Elite led representative democracy is giving way to a media driven plebiscitary democracy. Britain's conversation with itself has become more open but less considered. The politicians are set to rebel against the constraints of the new populismby David Goodhart / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The British election campaign has been, so far, an oddly muted affair. One of the loudest background noises has been a nagging complaint about “dumbing down,” about the shrinkage of debate, about the tyranny of the soundbite-a nostalgia for a slower, more reflective, political culture. Part of the complaint is justified and part of the explanation is familiar enough: the growth in the power and aggression of the mass media in most western countries.
This was summed up in the New Yorker a few months ago by Adam Gopnik. He compared the deferential press treatment of the Roosevelts in the White House with the Clinton era. In Roosevelt’s day political reporters physically prevented photographers from taking pictures of FDR in a wheelchair. Compare that with Maureen Dowd announcing on the front page of the New York Times that the president on a trip to Oxford had “returned for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn’t inhale, didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a degree.” This is a change, said Gopnik, not only in tone, or kind, but in worlds. Where the reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects, now he gains status by dining on them. In Britain a similar trend is evident in the coverage of the royal family and politics.
But this change in the status and sheer ubiquity of the media is only half of the story. The power of the mass media is, after all, an old refrain. Something else is now shifting in the nature of democracy; it is a change which is most advanced in Britain and the US, but which may also be pulling continental Europe in its wake. To put it baldly, once we lived in representative democracies where the social and political elites in collaboration with what sociologists call “intermediate institutions” beneath the level of the state-churches, trade unions, voluntary associations of all kinds-had a free hand to govern and to represent public opinion between elections. Now we live in a raucous plebiscitary democracy in which the self-esteem and authority of those elites have declined and the only intermediate institution which touches most people’s lives is the mass media.
Public opinion now speaks for itself, directly through opinion polls, focus groups and phone-in programmes, or indirectly through the daily plebiscite in the national newspapers and electronic media which both second-guesses and shapes opinion. The recent…