Posts Tagged ‘elites’

Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.


* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?

The universal law of genetic decline.

datePosted on 15:18, August 29th, 2009 by Pablo

Upon hearing the news that Ted Kennedy’s death has meant the “end of the dynasty” for the US equivalent of political royalty, I got to musing on why the “dynasty” is done. There are dozens of Kennedy children and grandchildren running about, and a few–Teddy Jr. and Joseph (son of Robert) in the House, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as lieutenant govenor of Maryland earlier this decade–have served in elected office. Thus there is enough biological material to keep the dynasty going. Why then, is it not?

The answer may be in the universal tendency of genetic decline in influential families. The logic goes like this: the first generation of any modern dynasty is characterised by “lift-from-the-bootstraps” ambition, entrepeneurship, innovative thinking, cunning, risk-taking, and flat out smarts. Through ruthlessness and hard work the progenitor of the dynasty emerges out of poverty and proceeds to achieve money, power, influence–or any combination thereof. As s/he ascends (it usually is a he), the first generation achiever moves out of his/her lower class station and begins to mingle with the hoi paloi. Eventually, as s/he reaches upper class status they  breed with members of the established aristrocracy who are long on manners and etiquette and  short on real achievement or talent. There begins the slide.

The first generation of children produced by this mix tend to have the progenitor’s determination and drive, as they hear first hand about the suffering and work it took to get them the silver spoon. They tend to reproduce the progenitor’s ambitions in politics, finance, enterprise or military affairs. They share the progenitor’s flaws but better reproduce his/her talents, which when coupled with the material advantages afforded to them, reinforce their positions as part of the elite. They proceed to breed with other members of the elite–some old school, some hereditary, some new blood, and go on to produce the third generation of aristocrats.

That is where the dynastic decline takes on momentum. 50 or so years removed from the hardships of the progenitor, his/her grandchildren live in the rarified air of the elites. They go to elite schools, they have maids and chauffeurs, they play with the most expensive toys, live in opulent houses, summer in beautiful vacation spots, jet around the world for pleasure, go to the best parties, sleep with the most handsome or beautiful people, and would not know a hard day’s work if it smacked them in the face (even though they are appointed to corporate boards and trusts). Most importantly, they can buy themselves out of trouble, and because they can, they do. Coupled with the lack of drive derived from their comfortable status, and with their ambition gene diluted by inter-marriage with members of established elites, this is the generation of decline.

The story of the Kennedy’s is well-known: bootlegger father with a penchant for the ladies and fascist inclinations. A generation of sons that included war heros (at least as far as the story goes), an assassinated president, an assassinated presidential front-runner and Senator, and Ted. Lest it be forgotten, it included Eunice Kennedy, the founder of the Special Olympics, who arguably may have influenced as many lives as did her brothers.  Then came the grandkids—Maria Shriver, Robert Jr. Joseph, Kathleen, Teddy Jr and a a host of others. It is those others that matter here because they have done virtually nothing to advance the fortunes of the family or the community. In fact, many of that generation, and their fourth generation children, are most known for their celebrity antics and criminal transgressions and ability to escape the type of justice usually meted out to the less fortunate.

The Kennedy’s are not alone. Think of the Hilton dynasty. Think of the Rockefellers, Gettys or Carnegies. Think of Saddam Hussein’s sons. Think of Kim jung-il and his off-spring. Or European and Arab royalty. Everywhere one looks, regardless of culture or creed, the universal law of genetic decline is hard at work turning the off-spring of the mighty into social parasites and elite bludgers. Some will argue that it is not a genetic condition but the way in which they are socialised that brings about the decline. That is probably true, and since I am not a geneticist I cannot argue against the idea that it is nurture, rather than nature that produces the effect. But what I can say is that I see this process as a good thing.

The reason I believe that the universal law of genetic decline is a good thing is that it puts a natural shelf-life on any modern dynasty. Dynasties are to social life what monopolies are to capitalism: they stifle creativity, ambition and innovation, to say nothing of egalitarianism and equal treatment. Anything that breaks up these hierarchies is thus a public good, as it forces renovation, if not rejuvenation of elites  by circulating new blood into them, blood that often times comes from lower rungs on the social totem pole.

So let us mark the end of the Kennedy era by honoring the things that Teddy and his family have contributed to US political life, and be thankful that their influence has apparently come to and end. Now the question remains, what about the status of the NZ elite? Or, more specifically on one issue: Old money has found its way into the National party presidency, whereas it is new money that leads its parliamentary wing and government. Is that sign of things on the upswing or things in decline for the blue side of the political spectrum?