Post-Democratic Government and Media

Since my first vivid political memories were of Bill Clinton, who campaigned on V-chips and school uniforms to win reelection to the presidency, I rely on others’ accounts of how that kind of media-savvy soft-ball was a revolution in political behavior. I understand that it was a revolution, one that happened concurrently in the U.K. where New Labor began to prefer the word “narrative” over “truth”. One author has written that the revolution ushered in a new era: post-democracy.

Peter Oborne’s 2005 The Rise of Political Lying specifies the ways Tony Blair’s New Labor government got itself into the bad habit of telling half-truths. One main event that precipitated this was the frustration caused by four straight electoral loses. If Labor could get itself into power by telling a few fibs, Oborne argues, its plans for a better world could be executed. Problem is, the verbal slights of hand became part of executing policy, one of which was the Iraq war.

While the U.K. is currently conducting its Iraq Inquiry, Oborne identified four years ago the basic change that allowed democratic institutions to be deceptive in the way New Labor had been: a blurring of roles between players in the government, namely between the apolitical civil servant and the politician. This, along with technological changes in media, changed the relationship between the people and their government.

These changes were essentially occurring at once in both the U.S. and U.K.

Civil servants, who were to be inspired by an ethos of public service, became expected to deliver up the goods, i.e. facts that supported the policy plans of politicians. This happened notably in both countries when intelligence estimates were trumped up to support the invasion of Iraq.

Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, came to see the once-humble roll of his office as something great, a valve that controlled the flow of information out of government. As a result, Oborne says, he became increasingly involved in writing the text of policy decisions, making calls where experts would have been better suited. Most famously, he advised on the writing of the “Iraq Dossier”, New Labor’s case for war.

Combined with the new media standard of the sound-bite, whose brevity was better for building a narrative than analyzing a more complex truth, New Labor was able to obfuscate tough questions when they were put to government ministers. Sound familiar?

The most recent parallel in the American government has been a mix of Karl Rove and the White House press secretary. Here is a good example of Mr. Rove saying something that is technically true—that he read about Don Siegelman’s indictment in the newspaper—while giving a generally false answer to the question asked: whether he had unduly influenced Alabama state and federal attorneys  to investigate the Alabama governor.

The easiest parallels to draw between the U.S. and U.K. becoming post-democratic governments, naturally, occur during the run up to the Iraq war. During this time their respective political staffs stayed “on-message” by repeating mendacious summaries of intelligence reports. As facts continue to emerge, it appears both governments were ready to invade Iraq for reasons of regime change alone while justifying the war to the public on grounds that there was an imminent threat.

I want very much to acknowledge that these manipulations of information were likely done in good-faith. That is the most confounding fact about post-democracy and rather than stay on some sort of political message in my blog-entry/sound-bite, I want to leave it as an open moral question, one to be further meditated on.

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