Sunday, July 8, 2012

What implications does 'monitory democracy' have for the survival of democratic institutions?

I ended my last post promising to consider whether John Keane’s observation that we now have ‘monitory democracy’ has implications for the relationship between the responsibilities and effectiveness of government, and hence the survival of democratic institutions. Can monitory democracy be expected to move political systems towards or away from equilibrium between effectiveness of government and the responsibilities that government is expected to perform?

First, who is Keane and what does he mean by ‘monitory democracy’? John Keane is professor of politics at Sydney university and author of a major history of democracy, ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ (2009), a book over 1,000 pages described by one reviewer as not ‘for the faint hearted’. (Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have read it.) In an article in the Griffith Review, Keane argues that from the middle of the 20th Century representative democracy began to transform into monitory democracy – a new historical form described by ‘the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms’.

Keane’s list of power-scrutinising mechanisms includes: advisory boards, focus groups, citizen juries, talk shows, think tanks, consensus conferences, teachins, online petitions and chat rooms, public vigils, straw polls, summits, public planning exercises, public consultations, social forums and, of course, weblogs. About the only thing these inventions have in common is that they change the incentives faced by politicians and political parties. Keane suggests:
‘The central grip of elections, political parties and parliaments on the lives of citizens is weakening. Democracy is coming to mean more than elections, although nothing less. Within and outside states, independent monitors of power begin to have tangible effects. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, they complicate their lives, question their authority and force them to change their agendas …’

Monitory democracy is closely linked to the emergence of new communications media. In Keane’s terms, ‘monitory democracy and computerised media networks behave as if they are conjoined twins’. He observes:
‘The combination of monitory democracy and communicative abundance … produces permanent flux, an unending restlessness driven by complex combinations of different interacting players and institutions, permanently pushing and pulling, heaving and straining, sometimes working together, at other times in opposition to one another’.

In considering what implications monitory democracy might have for the survival of democratic institutions it seems to me to be worth recalling Joseph Schumpeter’s view, discussed here recently, that democracy is essentially a leadership contest in which the role of citizens ends after they have cast their votes.  The reality of democracy, as described by Keane, is light years away from Schumpeter’s view that democracy can only succeed if voters refrain from trying to tell politicians what to do after they have been elected.
How does monitory democracy actually impact on the balance between the responsibilities and effectiveness of governments?

Some of Keane’s comments suggest that monitory mechanisms might have a positive impact on the effectiveness of government. He points out that, ‘when they do their job well, monitory mechanisms have many positive effects, ranging from greater openness and justice within markets and blowing the whistle on foolish government decisions to the general enrichment of public deliberation and the empowerment of citizens and their chosen representatives through meaningful schemes of participation’. On the other hand, he suggests that nobody ‘should be kidded into thinking that the world of monitory democracy … is a level playing field – a paradise of equality of opportunity among all its citizens and their elected and unelected representatives’.

The combination of monitory democracy and communicative abundance is also likely to impact on voter rationality and the incentives for the major political parties to develop coherent policies to sell to the electorate. There is still a strong incentive for politicians to have regard to particular interests of voters, but it seems to me that their incentive to appeal to the reasoning powers of uncommitted voters may be diminishing. As Keane seems to imply, the new political environment may be discouraging uncommitted voters from taking an intelligent interest in policy issues:
‘Monitory democracy certainly feeds upon communicative abundance, but one of its more perverse effects is to encourage individuals to escape the great complexity of the world by sticking their heads, like ostriches, into the sands of wilful ignorance, or to float cynically upon the swirling tides and waves and eddies of fashion – to change their minds, to speak and act flippantly, to embrace or even celebrate opposites, to bid farewell to veracity, to slip into the arms of what some carefully call “bullshit”.’

This does not provide strong grounds for confidence that monitory democracy improves the effectiveness of government.

How does monitory democracy impact on the scope of responsibilities that governments are expected to perform? The discussion in a recent post about voter irrationality seems highly relevant. There is evidence that voters who say that politics is ‘not at all important’ to them are more likely than others to say that ‘the government should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for’.

On that basis, monitory democracy could be expected to thrust more responsibilities on governments than they can cope with effectively. This raises serious questions about the ability of democratic institutions to survive.

However, as more people perceive that existential threats are facing democratic institutions they might form new interest groups to foster norms of behaviour that might enable better outcomes to be achieved. Under favourable conditions monitory democracy might prove to be a system with self-correcting characteristics. If influential interest groups can form around the survival of some threatened species of animals, is it not reasonable to expect that stronger and more influential interest groups might form when social institutions that make a valued contribution to human well-being are seen to be threatened? 

I would like to draw attention to relevant comments by kvd and Jim Belshaw on Jim's blog. Jim now also has another relevant post: What would you nominate as the most asinine slogan?

In his comments below kvd has drawn attention to an article by Michael Pascoe entitled, 'Timid Governments Bow to Populism', SMH (9/7/2012). That article is well worth reading, as is the article by Thomas Friedman entitled 'The Rise of Popularism' NYT (23/6/2012) which is referred to by Pascoe. Please note the word used by Friedman is 'popularism'. It was only when my spell-checker objected that I understood why Friedman wrote: 'I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism”.'

Neil Whitford is not faint hearted. He has read and reviewed 'The Life and Death of Democracy'. 


Anonymous said...

Hi Winton

I hadn't read this when I put my own comments in reply to your query. I agree with what you have said - and perhaps the only thing I would add is a small 'irrit' about terminology:

Apart from the feeling that the term 'monitory' is quite clunky and far too close to monetary, I get the feeling with some of these labels that they get a life of their own. That is to say, once nominated, they become 'an issue' where perhaps previously none existed?

Think of when 'Gen X' appeared, then how it spawned the rest of the alphabet soup - each without much clear or logical distinction that I can see; more rather a progression.


Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your further comment, kvd.

I also have problems with the terminology. For my purposes it might be better to just talk about the characteristics of modern democracy.

In trying to argue that a new form of democracy has emerged it makes sense for John Keane to invent a new label. But 'monitory' does seem confusing.