Green Ink on the Mediocracy

Why Britain may never learn from Brexit


John Harris wrote in the Guardian last week that Brexit, in spite of having disastrous consequences that would last at least a generation, should not be reversed. He argues that the resentment and betrayal that would be felt by those who voted for Brexit and who won the referendum would further undermine the public's faith in the political process, and also that it was the only way that the country could purge itself of its English exceptionalism. He quoted HL Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

But Harris’s very bleak view is in one respect not bleak enough. He writes: “The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity.”

What gives him the confidence that getting it good and hard would actually purge the English of their delusions? Their delusions will unfortunately not be tested in the real world but in the fake world. Of course reality will still be there, and the real consequences will still be disastrous, but we will have lost touch with it. You only have to look to America, where more people trust Donald Trump than trust the media, and the majority of Republican voters now believe universities have a negative effect on society, to see this is already the case. The disastrous consequences will not be blamed on Brexit, but on Brexit not being pure enough, or on foreign powers, or on failure to curb immigration, or on whatever political chaos ensues.

It is indeed crucial for the functioning of democracy that ‘the common people’ do know what they want. But few of us do. Democracy only succeeds if it provides an incentive to rule makers to convince those that they rule over that they act in their interests, by educating them about the complicated consequences of the policies they propose. Democracy fails if the route to power is through blithely promising that no compromises are necessary. A vote is only empowering if it is well informed.

It is fundamental to democracy therefore that people who promise the same cake twice are exposed by the media. Or according to the Mencken theory, at least that they should eventually find out what happened to the cake. But the media is no longer able to do this.

In 1922 Walter Lippmann wrote:

“ It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.”

At the time he was writing, the world was grappling with the same issue we are facing now. The tabloid press as we now know it was just being invented, and the incumbent newspapers were gnashing their teeth. William Randolph Hearst’s Daily News launched in 1924 and promised to be “90 per cent entertainment and 10 per cent information”. The ‘Illustrated Daily News’ launched in 1919 and operated “on the psychological principle that, no matter what his background or education, a man is governed by his emotions.” EE Cummings writing in Vanity Fair in 1926 blamed the tabloids for the infantilism of American life.

The advertising industry was coming into its own, testing out new psychological tools taregeting the swelling middle class, and this new business model for newspapers had become financially viable. Now they were in the business of competing for attention; attention which they could then sell on to advertisers. And it turned out that what won peoples’ attention was not news but entertainment. On top of this, the subjectivity of experience was a new concept, and so even the news that was reported seemed to have become less solid.

Then came television. Not only did the video medium seem less open to interpretation, but by the 1950s, almost the entire populations of the U.S. or the U.K. would participate in national nightly rituals of staring at a box, all seeing the very same thing. This almost total monopoly of attention enabled the government, through regulation, to force feed the population with news. The news broadcasters may have been relatively independent of the government of the day in editorial terms, but they were compelled by regulation to supply a certain quantity and quality (usually in terms of accuracy and balance) of news. And people had to accept it. In exchange for home entertainment more engrossing than anything seen before, they accepted a heavy news diet while they waited impatiently for the next slice of entertainment.

Gradually this monopoly over attention was eaten away as viewers gained more and more control and choice. New channels, cable subscriptions, video recorders, remote controls, and eventually the internet put the audience back in charge. And what the audience wants is less news. A study in the US in 2007 looked at people who had no interest in news and current affairs, and tested their knowledge. It turned out that those who had internet access had far less knowledge of current affairs than those who didn’t.

It is not only television that has fragmented into bite size chunks that can be streamed and shared at will. Newspaper editors also used to be able to mix what they thought was important information people should know with the entertainment gossip they wanted to know, and could force people to accept the whole package. Now it is only the amusing or the enraging items that people seem to share, and the rest rarely even passes before our eyes. Certainly people share very few items explaining the difficult and complicated trade-offs that governments have to decide on, and so there is no economic incentive to write them.

On top of that, the reliability of photographic and video evidence has also been eroded by technology. It used to be an expensive and collaborative endeavour to create realistic video fiction. Now almost anyone can do it on their own. Even realistic video of presidents making statements can be completely fabricated in a bedroom.

And individual targeting is making it possible for leaders to make contradictory promises to different constituents without either ever being aware of the other.

Have we come to the end of an era of extremely high levels of political knowledge and engagement, and returned to the politics of the 1920s and 30s? Will we find some new technology that can incentivise the electorate to take the trouble to inform themselves? In the meantime at the very least can we find some way to agree on and enforce standards of journalism that make it clear to people what they cannot trust?

The forces of Brexit are the forces of deregulation. Their purpose is to weaken the state, and in a global economy, a state on its own is weak. They are the same forces that relaxed the broadcast regulations that resulted in the hyper-partisan networks in the US. They are the same forces that want to abolish the BBC. They are the forces that want to put all political information entirely in the hands of the market. Brexit is another step towards this. But democracy is not a market. Democracy is supposed to ensure that power vests ultimately in the hands of the people, and knowledge is the fundamental element of that power.

Britain might never learn from Brexit. It may even lose some of its capacity to learn.