The Downside of Democracy

A quick read of the morning papers leaves us in no doubt that this is a federal election year. Announcements, rebuttals, claims and counter-claims are starting to fill the newspaper columns. I suppose at least in the papers there is a little more substance and some reasonable analysis. On the television all we see is the usual thirty second sound bite, often taken out of context and with no supporting argument of any consequence.

Popular appeal seems to depend on a politician’s media presence and the skills of the behind-the-scenes ‘spin doctors’ more than anything else. It is no accident that an American film star became President of the United States just as currently one is governor of California. In Australia there has been a scramble to enlist celebrities, the recently demoted Minister for the Environment being a case in point. Similarly both sides of politics court sports stars because of the Australian obsession with sport.

The average voter in our democracy has his/her intelligence insulted as politicians compete to make their messages short and punchy to fit the sound bite. And then our intelligence is insulted again as they vie to impose their one-liners on us over and over again.

From what I can glean, professional PR advice first became part of election campaigns in the United States in the 1930’s. Clem Whitaker was a public relations man in California. He teamed up with his wife, Leone Baxter to start a new business. They offered a complete package of campaign management services to groups or individuals. Their first political candidate was a Republican nominee running for lieutenant governor. They mobilised a media campaign in support of the candidate that was so successful that they changed the whole way political campaigns are run in modern democracies.

They used all forms of media to propagate their campaign. The message went out to the public in radio commercials, newspaper advertisements, brochures, and leaflets. They hired an artist to draw editorial cartoons that they distributed to accommodating newspapers. In anticipation of what would happen in later times on TV, they produced a series of films using actors which were shown as newsreels in movie theatres. The movies were a part of a smear campaign impugning the character of their candidate’s opponent and typically linking some of his policies with communism.

Years later, addressing the Public Relations Society of America, Whitaker explained the underlying philosophy behind his success.

“The average American, when you catch him after hours, as we must, doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen.

But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.

Most every American likes a contest. He likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled. He likes the clash of arms! So you can interest him if you put on a fight!

No matter what you fight for, fight for something, in our business, and very soon the voters will be turning out to hear you, providing you make the fight interesting.

Then too, most every American likes to be entertained. He likes the movies; he likes fireworks and parades. He likes Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Joe E Brown.

So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr and Mrs America will come out to see it!”

Thus from such beginnings spin has been substituted for substance, drama for ideology and TV persona for character. And even more depressing, to do it well, to wage the battle and to stage the show is a tremendously expensive business. Now campaigns can be won not by who has the best policies but by who has the biggest budget. As a result very few people in today’s world can succeed in politics without the resources of a major party to back them. (And of course in the US, to become President you first need to wage a personal campaign to gain the party’s support, which is well nigh impossible without substantial personal wealth.)

In this way the route to parliament for most is through garnering party support. As a result of this another concerning trend has emerged. A growing number of politicians make their way to parliament via the party. Many join their parties at an early age, graduate from University and immediately are placed in the dubious role of “political adviser”. They work in ministers’ offices, become party officials and work earnestly to achieve party endorsement so that they too can become parliamentarians. And when they do so they take office never having had a “real job” in their lives and believing that the world revolves around the machinations of political parties! Even the celebrities and sporting stars have more relevant experience than this!

As a result we are electing people based on spurious criteria, a growing number of whom have had little experience in life outside politics. And unfortunately the world is getting more complex and governance in such a world necessarily as well.

All the while our politicians are seeking to make the messages relating to their positions simpler, more palatable and more reassuring. At the same time they seek to portray the messages of their opponents as deceptive, self-serving and down right frightening! Following Whitaker they have certainly learned how to manufacture a fight!

They have also managed to create a show. Election launches by the political parties are now widely covered events, stage managed, at large venues with crowds of the adoring faithful at hand. When the poll is finally held I wonder if it is not just another version of the TV ratings survey.

As I often say, communism must be a terrible form of government because I have it on good authority that it is even worse than participatory democracy!

