An Epitaph on Democracy, Journalism and Related Institutions: Hysteria, Hyperbole and Bad Faith

An Epitaph on Democracy, Journalism and Related Institutions:
Hysteria, Hyperbole and Bad Faith

A primer on democracy and related concepts

While most of the world’s governments claim to be predicated on democratic norms and include purported guarantees as to democracy in their constitutions (even totalitarian states like the United Arab Emirates), there is no agreement as to what democracy is. There are a number of different institutions that include the word democracy but which represent very different concepts, among them: direct democracy (the only pure perform), representative democracy (really, elective oligarchy), participatory democracy (a blend between direct and representative democracy) and multi-level democracy (a process that starts with direct democracy at local levels and then converts into a series of winnowing sequential elections). These can in turn be complemented by institutions involving potential fragmentation of sovereignty; e.g., division of powers (dictatorship, in a non-pejorative sense, being the opposite concept), federalism, liberty (focused on individual rights and thus opposed to democracy’s majoritarian elements), pluralism (focused on collective non-universal rights and thus also opposed to democracy’s majoritarian elements), and to the very misunderstood concept of rights. Rights are purportedly inherent (not granted), universal, eternal and unconditional and thus, theoretically impossible to violate; however, none exist on that basis. What exist and are presented as rights are “grants”. Grants are attributes in the nature of gifts made available by a grantor (e.g., the state) that is free to limit or condition them as it sees fit but which once granted become obligations of the grantor, with legal routs to secure their enforcement. Thus, they smell and taste like rights but may or may not be respected and the failure to respect them may or may not have legal consequences. In “Liberal Democracies”, the concepts of democracy have been melded with a number of the foregoing, however, as in the case of “rights”, the product has irreconcilable internal inconsistencies, especially in the clash between the concepts of democracy, in the sense of participatory governance based on decisions by majorities, liberty and pluralism. Thus Liberal Democracy is based on promising everything, even when it is contradictory. The same is true of other forms of government that seek to meld contradictory governmental concepts into a system for governance. While that seems inherently incoherent, it is possible to create a framework that attempts to derive some benefits from each concept based on a series of priorities designed to ameliorate inevitable conflicts, although such frameworks are inherently antidemocratic. We refer to them generically as constitutions.

In considering non-direct democracies (there are no current states with direct democracy, although several Swiss cantons use that modality), the role of the representative is critical. It comes in three general variants: first, true representation in which the persons charged with representational functions express the will of those represented, in essence, as their ambassador and spokesperson; second, delegated representation in which the persons charged with representational functions are selected based on their qualities, talent and judgment which they exercise as they see fit, without regard to the immediate wishes of those represented; and third, perverted representation in which the persons charged with representational functions by the electors in fact represent the interests of others, e.g., their own interests, those of their “patrons”, or, the interests of the political party or movement that nominated them. The latter case is constitutionally mandated in many countries that use a proportional form of legislative election based on party lists, where voters vote for a party rather than an individual candidate. In many such systems, legislators who do not comply with party decisions lose their investitures and are replaced by the person on the list with the highest vote total short of election. It would seem clear that most of the foregoing result in systems where the electors lose control of their ability to impact government immediately following electoral events. Not exactly what most people understand to be the case.

Functional aspects

If by democracy we refer to majoritarian popular government, democracy requires massive public participation based on a sense of duty and responsibility for governmental processes, intimately coupled with access to truthful and complete information expressing divergent views on which popular decisions can be debated and made. Without the convergence of those two elements democracy is not just dysfunctional, it is non-functional, a mere illusion, different from autocracies only in the manner in which it is marketed to its public. In addition, in all but direct democracies, compliance by elected representatives with their commitments to the electorate is essential, as is transparency in their performance and some form of accountability.

In Socialist dictatorships (the term dictatorship referring in a non-pejorative fashion to the consolidation of power in one person or institution but not inconsistent with democracy) like Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc., it is argued that the participatory element is fully complied with, being, in fact, an obligatory duty and, contrary to propaganda in Liberal Democracies, there are very viable choices as to candidates without reference to party membership, with direct democracy at the most local levels followed by a multilevel sequential electoral process winnowing officials to a select few. What is lacking are the elements of separation of powers (not an aspect of democracy), personal liberty and adequate information on which to base decisions. In Liberal Democracies, participation rarely if ever reaches the level necessary to merit characterization as democracy, being usually considered a right rather than a duty; however, the populace generally enjoys a great deal more liberty. However, as in the case of Socialist dictatorships, citizens in almost all Liberal Democracies today lack access to the accurate and complete information necessary to make informed decisions, that being especially true in the United States. In both cases, propagation of manipulative propaganda has replaced real journalism, in the former case, controlled by the government in power and in the latter by monopolistic conglomerates usually controlled by financiers representing the interests of the uppermost crust of the investor class.

Journalism as the Lifeblood of Liberal Democracy

Consistency is not a value that merits respect when facts prove that the premises on which conclusions or observations are reached are wrong. However, the compartmentalization with which the mainstream media in too many Liberal Democracies now conducts its functions, assuming that it’s a recent phenomenon (evidence indicates otherwise), makes clear that what exists today under the moniker of journalism is really political advocacy. Thus, purported analysts feel very comfortable in concurrently advocating diametrically opposed postures rendering their product not only incoherent, but all too often crossing the border into bad faith. If one term encompasses current mainstream media practices it may well be oxymoronic, but oxymoronic over-seasoned with hysteria and hyperbole.

In tyrannical dictatorships such practices have no real impact given the non-existence of popular governmental participation and thus manipulation of perspectives and sources of information are not as relevant on a quotidian basis as they would be in Liberal Democracies, assuming some aspect of democracy in fact exists. However, an honest analysis of democracy in states that claim such status would find the concept almost as seriously in doubt as it is in Socialist dictatorships, the only difference being which elitist oligarchy is in control.

Thus, the sad conclusion is that, with the possible exception of some Nordic states, perhaps most notably Iceland, democracy is not just dead, it may well have been stillborn, brought low by partisan hysteria, hyperbole and bad faith disguised as journalism. Independent journalism, the kind that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution sought to protect, is now more an anomalistic anachronism than a reality and thus, democracy no more than an illusion.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved

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