Cartoon of Colombian journalist Omar Rincón. Source: Revista 070
Democracy is no longer sexy or entertaining. Citizens are too caught up in WhatsApp wars. Public life is boring, but private life is entertaining. Politicians reek and they don’t even know it yet. This is how we’ve arrived at the world of Celebrity politics and cynical democracy. Culture has mutated, our world of today is another world. Urgent: politics and democracy must be reinvented. Here you’ll find a fragmented and Manichean map to help understand our political times. Reflections to be inserted by the reader.
On the 11th of April, I awoke with a mescal hangover turned political nightmare when I read in El Tiempo that “73% of Colombian students approve of a dictatorship” because “in terms of order and security, democracy is not enough”. The International Study of Civic and Citizen Education (ICCS) reveals “a worrying level of antidemocratic values and antisocial tendencies among the majority of young people surveyed” they claim.
Politics and democracy must be reinvented.
The report, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), surveyed 25,000 students from the eighth grade (13 – 14 years of age) from 900 schools in Chile, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Colombia to measure civic attitudes of students and their competencies. The Latin American average is the lowest, and 69% of young people would accept a dictatorship if it brought with it order and security. 65% claim they would be prepared to cope with an antidemocratic government if it meant there were economic benefits available.
Everything got worse as I read on: 51% of students agreed with corrupt practices of their governments and with the “el vivo vive del bobo” (the trickster lives off the rule-follower) culture. When faced with the question “do you agree that a government employee should be able to help his friends to find a job in his/her department?”, the percentage increased to 53%. 35% of Latin American students approve of breaking the law if this allows them to reap some kind of economic benefit.
For example, when faced with the question is it acceptable to break the rules to reach an important goal, 64% said they would. “The data got even worse when they were asked if they would break the law to help their family: 73% said yes” reported El Espectador. The complacent support regarding public lynching to punish criminals given the authorities don’t act is 41%; 4 in every 10 Colombian students agree with taking justice “into one’s own hands”. To somewhat alleviate this democratic nightmare, it also shows that more civic education decreases authoritarian tendencies and that the peace process is supported by 80% of youths surveyed.
Democracy is no longer sexy in Latin America
Perhaps because we don’t know what it’s like to live under a dictatorship. Or better said, the narcissist capitalist won, and as long as I’m alright (me-me-me), everyone else can fuck themselves. According to El Tiempo in their report from the 11th of April, the experts explain that:
The solution is civic and citizen training in schools: “Enrique Chaux, professor of the psychology department of the University of the Andes and expert in education for peace and citizen competencies, explained to El Tiempo that ‘citizen competencies are fundamental to learn to interact passively and constructively with others and to bring about societal transformation towards a more democratic social environment’. However, ‘there is a long way to go until every Colombian student can say they have received a citizenship training that enables them and prepares them to face up to the challenges of a society as complex as ours’”.
The solution is transforming political habits and democratic practices. Education expert, Julián de Zubiría, director of the Instituto Merani, states “young people don’t trust democratic institutions or their political parties, and they believe a dictatorship will magically solve their social and economic problems. They don’t know that dictatorships also violate human rights, restrict liberties, and are the main source of corruption. This happens because quality political education isn’t provided by the mass media, families, schools or universities”.
The solution lies in modifying our citizenship culture. “The responsibility of this ethical crisis lies with the older generations rather than the youth” says de Zubiría. “They see their parents paying bribes to the traffic wardens, evading taxes, and buying stolen cars or other contrabands. Thus, they’ve become acclimatised to corruption and this ‘shortcut’ culture that has been imposed on them”.
Millennials: “It’s a generation with an individualistic and egocentric focus that seeks to satisfy their own needs without considering social and democratic life”.
The solution is pop chic. According to El Tiempo, family psychologist María Elena López says the position of youths regarding corruption reflects the characteristics of millennials. “It’s a generation with an individualistic and egocentric focus that seeks to satisfy their own needs without considering social and democratic life”. So, a more united, more community-based and less capitalist society must be imagined.
And there could be many more explanations and solutions. For example, the study was conducted in very right-wing, hyper-capitalist societies that follow the “every man for himself” attitude like Chile, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Colombia. In these five countries, the idea has been sold that less state and less social rights means more growth and private efficiency. They’ve been lacking in programs of a more socialist and progressive nature that strengthen the state and citizen’s rights.
