RICHARD ECKERSLY. Getting to the heart of democracy’s decline.

Oct 16, 2018

The crisis in democracy is much discussed these days, but almost entirely in political terms that ignore its deeper causes. In this sense, the mainstream news media can be considered ‘enemies of the people’, peddling ‘fake news’.

The October issue of the respected US magazine, The Atlantic, addresses the question, ‘Is democracy dying?’, but fails to discuss the fundamental reason why: democracy is increasingly failing to deliver for its citizens a high, sustainable quality of life. This failure is political, economic, environmental and cultural – and all but invisible in the mainstream media debate about the crisis in democracy.     

The Atlantic says it aims to challenge assumptions and pursue truth. In his contribution, ‘America’s slide towards autocracy’, David Frum concludes: ‘The road to autocracy is long—which means that we still have time to halt and turn back. It also means that the longer we wait, the farther we must travel to return home.

But there will be no ‘returning home’. The notion of going back to the ways things were, to democracy as it used to be, is a fatal flaw in progressive journalism’s angst over the rise of Trump and the far-right and the threats to democracy. 

This nostalgia for past politics – Obama’s perhaps? – fails to recognise the extent of Western liberal democracy’s failings:

  • Politically, it has ceded too much power to non-democratic forces, especially global corporations, and has become increasingly inward-looking, often pre-occupied with ephemeral, self-generated issues (leadership coups, Trump’s tweets, misconduct), while avoiding the large challenges now facing us.
  • Economically, it has allowed wealth to become too concentrated, creating an economy indifferent to the needs of most people.
  • Environmentally, it has not come to grips with the scale of environmental problems. Globally, most environmental conditions are deteriorating. Climate change, on which most attention is directed, threatens catastrophe, and is only one of several growing environmental crises. 
  • Culturally, it has failed to counter the promotion of unrealistic and unhealthy expectations and perceptions about the ‘good life’, making meaning in life (including a sense of belonging, identity and purpose) harder to find or create. 

Some of these issues do get discussed, but largely as discrete policy problems. A whole-system perspective that acknowledges the linkages between them is missing. The state of democracy offers a framework for this integration, but is instead viewed in orthodox political and ideological terms.  (Judging by Kim Wingerei’s review on this blog, Michelle Grattan’s new anthology and Laura Tingle’s latest Quarterly Essay may, as he says, ‘lift the current debate up from the current polarised chasm of personalities, party infighting and entrenched position of largely out-dated ideologies’, but they still appear to fall far short of what I have in mind here. )

The way forward will have to be something very different. We will need a radically new form of democracy that centres on a vigorous discussion of the modern Western worldview and how it defines human progress and wellbeing (see my previous P&I articles here,  here and here). 

I have been researching and writing about progress and wellbeing for over 30 years. The signs of what has come to pass politically in the past few years were there to see culturally back then: not in the specifics, but in the widespread concern, discontent and mistrust people in the West revealed over what was happening to their way of life. (A 1993 essay I wrote for The Futurist, the magazine of the World Future Society, was titled, ‘The West’s deepening cultural crisis’.)

About a decade later, I described two scenarios for the future  – ‘cheap thrills’ and ‘inner harmony’ – based on two family holiday experiences: a visit to Dreamworld on the Gold Coast; and a walk along a bush track to Chenrezig , a Buddhist retreat in hills inland from the Sunshine Coast. The scenarios reflect the growing and conflicting trends in modern life that are producing an increasing tension between our professed values – a desire for simpler, less materialistic, less fraught lives – and our lived lifestyle – one encouraged, even imposed, by our consumer economy and culture.

‘Cheap thrills’ does nothing to address the challenges we face. In fact, its appeal lies in allowing us to avoid such issues, in celebrating the power of technology to distract and amuse. ‘Inner harmony’, on the other hand, reflects an emerging global consciousness, environmental sensitivity and spiritual awareness – a transformation of the dominant ethos of industrialised nations in recent centuries.

The structures of modern societies, especially politics and business, are still driven by the old ethos. In the spaces between these structures, at deeper levels of our psyche, the new is emerging. We need to acknowledge this, to recognise in our social and political analysis and commentary the importance of richer philosophical, historical and scientific insights.  As is the case with all social reform, discussion must precede policy action.

It is the continuing failure to have this deeper and broader discussion that has led to the democratic crisis we now have. And it is in the news media’s failure to see and reflect this that they have become, if not in Trump’s sense but in a deeper sense, ‘enemies of the people’, peddling ‘fake news’. This situation is not inevitable or unavoidable; it is a product of our political and journalistic cultures, a matter of habit.  

You would think democracy’s manifest lack of success in responding adequately to many of the pressing issues of our times would have encouraged, even forced, a cultural shift in politics and journalism. But habits die hard, and we have seen instead a tighter focusing on the emergence of more extreme and destructive politics.

I wrote in the early 2000s: ‘In ordinary times, it is perhaps normal for different planes of perception and understanding of the human condition to remain relatively separate and distinct, with little “friction”, or influence, occurring between them. In transitional epochs, when what it is to be human is undergoing profound evaluation and radical alteration, these planes of perception need to come together in a single, interwoven, public conversation. Ours is such a time.’

Can The Atlantic – and other mainstream news media – rise to this challenge?

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on progress, sustainability, wellbeing and the future.  His work, both scientific and popular, is available on his website, . 

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