The crisis of political debate within contemporary democracies
Exactly sixty years ago, in 1958, Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition. In her philosophical masterpiece, Arendt indicated that the “Vita Activa”, a life actively encompassing public political debate and political action, is the only place of real freedom for citizens and sole remedy for totalitarian regimes and powerful economic oligarchies. Today, erosion of the public sphere is once more a harsh reality, as is particularly evident in the current weakness of “Western Democracies”.
The substantial risk of leaving democratic institutions only formally alive, but significantly lacking any content, is encouraging a deep reflexion on the reasons behind this erosion of the space for public debate and active political action. However, some frequent arguments are employed by different people (belonging to political parties, policy-makers, academia, analysts, media) to justify the impossibility of developing a comprehensive political debate within contemporary democracies. At least four main orders of arguments can be identified that are used to justify the shrinking of the Vita Activa: technical complexity, global issues, trivialization of politics and ideological taboo.
The technical complexity argument
According to the proponents of this argument, there are certain political decisions and some policy fields requiring such a high level of knowledge and technical competences that they cannot be left to public debate. This is particularly evident any time political referenda are proposed to citizens on complex matters or in the debate encompassing the adoption of institutional elements of direct democracy. Many scholars and intellectuals have warned against the risks inherent in direct democracy, or even openly supported less democratic political systems in the sense of a “epistemocratic” reform, capable of producing higher quality decisions. For instance, political scientist Giovanni Sartori (Democrazia. Cos’è? 2007), has been among the most critical opponents of direct democracy, advocating representative democracy, while Jason Brennan, the author of Against Democracy (2016), supports the adoption of institutional set-ups emphasizing the role of competences and meritocracy and narrowing political rights (which is already happening in the US, for different motivations, as the recent cases of Ohio and Alabama are alarmingly there to signal).
The global issues argument
Proponents of this argument explain the limitation of substantial public political debate within contemporary democratic societies through the increasingly global nature of the issues national policy-makers have to deal with. In consequence, International institutions and Organizations (WTO, WHO, etc.) do have a comparative advantage in confronting global trends such as climate change or large-scale migration. Similarly, regionalization processes, such as the development of the European Union in Europe or the ASEAN in South-East Asia, can be seen as a functional response to issues that, according to some, cannot be tackled at the national level. It is quite clear that what is won via regional or global governance in terms of efficiency, based on the top-down approach, is lost in terms of democratic legitimation, producing a conflictual tension between supranational governance and national sovereignty that could be perceived during the last G7 in Canada in relation to international free trade.
The trivialization argument
The proponents of this argument account for the erosion of the public sphere on the basis of over-simplified and often polarizing accounts of reality. In other words, simplicity, as well as complexity, can produce limit to public debate. For instance, populism downgrades the quality of public political debate with trivial messages, as we can see in the rhetoric recently used in the US, by appealing directly and exclusively to the citizens, omitting the intermediation provided by democratic institutions that remain crucial to preserving the functioning of constitutional rights against abuse of political power. Leaders of populist movements de facto consider themselves entitled to speak on behalf of all the citizens, taking recourse to iconic sentences such as “I know what People want”, thus completely eroding any possibility of constructive and active political discussion.
The ideological taboo argument
During the recent political crisis in Italy around the formation of the new coalition government M5S-Lega, the simple possibility of making Paolo Savona the Minister of Economy led to a political debate focusing on the conditions of Italy remaining permanently in the EU. The governor of the Italian Central Bank, the very day after Savona’s candidacy was vetoed by President Mattarella, reverted to the notion of “destiny” of Italy to dismiss any possibility of public political debate around the topic. The anecdote is a useful tool to understand ideological arguments based on the badly specified notion of ineluctability, in some cases resembling the mystic tones of destiny or, indeed, taboo. If the argument of technical complexity is supported by the growing specialization of knowledge and expertise required to deal with global issues and the trivialization argument is backed by simplified and often polarizing accounts of reality, behind the “taboo” argument is the practice of dismissing political debate by reason of a certain ideological perspective which is paraded as an objective and scientific claim, as in the case of the imposition of economic austerity measures in the EU, completely inadequate to fix public debt sustainability, as seen by recent procrastination on repayment terms in Greece rather than agreeing upon debt relief proper.
Towards the disappearance of politics?
Open, pluralistic, debate within democratic societies is unfortunately the first victim of the current political environment, as seen recently in the US and Italy. The limitation of the public debate by reason of technical complexity and growingly global issues, or trivial generalization and ideological taboos, is dangerously forcing democracies’ citizens into political passivity, narrowing de facto the window of alternatives to an extreme degree, and resulting is an increased polarization of the “”, the offer of political proposals to meet citizens’ demands for public solutions.
This is the exact opposite of the Vita Activa portrayed by Hannah Arendt masterfully: societies where public life, once politics is dismissed, merely exists in terms of labor-power and consumption.
Valerio Alfonso Bruno is a political analyst and senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), also involved with the ASERI at the Università Cattolica of Milan and the Observatoire de la Finance (Geneva).