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Who’s got the X-Factor in UK Politics?

Who’s got the X-Factor in UK Politics? A playful look at the debate between John Milbank and Alain de Benoist in Telos 134 (Spring 2006) against the backdrop of the UK general election and other more popular voting shows.

Voting for pleasure is by no means a new phenomenon, but with the advent of TV reality competition shows the trend has seen exponential growth. Consider this alongside a malaise in British voting trends and a general disaffection with politics, and you begin to see why Simon Cowell, reality TV mogul, is testing the water for a reality politics competition show. The premise: if only we could make politics fun, even silly, then people would be more inclined to vote. It seems an obscure jump to make. But disaffection from politics is inversely proportionate to an increase in ratings for entertainment television. In 2005 more people voted for Big Brother than in the UK general election. Nor is the move unprecedented. The dumbing down of British politics is everywhere. Over the last few months, Dermot O’Leary, host of the X-Factor, has been looking to a host a politics show on the run-up to the UK general election. (Can we hope that it is by now too late?) In February, Pierce Morgan, former host of Britain’s Got Talent, held an unprecedented interview with Gordon Brown regarding his personal life. And in 2005 June Sarprong, originally MTV UK host, got much coveted access to Tony Blair.

Turning politics over to popular hosts is not bad in intention. With the majority of votes in the UK held among the over-34, new methods are required for enthusing young voters. But the dumbing down of politics, ostensibly a Reformist shift handing power to the people, is in fact a devaluing of politics in general and of real such shifts in particular. When we go one step further, as Cowell hopes to do, and encourage audiences to vote for pleasure in relation to politics, we lose even the value of voting. This devaluation occurs for three interrelated reasons: First, dumbing down politics does not hand interpretive political power over to people who otherwise would not have access to politics. Rather, it hands political decision making over to a mood. Second, voters are then vulnerable to manipulation as politics becomes a competition of personality and gestures, as opposed to substance. Third, the process of voting itself disguises the fact that we are voting within a limited and preselected field. If we make this process more whimsical we only further disguise the decision making that goes on prior and subsequent to the vote. I shall discuss these matters with reference to the understanding of democracy emerging from John Milbank’s corpus and Alain de Benoist’s “Reply to Milbank” (in Telos 134), as well as against the playful backdrop of reality competition shows and the upcoming UK general election, to be held on May 6th.

Democracy rests on the ability of the public to take calm, detached, and informed decisions. Because it is never the case that a mob will take calm, detached, and informed decisions regarding war, economic policy, etc., we choose a democratic republic whereby the public is required only to vote in the people who make these decisions, as opposed to a pure democracy whereby all major decisions are put to plebiscite. (There are, of course, reasons of practicality that prevent this too; modern Britain is infinitely larger and more complicated than ancient Athens, for example.) Now, de Benoist does not understand this aversion to pure democracy:

[Milbank claims that] “in the United States part of the problem is that there is a yearning for the madness of pure democracy,” and that “pure democracy tends to deny the sanctity of life, the importance of the child.” What connection can such claims have with democracy, which has never been anything but the regime that locates the legitimacy of politics in the sovereign power of the people?

This is a disingenuous reading of Milbank for whom democracy is an intrinsically good yet flawed polity. Good, because it relies on the assumption that each man has equal worth; flawed, because it tends toward honoring that assumption by giving each man, irrespective of aptitude, equal power. And pure democracy, by denying the natural preeminence for certain kinds of decision making inherent to some individuals, actually denies the difference inherent to life, the principle that with the arrived child something new emerges. Pure democracy thus denies the sanctity of life. But pure democracy denies the sanctity of life in another way. For in removing decision making power from preeminent individuals and handing it over to an indistinct mob, pure democracy actually undermines the human ability to act in the name of what is good.

Consider for example, the Conservative election manifesto promise to allow local communities to vote on local proposals. A local community is almost never going to vote to have its taxes raised no matter how necessary a measure it may be. There are much more frightening hyperbolic examples: what if a local community could vote on reducing the number of immigrants it expels, or whether or not it would send troops to war? Or what if local communities were given the final say on whether they should receive government subsidies? Government subsidies in the West, as the public well knows, threaten the livelihood of the third world. But can we really trust that locals would choose the latter’s livelihood over their own? The Conservatives in Britain would have us elect local constables, and Michael Gove, Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, has put forward the possibility of electing judges. Handing these decisions over to dilettantes could be disastrous.

