Why political thought is imprisoned in the present
Two important new books offer striking insights into the suspicion of the public and fear of the future that underpins contemporary political analysis.
The contemporary political imagination seems to be trapped in the present.
The past is occasionally mined in order to make a point or illustrate an argument – but political analysts appear reluctant to situate present-day reality in any historical context. Since 9/11 in particular, the metaphor of Year Zero increasingly influences our outlook; some analysts never tire of insisting that we live in a ‘new era’ that has little connection with the past. At the same time, many look towards the future as an alien territory. Tomorrow is seen as a frightening place where humanity is likely to have a much-diminished quality of life. Everywhere one looks, predictions about the future seem to be heavily influenced by a sense of foreboding and anxiety.
Walter Laqueur’s The Last Days of Europe is an eloquent obituary for a continent that has apparently lost its way, and which risks becoming a ‘museum of world history’. Al Gore’s The Assault On Reason puts forward a pessimistic view of the public, which apparently is politically illiterate, and questions our capacity to engage with the big issues of our time. Although Gore retains some hope in the democratic potential of the World Wide Web, his overall analysis suggests that off-line, in the real world, public life will continue to be the slave of the over-powerful media for some time.
Both of these books – reviewed together in this essay – are important. They address some of the principal problems currently confronting societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Gore is rightly worried about the erosion of the public sphere in the US; his book is an attempt to make sense of this regressive development. Laqueur’s lament focuses on the mood of cultural and political disorientation that is widespread in Europe. And although both authors are trying to engage with problems that are in some sense ‘new’ and distinct, the extent to which they use familiar models of interpretation is striking.
The main culprit identified by Gore in his examination of the decline of public engagement is the media. In effect, he offers his own customised variant of the classical ‘media-effect’ thesis. Seduced by the idea that there is an omnipotent media, Gore seems to have little faith in the capacity of the public to discriminate, reflect and make up its own mind on important issues. In contrast, Laqueur is preoccupied by what he perceives to be the powerful threat posed by uncontrolled immigration into Europe to the European way of life. Thus, his Last Days of Europe comes across like a twenty-first century afterword to Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West.
Uneasy relationship with the people
Gore’s The Assault on Reason is influenced by a strong tradition in American liberal thought: disappointment with the ‘failure’ of democracy. This classical theme – of an enlightened elite continually let down by a gullible and easily misled public – is revisited and re-energised by Gore. In 1922, American commentator Walter Lippmann published Public Opinion, the classic embodiment of this elite view of democracy. Back when political elites did not have to censor their language, Lippmann warned that the proportion of the electorate that is ‘absolutely illiterate’ was much larger than commentators had suspected. He said these politically illiterate people were ‘mentally children or barbarians’, and thus natural targets for those who seek to manipulate the way people think and behave. Lippmann argued that the public – the public opinion – does not know what is in its best interests. Gore distances himself from Lippmann’s open denunciation of mass democracy – ‘I recoil at Lippmann’s bleak dismissal of America’s gift to human history’ – yet his own book recycles the patronising assumptions of his intellectual ancestor.
Possibly because of his own personal experience at the ballot box, Gore is haunted by the media’s ‘power of persuasion’. He believes that the cumulative impact of mass-media broadcasting, propaganda and new forms of public relations has been to expel reason from the public world. He fears that the media trigger in people responses that are not ‘modulated by logic, reason, and reflective thought’. He says that a manufacturing of consent has led to the hollowing-out of democracy, which means the ‘public is often persuaded to endorse and applaud policies that are actually harmful to its interests’.
