Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-first Century

July 19, 2012

How robust is democracy in the 21st century? Using the framework from Bernard Crick's classic In Defence of Politics published 50 years ago, Matthew Flinders argues that democratic politics are at risk from a range of threats, including the markets, democratic denial and, most particularly, the media. While Flinders makes a timely point about the need for academics to stand up and be counted in key societal debates, the book itself makes a somewhat unconvincing argument that politicians should be protected from public and media alike.

It is not that Flinders lacks verve and a sense of conviction. The book is propelled by the tone and energy of an academic who feels quite passionately that democracy is under attack and in need of protection. Disappointingly, although the accompanying promotional material says that the book is "based on exclusive interviews with key players" including Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, John Bercow, Michael Sandel and Ian Hislop, these are not much in evidence in the text. Rather, Flinders slightly adapts the framework of Crick's argument to look at what he considers to be key challenges to democracy.

A central point is that democracy is a victim of the expectations gap between what citizens want and what the modern state can deliver, particularly at a time of economic crisis. Flinders attributes much of the blame to the media, which he sees as both trivialising politics and indulging in sensationalist coverage that makes it near-impossible for politicians to do their jobs. He dismisses the internet as useful for building democracy as it further atomises the public and encourages sensationalism over an informed public sphere. He even doubts whether WikiLeaks is a good thing.

The central flaws in this argument are highlighted by Flinders' choice of the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit-seller, a key catalyst for the Arab Spring, as a poignant example of why democracy matters. Few would have known about Mohamed Bouazizi's tragic decision to commit suicide in protest at a callous regime without first the internet, and then the traditional mass media, to disseminate the story. Indeed, without the mass media - with all its acknowledged flaws - democracy in a domestic or international context is near impossible. Thus, Flinders' attack on the media is unhelpful. Rather than arguing that politicians should be protected from the media, the conversation - particularly in the light of the Leveson inquiry - should be about the need for more, rather than less, media participation in democracy. Flinders' argument seems particularly odd in a society with arguably the most developed public broadcasting system in the world. He argues that we should not criticise the politicians, who may be flawed but are working for society - but surely the same could be said for the BBC. In states ranging from Belarus to North Korea, there are plenty of politicians, but a lack of a free media means a lack of democracy.

The real problem is that people perceive politicians as "others", free to be attacked and vilified. Flinders argues that we should cherish democracy. What should be more explicit in his argument is that there should be much less distinction between the public and the politician: in other words, we are the state. Ironically, while Flinders accuses the media of pointing fingers and undermining democracy, it is the media that provide the critical social capital for democratic society to evolve and improve, as it has over the past century or so.

Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-first Century

By Matthew Flinders. Oxford University Press. 224pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780199644421. Published 26 April 2012

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