De Benoist understands Milbank’s point that liberal democracies manipulate anxiety and fear but does not see that this would be far worse if we extended the number of things that could be voted on (22). But, one may object, Simon Cowell is only asking for virtual voting on issues, not actual voting that demands representation. Well, first, Tony Blair already undertook such polling on issues. Rather than consulting experts on what was right, he consulted the people on what they happened to want at a given time. The result is to sever Plato’s link between excellence and efficiency. Second, once we had managed to encourage millions of people to vote for pleasure on important issues, we would be but a spark from outrage at representatives for not acting on the outcome of such votes. No, we must allow voters only to vote in representatives with a distinct and measurable conception of the good. And whence does the idea of an ultimate good arise? Well of course, it begins in Plato and extends through the Christian tradition to present day. To contest, as de Benoist does, that the roots of modern democracy are not Christian is to ignore the republican aspect of modern democracy.

Thus we choose a democratic republic. This system is nonetheless wrought with vulnerabilities. For, as Plato saw and as history has shown, in a democracy we may vote in a tyrant. This principle is easily manifested in a microscopic way when we look at reality competition television. It is rarely the person of greatest talent who wins such shows. Rather, it is the candidate who woos the most voters. Inevitably, because it is then easier to demonstrate likability over virtue, likability becomes the part that candidates push for. Politics in the United States has often slipped down this road historically. In Britain it is a new and frightening phenomenon. In the current election campaign more than ever we have candidates’ “WAGS” (“Wives And Girlfriends,” a term borrowed from the lowly-cum-celebrity wives and girlfriends of footballers), as opposed to chancellors of the exchequer, or secretaries for Health or Education, depending on which issue serves as the cornerstone of the election campaign, joining them on the electoral trail.

In the push for likability it becomes ever easier to push through frightening agendas behind made-up smiles. It is far easier to manipulate votes when issues are systematically forced onto the backburner. Especially, cue Brown, if your competition seems to have no personality (i.e., is all about the issues)! And, of course—and this is again nothing new for U.S. politics—when likability rules the day, we in Britain can look forward to a time when candidates hire private detectives to dig up anything that might render rival candidates unlikeable. Now, all this might seem to suggest that I am against extending the vote. For protecting voters against their own vulnerability was long used in the United States and Britain to stop black people and women from voting. But I am not arguing against qualitatively extending the vote. Britain has a proud history of not only allowing recent immigrants to vote but to run for election. I am arguing against extending the issues on which we can vote, and limiting and rendering transparent the extent to which politicians can appeal to public mood. There are times of course when the public mood seems to be on the morally right side of history—the Iraq War, for instance—but there are also times when they are wrong. Once could argue that the same is true of politicians. But I hope I have outlined some important examples of where public vote cannot err on the side of justice: taxation, immigration, and subsidies.

Finally, we need to remember that we are only given the right to vote within a preselected list of what the high and mighty deem it worth—read: acceptable—for us to vote on. We are only offered options within a limited range: war or no war, tax or no tax, Conservative or Labour. In this way, we are given a taste of having a part in shaping the country without ever having the chance of changing the very nature of, say, war or taxation or adversarial politics. This includes but is not limited to the manipulation of our desire to vote. It is hard, for instance, to know whether the Conservative push for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was derived from euroscepticism, political cynicism, or a genuine desire to put power in the hands of the people. It is important to vote when we get the chance, to keep one foot in the game. But it is equally important to see when we are being manipulated. The only way to keep one foot out is to maintain a political narrative external to the system. If we invest all of our moral culpability in a party, then when they lose that culpability we too have lost ours. For this reason it is necessary for the continuation of a morally credible democracy to maintain political narratives external to the political process. And yes, one such narrative is the Christian narrative.

But there are some ways that we can learn from the X-Factor. We can better use the medium of television to get across ideas. We can have more public debates, having candidates go through themes: the economic, military, health, and education. This is happening right now. But we could do more. What we do, and how we do it, is up for debate. And we should make sure that debate is fueled not only by calls from the people, or by reactionary moves from opposition parties, but also by rigorous, calm, and reflective philosophical and theological theory. A good place to start on this is road is Alain De Benoist’s “Reply to Milbank.”

Read the full version of Alain de Benoist’s “Reply to Milbank” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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