Spectator Democracy's Last Gasp for Air

A frenetic take on what's going wrong with democracy. Living like Pharaohs. And some stuff on rediscovering yourself after the pandemic.

Hi friends 👋🏽 ,
Welcome back to Between Black and White, a monthly newsletter that challenges binary thinking by embracing complexity, with a focus on politics and society.
First up, an apology. I didn’t write to you last month as promised. But I hope you’ll forgive me. After nine months of lockdown and personal crises, I took a break. I made a few trips across the UK, got double vaccinated and turned 31. My sister said my 30th year would be the best one yet. She was wrong. It was actually the hardest (explanation here). But looking back, I’m certain it was one of the most important years of my life.
Apology and explanation out of the way - let’s get to it.
I’m tired of politics. It’s a strange thing to write for someone who publishes a newsletter about politics. But I’m guessing many of you feel the same.
Here in the UK, our politics is defined by empty slogans, short-term fixes and the so-called “culture wars.” No-one seems to asking the bigger questions about what progress actually looks like and how we can make it happen.
It’s tempting to blame our politicians. But they are a symptom of a democratic system that isn’t working. The conditions that allowed it to once work have been shattered. This month’s piece unpacks some of what I think is going on. While I write from the UK, I’m confident aspects of the picture I paint will resonate no matter where you are based.
For new readers, a caveat. It’s a different style to how I usually write. If I’ve done my job, you’ll arrive at the end of the piece like Frodo clinging on to the cliff inside Mount Doom. Rest assured, it’s the first piece in a much more hopeful and substantive series exploring what the future of democracy might look like (you can see some of the other questions I’m exploring here).
You can read the piece below or click here to read it directly on my website.
After the piece, I share the usual medley of my latest thinking. This month, I touch on the carbon cost of innovation and sustaining personal change in a “post-pandemic” world.
As ever, do get in touch if you have any thoughts. I love hearing from you.
Sunil

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Spectator Democracy’s Last Gasp for Air


This piece is inspired by Walter Lippman’s seminal books, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, both published in the 1920s. He argued that ordinary people - a “bewildered herd” - were incapable of guiding democracy. His concern wasn’t that ordinary people aren’t intelligent enough to make public policy decisions; it was whether an ordinary person could ever know enough to choose intelligently. Because of this, Lippman called for a “specialised class” made up of “responsible men” to lead our democracies.

In most of our democracies, there are two roles.

The Responsible Men who do the thinking, planning and the do-ing in the common interest. And yes, they are, sadly, typically men.

Then there’s most of us: The Bewildered Herd. Our role is to spectate.

Every so often The Bewildered Herd will be called to the stage to endorse The Responsible Men. But then the Herd must leave the stage.

Spectators but not participants. Mostly passive rather than active. 

We want, need, and are used to this old bargain.

We want reassurance that someone else is in charge, even when it's clear no-one is.

This so-called spectator democracy, where Responsible Men represent interests of The Bewildered Herd, has sometimes been called representative democracy.

We’re used to divisions of labour of this sort as we live in a culture where outsourcing is the norm. In fact, we excel at creating systems which do things for us without us actually knowing how they work.

And depending on where you lived, this system worked for a while. In post-WWII Europe, there was a semblance of economic growth and cultural stability.

But while it seems we still live in a spectator democracy, the conditions that enabled this division of labour have broken down.

Buffered by the confluence of globalisation, tech-fuelled individualism, and the diminishing role of the nation-state, society is atomising to the point where it has become near impossible to articulate a shared narrative that binds The Responsible Men and The Bewildered Herd together as in the past.

With The Responsible Men no longer able to control information, everything is dispersing, fragmenting, and becoming more complex at a higher velocity than ever before.

The Bewildered Herd used to be told what the important news was and what to think about this news. The legitimacy of The Responsible Men was dependent on this near monopoly on information.

But in a now familiar story, technology came along and flipped the status quo over, giving everyone the power to see multiple clashing realities—whether they wanted to or not.

Now there are seemingly infinite issues to be bothered about. And the issues are matched by almost limitless analysis.

It’s as if someone has turned on both taps in the bath. And where we had hot and cold, we instead have issues and analysis. The taps have been left on, the bath’s overflowing, and the house is flooded. This metaphorical house is our mind and our societies.

The medium is the message and the medium keeps evolving relentlessly: newspapers to radio to television to Twitter to TikTok. With each incarnation, the space for nuance narrows further as character-limited algorithmic engines tube feed everyone a different version of reality. 

Overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges before them, The Responsible Men struggle to govern. Martin Luther King may have been sure that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but it remains straight in part because The Responsible Men have no ability to shape it to their will.

Politics has become a reactionary dream. The Responsible Men are forever ambulance chasing, creating grievances amongst The Bewildered Herd or letting existing ones fester rather than working to prevent them from appearing in the first place. 

We’re still spectators, but now we’re angry spectators. 

Implicit within the idea of spectator democracy is the idea that you can switch off sometimes and leave it to those in charge.

But the herd can no longer switch off or turn away with ease anymore.

When Holby City, a hospital soap based in the UK, announced that it was ending after more than two decades, the creators said it was difficult to make a medical drama in the time of Covid-19. “Too much Covid and viewers would be getting more in the evening of what they were dealing with all day.”