The flipside of his focus on an omnipotent media is his view of the public as essentially passive and gullible. In the section of his book that discusses the American electorate, Gore is inconsistent: he has an idealised view of an educated public but also believes that people uncritically internalise the lies and propaganda that are thrown at them. He claims that it is no ‘aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on 11 September’. With more than a hint of frustration, Gore writes: ‘Bush would not be able credibly to label a bill that increases air pollution “the clear skies initiative” – or call a bill that increases clear-cutting of national forests “the healthy forests initiative” – unless he was confident that the public was never going to know what these bills actually did.’ From this perspective, public ignorance is actually the foundation for American political life. And according to Gore, the main culprit in this tragedy is TV. ‘An individual who spends four-and-a-half hours a day watching television is likely to have very different patterns of brain activity from an individual who spends four-and-a-half hours a day reading’, he says.
Lippmann and his co-thinkers believed the public was unreliable because people have infantile emotions that control how they think and act. This view of public opinion as the prisoner of irrationality was based on a belief that the public was more likely to be swayed by their emotions than by reason. The Assault on Reason develops this theme, and updates it with reference to the work of contemporary pop-psychologists. ‘We often make snap judgments based principally on our emotional reactions rather than considering all options rationally and making choices carefully’, says Gore. No doubt we do, but we are also capable of using our reason. And those who are concerned about the erosion of the public sphere would do better to elaborate policies that actually inspired people rather than lamenting about the emotionalism of their ungrateful audiences.
Gore’s obsession with the impact of the media on people’s thought patterns leads to a one-sided and technical analysis of the erosion of public life in the US. There’s no doubt the media have considerable power in determining how political and social problems are framed and discussed. But the media rarely succeed in brainwashing their audience or making people nod along to their messages. Indeed, Americans, like people around the world, selectively choose what they accept and believe. The very fact that such a high proportion of the American electorate is cynical and mistrusts politicians and doubts official versions of events suggests that they are not slaves of the media. For all of Gore’s allegations about the persuasive power of Bush’s politics of fear, we should note that a very large section of the American public is unconvinced by what the government tells them about the ‘war on terror’ and related matters.
Gore seems to have more confidence in the work of educated experts than in the idea that we might develop ideas through public debate. He has considerable faith in The Expert. He continually contrasts the apparently objective advice of the expert with the ideological outlook of the Bush administration. Time and again, he accuses Bush of rejecting ‘the best available evidence’ and of not listening to experts. The ‘subordination of the best scientific evidence to ideologically driven beliefs is yet another strategy for controlling policy by distorting and suppressing the best available information’, argues Gore. However, the relationship between expert advice and sound policymaking is a complex one. The views of experts are rarely the final word on a problem; often they represent little more than an educated opinion. Gore is rightly critical of the fact that the opinions of the wealthy often ‘become more important than the opinions of others’. Yet his embrace of expert opinion as unique and powerful shows that he, too, accepts the idea that there ought to be a hierarchy of opinions.
In fact, one could argue that the professionalisation of policymaking through the cultivation of expert advice has actually contributed to the decline of the public sphere Gore is so concerned about. After all, the pronouncements made by experts rarely become the subject of debate for laypeople. As more and more areas of life are governed according to the ‘best evidence’ offered by experts – from what we eat to how to deal with crime to the issue of climate change – so the terrain for political debate becomes more narrow and restricted. ‘When the public merely watches and listens and does not have a speaking part’ in the political process, ‘the entire exercise is fraudulent’, warns Gore. Yet that is precisely the role that is assigned to the public by the elevation of expert opinion today. At times, Gore is conscious of the paternalistic ethos that underlies the idea that ‘the expert knows best’ in political and social discussion. He writes:
‘Many advocacy organisations – progressive as well as conservative – often give the impression that they already have exclusive possession of the truth and merely have to “educate” others about what they already know. Resentment towards this attitude is…one of the many reasons for a resurgence of the traditional anti-intellectual strain in America.’
He adds that when people are not taken seriously, and not given an opportunity to ‘interact on equal terms’, they ‘naturally begin to resist the assumption that the experts know best’. Unfortunately, he does not thoroughly explore the implications of this insight. If he had done, it would raise questions about Gore’s own project of ‘raising the awareness’ of an otherwise apparently unaware and ignorant public.
