Simplism, technology and the narrowing of democracy

Simplism, technology and the narrowing of democracy

Catherine Neilan

13:35 11th December 2020

Democracy has long had a tendency towards Occam's Razor-style thinking: that the simplest answer is usually the best.

This is perhaps inevitable, particularly in well-established and stable democracies, in which people dutifully troop to the polls every few years to vote for the same party they backed last time in what is their sole form of participation in the democratic process. That people then complain that politicians are removed from them is a symptom, rather than a cause, of this process. But as we have seen in recent years, simplism in politics is leading to worse outcomes.

Both in the UK and the US, elections and referenda have been won or lost on slogans. In America, Donald Trump's promise to Drain the Swamp and Make America Great Again chimed with Vote Leave's campaign to Take Back Control.

In each case, the antagonist was strategically implied: was the UK taking back control from the EU, or from immigrants? Were the immigrants from the EU or Syria? Was America going to become Great Again by building a wall or investing in industries? Who - beyond 'Crooked Hillary' - was in the Swamp and what would replace it?

The slogans allowed for people to engage in dog whistle politics with a veneer of acceptability. Who can argue against making a country great - surely no one wants their country to be worse? And control, agency over our own decisions, must always be a good thing, right?

The slogans were catchy, but they also fed into the long-identified political theory of simplism. As a recent article by Nathanial Rachman points out, this concept has a few key hallmarks: that debate is unnecessary; the opposition is stupid or evil; it's either us or them - there is no middle ground; and political norms do not matter.

Rachman notes: "Simplism's tendency to encourage polarization is just as insidious-if you slander naysayers as saboteurs and regard dissent as incomprehensible, no discussion can be had. Because simplists have the loudest voices and catchiest slogans, entire parties can become associated with ideals that those parties may not even support. Even as Democrats from Sanders to Biden have rejected calls to "defund the police," Republican strategists have leapt at the chance to paint their opponents as radicals. It is unsurprising that so many Americans have stopped talking to the other side."

The general election in 2019 was another great example of this. Both the main parties may have published lengthy manifestos, but for the vast majority of voters it was a rerun of the 2016 referendum, and you had only one decision to make: did you want to Get Brexit Done?

Labour tried to fight the tide by publishing policy pledge after policy pledge, but without anything really sticking: their battle was again focused on one key issue: what you thought of Jeremy Corbyn.

The same can be said of November's election in the US, which boiled down to where people stood when it came to Donald Trump and coronavirus, which the president had whipped up into yet another culture war.

In neither case were voters thinking long-term about who would be best placed to deal with the pre-pandemic challenges facing the country - sizeable even then. We were, as we so often do, overwhelmed by the personalities and the soundbites.

In some canvassing carried out by Pew Research last year David P. Reed, a pioneering architect of the internet expert in networking, spectrum and internet policy, warned that technology was further eroding our ability to consider nuance within democracy.

So sophisticated and ubiquitous has the manipulation of user data become, he argues, that "Democracy' in 2030 will be democracy in name only".

"The current forms of democracy limit citizen participation to election events every few years, where issues and candidates are structured by political parties into highly targeted single-vote events that do not represent individuals' interests," he wrote at the time. "Instead, a small set of provocative 'wedge' issues are made the entire focus of the citizen's choice. This is not representation of interests. It is a managed poll that can easily be manipulated by behaviour modification of the sort that technology is moving toward."

But there is one area in our lives where technology can be cut out: our real world discussions with people, particularly those who might hold a different set of opinions to our own. Through open dialogue, with neighbours, colleagues, friends and family, people can sense check what they are reading online and see whether it holds up.

Of course, the pandemic is making that harder. Those off-chance interactions with people where we talk about last night's TV or something interesting we saw online are happening less and less, and with that comes less opportunity to rub off our hard edges and weird corners.

That puts the responsibility back onto our shoulders to do more: read newspapers that we wouldn't normally pick up, just to see what the other side is saying. Follow a range of voices online. And when the opportunity allows for it, ask people what their experience of the last year has been, because it will likely be quite different to your own.

Leaders like Trump have whipped up anger and resentment among many, who believe there is a simple solution to society's ills. The reality is, of course, that there isn't, just as there isn't a simple solution to democracy's current crisis.

We all have to work at it. But the start of that work is to acknowledge the challenges and start considering pragmatic approaches to resolving them.

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Tags: Open dialogue Boris Johnson Brexit Donald Trump Democracy