The sound and the fury signifying nothing: some observations on the new politics

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s, each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and through that to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movements platform was seen to compromise the size of the civil rights coalition. 

Since then politics has famously been ‘hollowed out’. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force which will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. And policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but defund doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans to overthrow capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next to none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.  

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear. 

Now we have the apotheosis of this in the American kayfabe insurrection, where a motley crew of Trump supporters turned up without a platform to take back ‘their house’. Looking at the videos, there was one thing more common than MAGA caps and flags for Trump and the USA. Almost no step was taken by anyone without their smartphones pointed in outstretched arms to catch every last act of the mob and the unfolding selfie within it.

Here’s the description of the riot in a recent ProPublica piece, which used the thousands of videos posted to Parler before it went down. 

Inside the Capitol, in a stately, high-ceilinged office suite, marauders mill around, grabbing things off the desks, knocking things over. “Don’t break stuff!” a young woman hollers at them. “Stop! That’s not why we’re here.”

But why are they there? The more videos one watches, the more overwhelmed one is by the variety of motivations and profiles. Seen one way, this is one of the most homogenous large crowds one could ever find in America 2021, so heavily white is it. Seen another way, it is a hodgepodge, a cross-section of America that includes hardcore white supremacists and people you might run into at a mall or a country club.

It is mostly men, but there are also many women. There are young women who look like they could have come straight from a college campus, in puffy jackets and pompom hats. One, watching the invaders scale the lower Capitol walls on the west side, tells her friends: “They are climbing the walls! I mean, I wish I could, but I didn’t bring the shoes for it.”

There are many middle-aged and older women, too. Some keep warm by wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes …. Others are draped in wool scarves and nice blankets, presenting a far more conventional and even upper-class vibe than the viral images of young men costumed with animal horns and pelts. Some of these women even enter the building.

There are so many older men. Some of them are walking with canes or in wheelchairs or scooters. And some of them are at the front lines. … There are men, older and younger, who slide gleefully into war-reenactor mode, tossing off battle lingo as if they are at Antietam or the Ardennes. … There are so many flags — mostly American, but also Confederate, Gadsden, Canadian, Israeli, Romanian. …

There are many … snatches of fellowship in the videos: strangers advising each other on how to get the pepper spray out of their eyes, or sharing news updates from the Electoral College proceedings inside the Senate, before the senators fled to safety. Watching these moments of cooperation and social warmth, the same thought crossed my mind as did in watching last year’s mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd: that these events were grounded in political anger but intensified by the social dislocation of a pandemic and its associated lockdowns, which had left so many hungering for human contact and stimulation more than they themselves probably even realized. 

This disastrous situation provides us with yet another area in which the other way to represent the people – via sortition or selection by lot rather than election – comes into its own. Elections as currently practiced prise people apart as politicians demonise each other, and win elections by making promises they can’t keep.

This saves voters the burden of considering difficult trade-offs. They just pick a side and barrack and politics becomes increasingly like a sport. As this process has become optimised over the decades politics has become fast-foodified. And it’s getting worse and worse. Between 1968 and 1988 the length of Presidential sound bites on US Network news went from 43 to 9 seconds. Now turbocharged by social media, electoral politics is increasingly dominated by fantastic, post-truth claims. It’s not as bad here as it’s become in the US, but I still remember how Labor’s carbon tax was going to make a roast cost over $100.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s hard to believe from what we’ve made of electoral politics,  but human beings have a natural capacity to see each others’ point of view and to compromise. In fact it was the only way we survived on the African savannah. By evolving into the ape that solves problems in groups. 

Citizens’ assemblies could provide a counterweight to elections that plays to those inherent strengths. In a citizens’ assembly, people get the time to think and deliberate with their peers about the social trade-offs they want to make. 

New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Since then, electoral politics has been transformed into non-stop campaigning. In the last few years the 24/7 campaigning has started to be done not so much in poetry as in fantasy. 

Enough already.

The once great ACLU self-immolates by showing just how groovy it can be.

This entry was posted in Democracy, Philosophy, Political theory, Sortition and citizens’ juries. Bookmark the permalink.
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3 years ago

At times the insurrection looked more like a science fiction convention than anything else. That was not a mass movement, but a fandom. If you think politics are polarised, you’ve never observed a debate between Trekkies and Star Wars fans. Or Game of Thrones fans talking about the final season. And let’s not mention Celtic v Rangers supporters in Glasgow.

Jerry Roberts
Jerry Roberts
3 years ago

I very much agree with you, Nicholas. We know exactly what the politicians are going to say. They are going to recite lines written by blokes like me. I wish the ABC would ban them all from the Q and A programme. Choosing groups by random selection is a peaceful way of bringing common sense to the table. Karl Polanyi makes a remark on the judgement of the general public. I must look it up.

John R Walker
3 years ago

Nicholas its so true.
A factor in this is a literal physical quality of much of our lives these days; on the tablet smartphone that most are glued to for hours day everything, regardless of its actual scale and its physical feel , is all the same size and all has the same smooth glassy feel.
All jumbled up : like a vast flat plain full of bright shinny noisy things with very few places were you can climb up and get some sense of proportion and direction to navigate by.

3 years ago

I very much agree with you, Nicholas, but sadly it will not come to pass.

The Left side of politics does not value each others’ point of view, much less compromise. Instead, it increasingly views humans as robots who are (badly) programed by education, culture and language.

