Some of the challenges:
Our world has undergone, and continues to undergo incredibly profound changes. We have to recognise this and think carefully about how our institutions will continue to function effectively in this new world:
We live increasingly segregated lives. People are more transient, and less rooted in their communities. There are less places where people with different outlooks bump into each other in society. We don’t even watch the same TV, but instead pick out on demand content that ‘people like us’ watched.
People increasingly get news from social media feeds that are tailored to their prejudices. We increasingly don’t pay to support journalists whose role (for the most part) is to seek out the truth, and present information in an informative and accessible way. When we seek out information online this search function itself is tailored to what our existing perspective is.
We live in a world of 24 hour current affairs, and instant- often hostile- comment that makes the political world unattractive and that creates a high standard of knowledge (and often insignificant knowledge) needed to comfortably contribute.
We are confronted with a sea of vociferously clashing, partial, voices amidst which it is often hard work to try and progress towards something more solid. And while the internet is a sea of possibility, we perhaps forget that to some extent you have to know what words to put in to start navigating it.
At the same time that changes are creating difficulties for our political culture, political issues are also becoming increasingly complex.
From whatever of these sources, or others, trust in expertise is declining.
Seemingly, people are becoming less patient, and feel less of a responsibility, to contribute in slow, small-scale, open-minded ways to the progress of political conversations.
Some avenues for responding:
A better encounter with evidence
Having a media that focusses more on explanation of views rather than just publicising the debate. Having a media that gives greater weight to long-term trends, and to an exploration of ideas, rather than just current affairs. If this isn’t the role of the news media, then we should be giving this stuff the same profile, and tea-time slots, that the news media has.
Making it easier to dig into the evidence. Pointing out the first steps people can take to do this. Presuming that people will want to do this for political issues and making it accessible. This includes being clear and frank about the limitations of methods used, and the limitations of the questions asked. This can be a hard conversation, but we shouldn’t presume that a lack of trust in experts will go away without having these conversations. Doing this well can, over time, encourage people to trust more in experts, knowing that this scrutiny is available.
Promoting clear ideas
There are some ideas that it’s important to understand if there is going to be a good relationship between evidence and democracy. It seems like some of these are not as clearly found in our public culture as is needed:
It’s about evidence, not facts. Much of the EU debate involved a fixation with ‘facts’- this ignored that, for the most part, we were being asked to weigh up the evidence behind uncertain predictions about how the world would pan out. Facts were not the be all and end all. And what is a fact anyway? It’s a massive indictment how often you can surprise people by pointing out that we don’t have a clear definition of what it is to know something- we just have generally respected levels of confidence in evidence.
Studying humans does not give us all the answers. It can help, but social science is no replacement for thinking creatively about new ways of doing things. There is a real risk that we act on our theories without putting the same emphasis on exploring how things might be made different.
Logic. It’s incredible to think that I was taught at school how to argue persuasively but not how to pick out the actual claims that someone is making in an argument, and when they are reaching invalid conclusions or speaking just in vague terms.
Democracy is not the idea that the people are right! We do democracy to protect against decisions being made in the interests of the few, and to inform decisions by effective deliberation between those with a diverse range of insights. It’s the duty of people in democracy to seek out good ideas, to check whether they’ve got it right, and to rationally debate- not just to speak, and vote, from the gut. We should enter debates with a willingness to be proved wrong, as well as a willingness to prove others wrong- and we should remember that at times compromise may be the best way of moving in the right direction while keeping the conversation going. It’s often hard for politicians to speak up for these points, those who can should do more.
Ethics. It’s incredible how much people can talk about what to do, without ever mentioning the question of what we’re aiming for. This helps create a situation where selfishness, or the idea of putting Britain first, not only go unquestioned, but are often taken as the starting point in media coverage. The idea that logic and evidence might be relevant to these kind of ethical questions is often miles from how people think (albeit there are debates around this point itself). We need to be very wary of the idea that democracy is about asking the public what they feel is right in relation to the facts.
Doing your bit. It seems that young people haven’t caught the habit of voting in the way of other generations. While I’m in favour of electoral reform, it’s my view that this inaction is not a rational response to the ineffectiveness of first past the post. I think we are in danger of losing the principle that often in society everyone has to do their small bit, for the whole to work- even if you know it alone won’t achieve much. To some extent people have become too smart, and too immodest, for our own good- we could do more to celebrate the small actions and initiative that cumulatively make our world work, and make it change.
How will systems work?
If we want to have people who seek out information, and present it an accessible and professional way to us- then we probably need to pay them to do this. This could be a simple as encouraging people to buy quality magazines and papers. Technology may also open up new ways of paying that are still free at the point of access. For instance, a subscription to publishers could automatically charge you small amounts for content you read, yet give you the ability to opt out for an article to avoid paying for clickbait. You could be automatically unsubscribed if you did not pay for a certain percentage. This could give people a nudge towards payment while fostering a market for both publishers and authors.
We could perhaps explore models in which there is more scope to switch-off aspects of tailored searches and tailored social media feeds. Or models in which there is a greater sensitivity for the need to entirely avoid such tailoring when it comes to more political issues.
Spaces for deliberation
We need to foster more places where people with different ideas will sit down and talk. These don’t even have to be explicitly political spaces.
We need to make sure that deliberation is at the heart of democracy. Democracy is a more attractive rallying call, but perhaps it’s time we put as much emphasis on deliberation alongside this.
Perhaps one of the greatest risks of our age is that we rip up our institutions and naïvely put faith in the idea that technology alone will enable a democratic utopia. Instead we must be sensitive to the careful balances that are often involved in how our institutions function, the harm already being done to these, and make sure we think clearly about how new alternatives will actually function, or whether they risk reiterating and reinforcing the kind of problems that characterise the rest of our society.
Political parties should be a key site for deliberative democracy- but there are often serious problems in how effectively they perform this role- in terms of internal democracy, in how successfully they reach out to others, and in the tribal way that they close down and confuse the possibility of enlightening discussions happening between those who hold different views. Parties contain some of the people who are most engaged with trying to improve our world- they must take a responsibility for doing their part to tackle these issues.
We can all have a role to play in making these spaces. Every time someone mocks someone’s intelligence, judges them superficially on what they are saying, or closes down difficult conversations they are moving us away from deliberation towards a post-facts world. These were taken to extremes in debates around immigration, we must learn the lesson of what happens when this is done.
Mat Basford. http://www.demsoc.org/team_member/mat-basford/
Views expressed in blog posts are those of the author not The Democratic Society or Open Data Manchester.