From illiterate public to a dissolute culture
The focus of Walter Laqueur’s anxiety, as expressed in The Last Days of Europe, is not so much on the political illiteracy of the public as on the cultural illiteracy of the European elites. Laqueur believes that for some time Europe has faced ‘an existential crisis – or, perhaps more accurately, a number of major crises, of which the demographic problems are the most severe’.
The Last Days of Europe explores the cultural and political consequences of the recent dramatic decline in the rate of fertility amongst European people. Laqueur is not sure why Europeans have lost interest in producing children, but he is certain that a society disinclined to reproduce is unlikely to survive for very long. Like the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn – who fears that Europe’s ‘demographic capitulation’ calls into question the survival of the continent – Laqueur is convinced that Europe is running out of time. And that’s not the only problem…. The Last Days of Europe is also concerned, principally so, with the consequences of an unprecedented level of immigration into Europe.
Laqueur is worried about the differential fertility rates between Europe’s host populations and its more fecund immigrant communities. He points to the example of Brussels, where in 2004 more than 55 per cent of the children born were to immigrant parents. More worryingly still for Laqueur, a significant section of the new immigrant communities has no inclination to be integrated into European societies. Large immigrant communities seem to have little if any desire to participate in European culture; indeed, they appear to resent the values of the very societies that they inhabit.
Laqueur argues that integration has failed in part because immigrants were just not very interested in integrating, and also because they have been inadvertently encouraged, by the politics of multiculturalism, to establish parallel communities. For Europe’s decline, he blames policies that encouraged unplanned immigration, welfare systems that discouraged immigrants from pursuing productive economic activity, and an ethos of multiculturalism that refuses to affirm national cultures. According to Laqueur, the fault lies mainly with European governments and elites. And he simply cannot make sense of why they seem to have acted in such a confused and self-destructive manner:
‘It is difficult even in retrospect to establish what the authorities in these countries were thinking. Did they imagine that uncontrolled immigration would not involve major problems; that the economic, social, and cultural problems would be solved; and that the immigrants would one day disappear or that they would be well integrated?’
Yet his book is not simply a diatribe against the unanticipated consequences of large-scale immigration. Indeed, he recognises that the problems currently facing Europe are unlikely to be the outcome of immigration.
At one point, he rejects the idea that the ‘failure of integration was the fault of European societies’, only to contradict his own argument a page later. He notes that the European elites have lost faith in their own way of life, and that ‘among the establishment little pride was left of belonging to a certain nation (or to Europe)’. ‘Such societies were not in a position to provide guidance to newcomers’, he says, who in any case ‘were bound to gain the impression that prevailing laws and norms could safely be ignored’. In such a climate of ‘cultural and moral relativism’, it is understandable that many immigrants have not been inspired by the way of life of their host communities. Many have a sense of revulsion for their host society, rather than a desire to integrate into it. The anti-European radicalisation of some sections of immigrant youth can be seen, at least indirectly, as a form of disgust with the moral disorientation of the societies they live in. The problem lies clearly with Europe, not its immigrants.
The main merit of Laqueur’s book is that it is prepared to engage with some very uncomfortable but important truths. At a time when the European elites hide behind meaningless EU rhetoric, it is essential that we call on societies to provide an account of what they actually stand for. Europe’s failure to integrate some of its newcomers may well be a result of the fact that it is far from clear what these newcomers would be integrated into. So what is to be done? Laqueur is not very hopeful about the future. His conclusion? That Europe should carry out some damage-limitation exercises in relation to its immigrant communities. He seems resigned to the inevitability of European decline, while at the same time expressing hope that we might be able to avert a full collapse. For Laqueur, the present, for all of its faults, appears preferable to an uncertain future. He ends by arguing: ‘The debate should be about which of Europe’s traditions and values can still be saved.’
But who is going to do the saving? At least Gore has the internet in which to invest his hopes. After reading Laqueur, you are left with a fairly bleak vision of aimless prospectors rummaging around for relics of civilisation in Europe’s cultural wasteland.
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