35 Replies to “The Downside of Democracy”

  1. The idea of putting on a good show to get re-elected predates Clem Whitaker by a fair margin. Julius Caesar discovered very early on that popularity had a lot to do with associating yourself with a good show. The Roman games brought animals and men from all over the world together for combat related competitions that were extremely popular and historians tell us were very important to the election chances of the sponsor. Wealth brings power brings wealth….

    On a related note, military experience is also a big leg up for US president hopefuls. It seems there is an expectation that world leaders need experience in war rather than an interest in peace. It is also worth noting that leaders rarely ever loose an election in a time of war. It is easy it seems to be popular when there is a good fight on. Decisions are generally easy and popular as well (shoot first ask questions later). We do love a good fight 🙂

  2. I think there can be little doubt democracy is not the perfect political system it is made out to be, based as it is on the rule of the “demos” or mob. However, perhaps democracy, communism etc would all work well irrespective of ideology, if the leaders were truly selfless and properly dedicated to the service of the people rather than the pursuit of their own reward. On that note, I have long suspected the best political system would be a benevolent dictatorship, the perennial problem of course being the absence of any credible candidates!

  3. I suggest sport is an ideology that is reflected in democratic politics. A great challenge supported by patriotism from either side is about the depth of the master system that we rely on to deal with intellectual and principle challenging issues at hand.

    A simplified catch phrases is about all we can deal with. Policy is dumbed down to a cheerleader chant that can be recited by the masses. The outcome of democracy serves to perpetuate mediocracy at best. Democracy is the idiocity of the masses (can’t find the author of this quote but i think it was Voltaire).

    The focus on sport rather than serious issues is perpetual procrastination and/or diversion from the serious issues that most are not equipped to deal with. This is not often a personal fault but rather a function of the worldview/paradigm that we are bought up in. An evolutionary problem perpetuating world problems.

    The longer society is run by a majority mediocracy with the election of the average rather than the exceptional, the shorter will be the path to disaster. Specifically environmental, sustainability, ideological conflict etc. To date the dominating fabric of the human race is religion (belief) and capitalist economics (self interest). To this end Natural selection maybe the anithesis to survival.

  4. ‘The average voter in our democracy has his/her intelligence insulted as politicians compete to make their messages short and punchy to fit the sound bite. And then our intelligence is insulted again as they vie to impose their one-liners on us over and over again’.

    What does that say about the average voter?

    And what does that say about Intelligence?

  5. Noam Chomsky has written extensively about the farce of elections in modern democracies, an excerpt from Failed States (pg 221): ‘As usual in recent years, the 2004 (US) electoral campaigns were run by the public relations industry, which in its regular vocation sells toothpaste, lifestyle drugs, automobiles, and other commodities. Its guiding principle is deceit.’ He goes on to discuss (both in Failed States and in his other work) the connectedness of big business and the media (which serves its own particular interests as a big business) to the ‘democratic’ political process in modern democracies. This is part of the very deliberate process of Manufacturing Consent – by which elite interests marginalise public opinion and depoliticise most voters. And by virtue of our modern consumer ‘civilization’, the powerful forces of PR and advertising condemn us to irrational preoccupations with material things, to the point where we no longer note or care about the policy matters that affect us. And as you point out Ted, so it is that our preoccupation with material things limits political discussion to matters of budgie smuggling, denigrating debate on the merits of policy and limiting it instead to verbal brawling that we wouldn’t tolerate from five year olds (and we wonder why some of our young people are bullying and humiliating one another). I often listen to Parliament and Senate discussions (including tonight’s) and can’t help but feel my vote is in large part futile. Still, I would only feel more futile by tuning out. And I do feel more hopeful knowing simply that others are talking about our deficit of democracy. Thanks Ted.

  6. I always enjoy your contributions Greg. Along the same lines, I think we can make a strong argument that the Disciples were just PR agents for Jesus Christ. We could also argue that the modern practice of PR is modelled on qualifications promoted by Judas!

