Democracy’s vortex

I had a go at rewriting old blogs about the perceived-grievance-wrong-headed-sop-vortex that we might be headed into. ….

According to Idealised Democracy 101, the way things are supposed to proceed is this: when something goes wrong in the economy, or the polity, as it inevitably will, the prospect of holding office encourages politicians to put together solutions, based on a sound diagnosis of the problem. Competition between aspiring rulers incentivizes finding good solutions and discarding bad ones.

These diagnoses and solutions percolate up from civil society, academia, think-tanks. Diagnoses are ranked according to which are most likely to explain the problem. Solutions are ranked according to which gives the best outcome.

The totality of this analysis gets transmitted to the electorate by a technically articulate media free of any commercial or political imperative that would tamper with the analysis.

Those with the winning solution get elected, put their plan into action, and things get better. Rewarded for good behaviour – that is, behaviour which makes things better – politicians repeat the cycle next time round. Of course, whatever happened might not have any solution at all, and the policy production process here is supposed to figure that out too.

Things don’t seem to be proceeding like this lately.

We seem to be in danger of entering a vortex of ever worsening outcomes, in which things deteriorate along the following lines: after something bad happens, perceived grievances arise, are conceded by media and the politicians, who offer wrong-headed sops. They are wrong-headed in that they make things worse, stoking a new round of resentments, or giving rise to new ones, and the cycle repeats itself with more force.

There might be debate about at which point the UK entered the vortex and how. But, for the sake of argument, date it at the outbreak of the financial crisis in late 2008.

The crisis, the recession and the sluggish recovery that followed it stoked up resentment and anti-government-establishment feeling. One perspective is that 2008 taught us that financial regulation needed to be tightened [it was] and that the post 2008 period we needed more activist fiscal policy in recessions.

However, populist politicians on the right offered a different diagnosis and solution. The problem instead was immigration and globalisation, and the solution was Brexit, less immigration, less globalisation and the contradiction of more money for the NHS [a contradiction that is, because in a poorer economy this is not possible without less money for other stuff].

It could be argued that the populist left are feeding off the same discontent, offering their own misdiagnosis, comprising Brexit’s deglobalisation with a retreat from, or a wholesale replacement of capitalism, depending on whether one takes Labour’s manifesto as a final compromise, or a step along the road to the leading faction’s long held positions.

We have not got there yet, but it seems highly likely that the overwhelming expert opinion that Brexit will make us poorer will be borne out. Brexit and lower immigration is going to mean less money for the NHS, not more, and lower income per head. This could well provoke a search for new scapegoats, or cause politicians and their voter clients to double down on the ones they already mistakenly found.

The dynamic that is supposed to prevent this vortex from deepening – the process by which rational, evidenced-based analysis is funnelled to politicians and voters – has not been working. The credibility of expert opinion – overwhelmingly judging Brexit to be to the detriment of the economy – was fatally undermined by the financial crisis, in which it was [fairly] judged complicit. That credibility was perhaps never as robust as we thought beforehand. Efforts to synthesise expert opinion were thwarted by the construction of a fringe balancing opinion [see below]; by framing experts as being part of a vested interest in the status quo; and by the tactic, not always untruthful, of dubbing the mainstream view as exaggerated [‘project fear’].

At least three pernicious forces at work are serving to thwart the media’s effectiveness in, well, mediating expert analysis.

First, a commercial imperative which makes it attractive in some markets to mirror, rather than inform. Second, in state media, the motive for self-preservation that makes it a necessity that the political balance at large – quarters of which are occupied by the snake-oil-peddling politicians – is reflected in broadcast treatment of a topic. [This is a kind of no taxation without representation rule]. And third, the fact that some subjects are dry and hard, and only occasionally pertinent, so that it does not pay [say, a TV station] to maintain a deep analytical capability.

In the United States, the vortex is working perhaps even more forcefully for the bad. There, the financial crisis has spawned the Trump regime. Here is not the place to document all the departures from Idealised Democracy 101 involved there. But side effects of the US vortex are already making our own UK worse and will continue to. The correspondingly more severe perversion of public discourse on how to analyse and mange an economy has surely contaminated our own [viz ‘FAKE NEWS!’]. The determination by the US to retreat itself from globalisation and tilt trade circumstances in its favour makes the alternative to the EU’s single market worse for the UK, which is going to aggravate the second round grievances of the UK vortex. There is arguably a higher likelihood of an incidental war drawing in the UK looking to bolster its special relationship credientials… I could go on…

If this vortex is actually operating, is there any escape from it? Who can say. One thing that might do it is a period of stability without a crisis. A long enough run of good luck that rehabilitates experts and the other planks of civil society as unfairly as they were initially maligned, increasing the weight of its scrutiny on politicians, and squeezing the market for opportunistic populism.


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