Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

The Nightmare of the Brexit Debate

What hope can a lesser nation have if the storied reasonableness of British civil society seems to count for so little?

Anyone following the agony of the United Kingdom’s efforts to deliver a workable plan of action on Brexit is bound to be horrified.  The ill-considered referendum to leave the European Union has shaken British politics to its core. Two years have past with little progress and increased public polarization over what may be the catastrophic withdrawal of the U.K from its integration in to the European Union.

Have our British cousins lost their minds?  The idea of Brexit is seriously flawed; the effort to put it into effect has been even worse. With all their advantages as a venerable democratic forum, why have members in the Mother of Parliaments not been able to find a pathway to a workable solution? In the face of even more trenchant problems, what hope can marginal democratic systems have if the storied reasonableness of British civil society seems to have counted for so little?

The news out of the Palace of Westminster is unusually disheartening. The country seems almost evenly split between those who want to stay within the European Union and those who want to leave. Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has demonstrated a staggering lack of initiative in finding a middle course that the Commons can accept.  In the meantime, the Leader of the Scottish National Party keeps threatening to demand a new vote to allow Scotland to be an independent state within the E. U.  Some Lifelong members of the Conservative Party have abandoned it. And many Labor Party members are privately doubtful that their leader would be any better as Prime Minister.

Ironically, whatever exit “plan” that finally gets enough votes will leave most of the details of the U.K’s departure to be decided later. An evidently bad deal will surely look worse as new stalemates arise over the need to reimpose dreaded border controls between the two Irelands, the loss of British rights to freely travel and work in Europe, and the temptation on both sides of the English Channel to come up with new restrictive tariffs.

Rarely has fecklessness had greater consequences.

It turns out that Brexit has been a disaster from the moment years ago when a cocky David Cameron carelessly asked for a national referendum to “solve” a Conservative Party political problem. Rarely has such fecklessness had greater consequences.  Even if Ms. May’s plan is approved in the House of Commons, it’s likely that Britain will still be dealing with the crippling effects of disentangling from the common market and the shared customs union for decades to come, with Britain’s youth likely to pay the cost.

It simply doesn’t work to cling to an island fantasy when your history and modern global markets are built on the free flow of goods and people.

It’s not that we Americans have it figured out. Many of us have come to the view that our own constitutionally divided government is poorly suited for policy-making in the 21st Century.  Compromise and conciliation are out of style and rarely photogenic. Even so, it’s a shock that to see a venerable parliamentary system fail so completely. Parliamentary systems usually seem better suited to the faster pace of 21st Century political life.

In Britain and the United States we are in an era where the expressive chances of debate seem to have greater rewards than actually legislating.

The endless of hours of debate over brexit offers some lessons and cautions to all democracies that always use deliberative bodies to formulate policy:

  • Leaders who can’t build coalitions and find political allies seem to find greater comfort in what they say that what they actually do.  Neither  Prime Minister Theresa May and her opposite in the Labor Party have the political gifts of a Clement Attlee or even Tony Blair. Ms. May has been especially hard pressed to find compromises or graceful ways to abandon losing positions, the reason she has finally agreed to step down. And the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to have the same tendency for dithering.
  • Dissolving complex cross-national alliances is a nightmare that should never be put to a popular vote. The illusion of making a simple binary choice is completely deceptive. Citizens should expect that their elected officials will see the effects and consequences of complex policy choices.
  • Triumphant patriotism and exceptionalism are infections that are bound to leave a country vulnerable and divided. Ceding some power and money to the E.U. Headquarters in Brussels was all that nativists needed to agitate for withdrawal.
  • We are in darker political era in Britain and the United States, where the expressive chances in public discussion seem to yield greater personal rewards than actually legislating through shared decision-making.
  • Finally, sometimes even the best opportunities for deliberation are not enough to yield a conclusive result.