  7. Wow! What great comments from my readership this week! I am humbled by your responses and your insights.

  8. A Savage, I particularly like your comment (pasted below).

    “And as you point out Ted, so it is that our preoccupation with material things limits political discussion to matters of budgie smuggling, denigrating debate on the merits of policy and limiting it instead to verbal brawling that we wouldn’t tolerate from five year olds (and we wonder why some of our young people are bullying and humiliating one another).”

    The example set by political leaders debating, and the rhetoric reported by the media, dampens any hope of positive evolutionary practices being a part of generations to come under democracy, or the deceiving illusionistic democracy. The focus of politics to win favor in a democratic society is diverted from the real substantive issues to the point of absurdity with strawman debates.

    I often wonder how the world would be if intellectually superior people (labelled dissenters) such as Chomsky or non-christian individuals (that never make it in the political arena due to their absence of orthodox faith), rather than movie stars or sportsmen, were leaders. But this is unlikely to ever be the case in a democracy. I’m not advocating totalitatarianism, facism or any other ‘ism’ of the past, but I think a new ideology must evolve from our failing democratic capitalism.

  9. Around y1.7k ago Plotinus, in his ‘Meditations’ described an ideal (following Plato) form of government (Plato used the “Republic”)

    Plato witnessed the death of his mentor Socrates under the umbrella of a democracy.

    “If we can’t learn from 3000 years we are living from hand to mouth”


    I fear we have learned nothing.

  10. I agree with your thoughts regarding the triumph of spin over substance.
    One element of this, which I witnessed during my involvement in the newspaper industry, has been the ongoing growth of the public relations field generally.
    You have a situation where newsrooms are increasingly under-resourced while the ranks of the spin doctors grow in number and power.
    This means fewer journos with less time to present an informative, objective version of events.
    Meanwhile there are more and more public relations people churning out someone’s spin, plus – in many cases – layers of ‘communications management’ people and protocol obstructing reporters’ efforts to uncover information that may not suit their employers’ favoured public image or message.

    On another note, I have just read “The Race of a Lifetime’ about the 2008 US presidential election – it is a really good read and offers some great insight into the workings of the political/PR process as well as the people involved.

  11. Thank you all for your thought provoking comments. It was particularly interesting hearing the journalist’s perspective Belinda!

  12. Goddess, actually.


    Goddess of Wisdom.

    Philo (Love) of Sophia.


    Love of Wisdom.

    No spin doctors need apply.

  13. Bob

    A ‘benevolent dictatorship’ is, in my humble opinion, a far better way of encouraging freedom of thought. As in ancient times, it was a person such as Solomon who outlined the ways of a different conception of observing the facets of Reality.

    The thoughts of such as Marcus Auralius (Roman Emporer 161-180 a.d.) expand on that thought .

    Democracy is stultifing.

    There is no room for the Individual.

    And if the Individual is suppressed, so is Humanity.

  14. And vs duties and obligations?

    And expectations?

    From others?

    How free are we actually?

    Bit of a worry.

  15. Hey Bob, I’m disappointed, I was relying on you! Guess we’ll just have to ask Jean for the solution!

    When Father Robin and I were much younger, we used to run around the streets of Brisbane at night to ensure we had a good thirst! There was a pedestrian overpass on the southern approach to the Storey Bridge. Some graffitti Artist, many years ago had written on it the old Labour catch cry,no doubt protesting at Joh’s Gerrymander, “One Vote – One Value.” Later on, someone even more cynical changed the words to “Don’t Vote – No Value”. But I am not going so far to advocate that. I guess the best we can do, if we are in the least politically aware, and want to get some value for our vote, is to make sure we see past the spin and hype before we cast it.

  16. Father Ted.

    As you are well aware my current focus is on the mystics of all descriptions; all orientations.

    They also have much to say about democracy.

    They say that democracy can be aligned with mediocracy to some extent.

    Mediocracy ain’t on my agenda!

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