They draw straight lines in one direction:
1. Bad education, culture and language *always* creates Prejudice.
2. Prejudice *always* leads to Discrimination.
3. Discrimination *always* leads to Inequality.

And then then they draw straight lines in the other direction:
1. Inequality is *only* caused by Discrimination.
2. Discrimination is *only* caused by Prejudice.
3. Prejudice is *only* caused by bad education, culture and language.

This simplistic view of the world provides a clear mandate – all public institutions must be controlled solely by Leftists such that our education, culture and language can be remade in their image and, therefore, all of the robots can be reprogramed in their image.

Utopia will follow for all. Except, of course, those who commit the crime of independent thought – they will be held ‘accountable’.

Witness the Victorian Government last week, in pushing through a flawed gay converstion therapy bill, completely ignoring the concerns of the AMA, RANZCP, legal experts and churches (and calling their feedback everything from ‘misplaced’ to ‘bigoted’).

This is why we will not have a Citizen’s Assembly – why would you listen to people – much less cede any power to them – when you already know all of the answers (and your goal is to reprogram the citizens so that they know the answers too)?

I suggest that the biggest problem is not the loss of political civility, it’s the loss of humanity.

If your humanity can be ignored because you hold the wrong opinions, no political civility is available to us.

paul frijters
paul frijters
3 years ago

Hi Nick,

I am all for trying new things, but am not holding my breathe that a citizen parliament would be all that useful.
One intellectual difficulty in trying to see through the fog is to decide what is cause and what is effect, such as what 24/7 media has actually changed in and of itself or whether the media circus is merely the result of a wider change. Consider that representative politics has always involved a lot of theater across many societies and media regimes. Think of the Kennedies, the Ceasars or the Pharaoes: all clothing themselves with pomp and religion which says more about the audience than them. The media cycle makes that theater more ubiquitous but it really is the same piece of acting because the audience remains the same. The blurring of previous fault lines in Western countries (catholicism//protestantism) has made the show less diverse and thus the middle ground less pragmatic. But is there anything new about politicians acting for the benefit of the audience? The very phrase you use for this post “sound and fury” is centuries old….

Moreover, I ask myself questions on the power of deliberation and who actually does it. A Toyota production team discusses how to produce the brakes more efficiently and thus combines the knowledge and expertise of the whole team. Fine. And if Toyota management were to grandstand about how their principles would direct the improvement of brakes on Toyotas, everyone would roll their eyes. Fine.
But what does parliament actually figure out these days? It neither writes much legislation, nor can it realistically judge the masses it passes. It does not figure out answers to very complex problems (like global warming), nor is it equipped to openly discuss the tradeoffs in foreign policy (which involve openly acknowledging how we are fine with our allies breaches of human rights: true deliberations on foreign policy have to be hidden from view because the audience really does not want to know how the sausage is made). So its constrained to, well, what? What does parliament nowadays figure out that would be helped with a more deliberative atmosphere?

Parliament still has important functions, but I am not sure deliberation and figuring out anything complex is one of them. At least not in many areas. What would a citizen assembly then figure out?
The most use I can it be is to devise questions for a regular binding referendum.

Jerry Roberts
Jerry Roberts
3 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Hi Nicholas. I think I have found the passage I recalled from reading a 2018 polity paperback with the title “Karl Polanyi, Economy and Society, Selected Writings,” edited by Michele Cangiani and Claus Thomasberger. Polanyi is addressing democracy in a manuscript he worked on between 1941 and 1943 for a book called “Common Man’s Masterplan.”

This is the argument that clicked in my memory: “For it is precisely on big decisions or ultimate issues that the average man is apt to be sound — that is what the poll shows. And every time he is credited with taking the short view, he actually takes the long view. This was true on the question of aero-craft, on the war issue, on rationing, on taxation, on working hours, on man power, on every other issue.

“The explanation is again quite simple, the ultimate issues are simply the long run issues. On definite short run issues the man is much more apt to be mistaken, but these are the comparatively unimportant issues. They are technical. They can be and perhaps should be dealt with by the expert. But the basic issue is by its very nature outside the competency of the expert because the only person who really knows the rights and wrongs of these issues is the person whom they must ultimately affect and that is again the common man.”

Unless Ted Steele is correct and Covid 19 is a visitor from outer space, we have a virus that was created by scientists in laboratories engaged in crazy/dangerous research known as gain-of-function. No doubt their experiments were complicated but the long run question is simple.

Is gain-of function research justified or it just too damned dangerous? That is a question for the common man who, as Polanyi observes, is the one who who feels the effects. It appears that science has created this pandemic yet we still have politicians saying they are guided by “the science.” In other words, they are prepared to leave the fox in charge of the chook yard.

Paul wrote about this at the outset of Covid-19 hysteria, commenting on our political inability to deal with such situations. Ted Steele, by the way, has form in scientific theories and his colleague, Chandra Wickramasinge, worked with Fred Hoyle. If Covid 19 is like nuclear fall-out, all bets are off. Ted is interviewed by Martin North and John Adams on their YouTube channel, In the Interest of the People. So is Sanjeev Sabhlok, the former Victorian Treasury economist and author of “The Great Hysteria and the Broken State.”


[…] Meanwhile on social media where so much of the action is, woke sensibilities and programs they lend themselves quite obviously to weaponisation. And they take us into an area in which whose side you are on comes to eclipse whether you’re making any sense. […]