Those of us who have counted on orderly British discussion and decision-making as the deliberative model are left scratching our heads.  Is the increasing fragmentation of most complex societies to be duplicated in ways that cripple their governing bodies as well?  The available evidence from Britain and the United States is not encouraging.

Finding Common Touchstones

     Mercury Capsule at the Air and Space Museum, Washington

What happens when the media that have been traditional touchstones to the culture no longer matter?  What follows if there is a withering of once common narratives?

When we wonder why we are such talkers and texters, look no further than our natural desire to find meaning in the words and faces of others.  While most communication thinkers would accept that we are islands of consciousness, most also come to the view that our social nature gives us the urge to affiliate with various sorts of tribes. Beyond the family, most Americans seek connections with affinity groups organized around schools, religious institutions, work settings, or various avocations. Beyond that, we count ourselves as members of the same culture: less firmly now, perhaps, but it is still a piece of our identity.

Cultures typically share a language, a political history and sets of foundational stories. They are the common property of all. But what happens if the media that have been the traditional touchstones to our collective selves no longer matter to the society’s newer members?  What happens if there is a withering of our common narratives?  One sign of our weakened sense of affiliation are the 1800 big and small American newspapers that have shut down in the last fifteen years.  Many communities are now news deserts cut of from the nation, and often their own communities.

Concerns like these are frequently raised because, while we have the technical means to easily share our culture, we are less inclined to visit its various precincts.  There are more interesting distractions to pursue.

I’m 72 and my students are mostly south of 20.  And though they are pleasant and easy to work with, it’s increasingly apparent that we come from very different places.  At times it can seem if we both flew in from different countries to spend some time together.  To be sure, we speak the same language, but the forces that have shaped us and and govern our interests are partly alien to each other.

Mine is the older country of the Vietnam War, political assassinations, the civil rights struggle and stunning leaps into space. We expected to meet future spouses in college. Even today our older selves still celebrate great cars, packed bookstores, jazz virtuosos and film and television benchmarks that are more sanguine than dystopian. Many in my generation also seek a daily connection to the national news cycle and, hence, to America’s sagging civil society.

At the same time, my country has also been hell-bent on the dream of affluence. It’s been somewhat less generous toward the young than those of the previous war generation, who gladly built schools, a vast transportation infrastructure for growth, and ways to provide access to college for veterans and the expanding middle class. Our’s is also a generation that votes in larger numbers, keeping a thumb on the government-services scale that favors the old over the young and poor.

 

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have held together the culture.

 

By contrast, the young come from a country freed from many of these old cultural markers and some of the bigotries that went with them.  That’s expected, and a welcome part of the gift of idealism that is the birthright of the young.

Theirs is a nation of ‘digital natives’ organized around screens and represented more by personal media and fragmented video on-demand.  They mostly ignore the more centralized broadcasting of major networks. In addition, for the members of this country, devotion to a marriage partner can wait, while all-consuming devotion to the smartphone comes sooner. The device trades in artifacts of the self rather than the full self. It also feeds off the attractions of celebrity as a measure of self-worth.  This is expressed in terms of media markers, where a phone is a gateway to attention that can attract “followers” at a distance. The effect of the ubiquitous online discourse encourages much more interest in the “now” rather than a delayed-but-better “later.”

Of course I’m generalizing beyond what any individual case would allow. And it would be unfair to conclude that younger Americans don’t value social capital.  Many are generous with their time if asked to work for social justice causes.  But social connections are no longer created around shared discourse about the nation’s political problems.  Looming obstacles of the workplace and an independent adulthood matter more. The hollowing-out of the middle class now feeds a generalized discomfort among the young about finding a secure place that can yield the kinds of comfort levels known by their parents.

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have previously held together the culture. Generational differences are a given.  But the atomizing of experience that is common in peer to peer media shifts our energies toward the personal and away from the political, which is traditionally the realm of core questions about how we should live as a society.  So we have to ask: are we still living in a shared cultural space if we don’t share the same stories?