What undermines democracy?

"Our democracy has not been undermined by an unproven claim about one uninvolved tech company or the manner in which a minor figure’s minor ex was or was not outed"

The production of three-volume novels may have dried up, but their place has been more than adequately taken by the Netflix/Amazon Prime market. Just as readers of the past found it hard to put down a really good novel, so today it is impossible not to click the “next episode” box once an episode is over. Or binge-watch a season in a sitting.

I was recently persuaded to watch The Looming Tower, an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s excellent 2006 book on the run-up to 9/11, having resisted because of a presumption that it would not be perfect for any down-time. Yet the series is not only well scripted and acted, but also — as with much of the best art — constantly throws light on recent events. One came from the reminder about the amount of time the world — and America in particular — spent in the 1990s talking about Monica Lewinsky.

It is easy to portray those days as halcyon in retrospect. A film adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain once made precisely that error. In fact the episode felt at the time, as it was, tawdry, demeaning and suggestive. That the nation which had saved the world from destruction three times in a century should finish its great century in such a fashion seemed at the time — as now — to be emblematic of some greater falling away.

Yet what attention and energy was expended. The makers of The Looming Tower do not over-focus on it, but the thought is placed each time a television flashes in the background with a discussion of “that dress” that if people had not been focused on other matters, worse things might have been averted.


It is unprovable, of course. Besides which fact, democracies — and democrat — need to be able to multitask. But in recent weeks the feeling does occur that this era might recur. Anderson Cooper’s interview with the porn star Stormy Daniels was treated like, and trailed as, one of the big political interviews of yore. Every day’s news seem similarly stuck on the gleeful pile-in onto whatever is that day’s scandal. Even those stories which should give pause — North Korea, the use of chemical weapons in Syria — swiftly degenerate into a “what did X (usually the President) say about Y on Twitter?”. One wonders what it would take to shake us out of this.


The Cambridge Analytica scandal fitted this pattern perfectly. When I watched the pink-haired “whistleblower” Christopher Wylie being interviewed I noticed my teeth grinding. When he started giving interviews saying that if Brexit was going to happen it needed to be a decision made by the British people, I emitted a small yelp. The same thing happened when the ex-boyfriend of a Number 10 adviser who had worked for Vote Leave became the latest tool for trying to thwart Brexit. The fact that this person’s family in Pakistan apparently didn’t know he was gay became a major news story. Had Number 10 knowingly outed this person, putting his family at possible risk and making him cry in the process?

It isn’t that such things don’t matter at all. But they certainly don’t matter very much. Our democracy has not been undermined by an unproven (and now constantly corrected) claim about one uninvolved tech company or the manner in which a minor figure’s minor ex was or was not outed. Our democracy is being undermined by the fact that it is becoming ever clearer that the Brexit vote is the first since universal suffrage that a substantial chunk of the elite will not accept and are continuously trying to overturn.


The whole Number 10 “outing” scandal clarified another thought. Social attitudes surveys — among other sources — have long demonstrated one way in which social change comes about. Whether it is gays, single mothers or any number of other things, the clearest cause of a change in attitudes is proximity to people from that particular group, so that the abstract becomes personal. A friend is gay. A much-loved aunt has a child out of wedlock. My hope and presumption after the 2016 vote was that everything would ease as time went by because people would realise that those who were close to them who voted the other way were not bad, and that we had to find a way through together as a country.

Yet a sizeable number of people — including some very influential figures — are doing the opposite of what would be needed to heal the issue. They are cutting off those who disagree with them, shaming those they should be trying to live with, and ring-fencing themselves from opinions they dislike. The result is that injections of poison like the Cambridge Analytica story keep getting pumped into a body which is trying to heal but being systematically prevented from doing so. I wish it were possible to believe that those responsible are ignorant of the fire they are playing with. But they must know — mustn’t they?

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