A similar process has happened to our politics. Politics is no longer limited to the six or ten o'clock news. Because of the failures of the Responsible Men and the information tsunami, it dominates and bleeds across our whole existence.

Climate change. Inequality. Fake News. Brexit. Nuclear Weapons. AI. Pandemics.

Existential crises multiply. Histories that we were told were great are now problematic, symbols that were once eternal now lack foundations.

Many—if privileged enough to be able to do so—switch off. Others throw their hands in the air and beg for something different. Some take refuge in nostalgia and yearn for a romanticised past.

A hardy few try to stop spectating and take the knee, but they are dismissed for engaging in futile “gesture politics.” Duly infantilised, they feel tempted to plod back to the herd. 

Whatever the coping strategy, we’re all stuck watching endless episodes of Friends on E4, except it’s “Everything is Broken and Worse Than It Used to Be.” Over and over again, 24/7.

This reality is a little bit sickening and the Responsible Men know this. Their dream is to somehow make it back to the 20th Century.

Flummoxed by their failure of imagination or crushingly self-aware of their limitations, they play a knowing game with us – one we’re complicit in.

The game is called Let’s Pretend. 

They say, “Let’s Pretend things are like they used to be.”

“Let’s Pretend we can pull these levers and things will happen.”

“Let’s Pretend we can still control the agenda.”

Enough of us are discombobulated by reality and say, ok, let’s play.

We’d rather fight phony wars and recite slogans instead of asking and answering the questions that do matter.

Aided by their spin doctors, the Responsible Men start feeding us storylines.

“Take Back Control”

“It’s Time To Level Up”

“Make America Great Again”

“Yes We Can!”

Occasional pork barrel politics aside, these storylines are mostly decoupled from actual delivery.

The Bewildered Herd still laps it up. It doesn’t matter if we are for or against the storyline. All that matters is that there is a storyline. A digestible storyline.

Too much awareness of complexity, much like too much awareness of death, is a recipe for paralysis, for anarchy.

Unreality is easier to handle than reality.

But deep down we know something’s not right. 

We need to stop watching. 

But how do we stop? 

How do we stop being spectators?


Curious about the answers to these questions? This is the first in a series of articles that will seek to answer what the future of democracy might look like. If you haven’t already joined, sign up here to get my articles in your inbox.

Thanks to Chris, Dani, Jordan, Jeremiah, Joel, Josh, Larry, Richard, Rob, and Shimon for feedback on this piece.


Things I’m Thinking About

Can We Keep On Living Like Pharaohs?

In 300BC Pharaoh Ptolemy had a smartphone of sorts. It was called the Library of Alexandria. With the stated aim of having a copy of every book in the world, it was home to 500,000 papyrus scrolls. Instead of Siri and Alexa, Ptolemy had 100 scholars from different fields who could navigate the library and answer any question he had.

I came across this barnstormer of an analogy in Covid-19 Has Exposed The Carbon Cost of Innovation.” The author, Gabriel Davies, traces how papyrus scrolls, scholars and oil lamps gave way to digital files, search engine algorithms and LEDs, with the costs of each between 100,000 and 1 trillion times cheaper today than they were in Ptolemy’s time. Now many of us have powers once limited to Pharaohs in our pocket. Such progress has occurred due to fossil fuels as much as human ingenuity.

Today, we urgently need carbon-free technology in almost every industry. But according to Davies, there isn’t enough being invested in research and development to make this happen.

I opened the newsletter by arguing that leaders in the UK don’t seem to be asking the bigger questions about what progress looks like and how we can make it happen. Covid-19 caused the greatest global recession since WWII and the largest ever annual decline in carbon emissions.

So here’s one of those bigger questions we need to be answering: how can we transition to an economy that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels?

Sustaining Positive Changes Made During The Pandemic After The Pandemic

Someone wise recently told me they were looking for a partner who is “somewhere between past you and future you.” It really stuck with me as it captured some of the tensions that I’ve been feeling as I’ve emerged from the lockdown. Let me try and explain:

There is nothing new about working out who we are. We’re all doing it all the time. But the pandemic was a pretty severe rupture in our ways of living. At least for me, it means the distinctions between the different versions of myself are perhaps sharper than they ever have been.

My ten cents: I fundamentally believe that most human beings have poor willpower. Positive change comes from intentionally engineering our environments, with a focus on place, people, and purpose. The lockdowns forcibly reengineered our environments. Now as we emerge, the tricky part is to work out how to maintain positive changes in old environments. So I’m somewhere between past me and future me. I’ll keep you posted when I find now me.


Things I’ve Read

My monthly roundups of articles I’ve read and enjoyed. Click on the tweet below to check them out 👇🏾


Video of The Month

This is a seminal video from 2010 that I watch every year. The key message is this: creativity is a collective endeavour not the result of heroic individualism. Led Zeppelin shamelessly pilfered songs from elsewhere. Star Wars contains scenes from other movies. Even evolution is a remix! And consider my piece I just shared with you. It is influenced by Walter Lippman, Noam Chomsky, this tweet and this article. As the video proclaims: everything is a remix!

Thanks for reading this month’s edition of Between Black and White. What did you think? Hit reply, I always love hearing from you.