly complex, fragmented and demanding societies to co-exist through compromise and co-operation rather than violence and intimidation (still the default approach to political rule in large parts of the world). To make such an argument is not to deny the existence of social challenges, or to suggest that all politicians are angels or that democratic politics in toto is perfect. It is to take inspiration from Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics (published exactly fifty years ago) and accept that democratic politics is inevitably messy, slow, and cumbersome due to the manner in which it works around squeezing simple decisions out of complex and frequently incompatible demands (Weber’s ‘slow boring through hard wood’). My message to all those ‘disaffected democrats’ who seem content to peddle ‘the politics of pessimism’ is simple. Democratic politics cannot ‘make all sad hearts glad’ (to use Crick’s words) but it remains a ‘quite beautiful and civilizing activity’.

Democracy is therefore not a distraction because it ensures that public pressure actually matters. Elections matter because they allow arguments to be made and pressures to be vented. Elections inevitably produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but at least the losers live to fight another day. If there is, however, a problem within American democracy it rests on the fact that some sections of society have arguably become what I call ‘democratically decadent’. Decadent in the sense that they seem to have forgotten that membership of any democratic society involves both rights and responsibilities; it involves listening and talking; giving and taking. No political system or politician can satisfy a world of ever greater public expectations. I am personally quite glad that Obama turned out not to be Superman as too many people look to politicians to solve their problems as if there were simple solutions to complex problems.

Let us not delude ourselves about the limits of politics or the role of politicians. Let us not engage in a form of self-denial by ignoring the fact that the United States has somehow managed to lose its capacity to engage in mature and balanced political debates. ‘Attack, attack, attack’ may have become the motto of American politics as seen in the political adverts and the toxic gutter-press sniping of shock-jocks, but we should not confuse democracy as it has been practiced in the past with how it might be practiced in the future. Let us be candid about the fault-lines within American society: its focus on material consumption, the isolating effects of the internet, the absence of intellectual nourishment, the destructive consequences of untrammeled free markets, and the existence of social conflict. But then use the great power and value of democratic politics to address these issues and through this forge a new politics of optimism. Let us concentrate hard on this thought and not be distracted!

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His latest book, Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century, has just been published by Oxford University Press. His book Delegated Governance and the British State was awarded the W.J.M. Mackenzie Prize in 2009 for the best book in political science. He is also the author of Democratic Drift and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Politics. Read his previous blog posts: “It’s just a joke!” on political satire and “Attack ads and American presidential politics.”

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2 Responses to “Democracy as concentration”
  1. [...] First Links — 6.27.12 Wednesday, June 27, 2012, 9:00 AM Matthew Cantirino Democracy as Concentration Matthew Flinders, Oxford University Press [...]

  2. [...] Democracy is therefore not a distraction because it ensures that public pressure actually matters. Elections matter because they allow arguments to be made and pressures to be vented. Elections inevitably produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but at least the losers live to fight another day. If there is, however, a problem within American democracy it rests on the fact that some sections of society have arguably become what I call ‘democratically decadent’. Decadent in the sense that they seem to have forgotten that membership of any democratic society involves both rights and responsibilities; it involves listening and talking; giving and taking. No political system or politician can satisfy a world of ever greater public expectations.[Link] [...]

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