Therefore, it’s not so strange that in these societies of hard and pure capitalism and Christian charity, authoritarian opinions like those of Uribe (Colombia), the PRI (Mexico), Fujimori (Peru), Pinochet (Chile) or Danilo/Leonel (Dominican Republic) have prevailed.
It’s the political culture of our countries that explains this democratic deficit, and blaming the education system or the media is taking the easy way out.
Democracy and communication
In any case, democracy is not doing great things for the public spirit. And this is serious because democracy is an ethos (a lifestyle) but also an emotion (a feeling, a passion). And lifestyles and emotions are something which communication and culture collaborate to produce or transform. If democracy is going badly it’s because it’s central narrator, the mass media, journalism and social networks, have constructed a tale of terror and disenchantment surrounding it. The political role of the media and social networks in our society can be described with a simple tweet in the following way:
#There is no politics without communication. And everyone communicates.
#Governments COMMUNICATE, but they should also GOVERN.
#THE MEDIA DON’T WIN ELECTIONS, BUT THEY DETERMINE GOVERNABILITY
#The media remain a strategic issue for the pragmatics of democracy because it’s key in the fight for the hegemonic political discourse and the market of public opinion.
#The media and social networks are powerful because they create manners of perceiving and they invoke emotions regarding democracy, politics, human rights and public issues.
#Viral social networks and mass media set the TONE of the social conversation.
#The media and politicians have a somewhat extractivist relationship: every one of them robs another of their wealth and they contaminate democracy.
#Urgent: there’s been a divorce between the media and journalists.
#More urgent: the media are militant POLITICAL ACTORS for the politicians and businessmen/women that own them.
Political culture in the 21st century
A fragmented but speedy political map must start with already constructed evidence and knowledge: there’s no politics without communication, nor communication without politics. That’s why we inhabit the effervescence of the communicator state, communication and media coverage overtakes governance. The emphasis is on appearances, on talk without actions, on participating without listening to citizens, on controlling political discourse in a way that provides results like it did in Argentina with Macri and in Colombia with Uribe. The smearing of the judicial and legislative branches, corruption, political authoritarianisms, and Jurassic debates regarding gender and Castro-Chavismo should be added onto this list.
This anti-democratic spirit is well marinated with pre-modern political practices based on family benefits and mafia pacts: family first, then the state at your service. Everything becomes more overwhelming when the media stopped being a critical narrator of democracy and became a political actor on behalf of their owners and masters, and left journalism behind in exchange for publicising “post-truths” (lies that if they are released in the media, it’s because journalists have failed to fact-check adequately).
Now the news is what social media declares it to be rather than what it actually is. And for dessert, we have the fact that every individual lives their beliefs and their small WhatsApp battles with their family and their friends through which they lose sight of collective and structural public life.
Elections have become a social testing ground with little meaning, since we’ve already arrived at this cynical state of knowing all politics are post-truths.
In this scenario, elections have become a social testing ground with little meaning, since we’ve already arrived at this cynical state of knowing all politics are post-truths, or in other words, promising what people wish to believe or hear to arouse their emotions. This is how we arrive at a society infuriated with everything but unable to do anything for fear of losing the slightest capitalist comfort, a society bored with public life and excited with private life, a society disappointed with democracy.
This general Manichean map that I’m making has made democracy into a phenomenon without identity, brand, value or sex appeal. Democracy is seen as a species from the Jurassic world within its institutions, parties, arguments, journalism and the media. This is how we’ve arrived at where we are now: a society that wants more Trumps, Macris and Uribes (entertaining democracy, celebrities and CEOcrats) and less Fidels and Lulas. Less NGOness and hippiness and movements of political correctness, and more evangelism, authoritarianism, and millennial chic.
Parties, politicians and ideologies that model society have been discarded in favour of personalisms, celebrities and ideologies of me-me-me that underpin a revolution of the catharsis of appearances.
These are more than ideologies, they’re moral crusades. The so called crusade of gender ideology, or of sexual etiquette, or crusades against Castro-Chavismo (that invoke terror of Chile turning into Chilezuela, Colombia in Petrolandia a la Chavez, Mexico in Mexizuela..), in the name of Neoliberalism (everyone is the owner of their own capitalist destiny) or counter culture (it’s cool to criticise consumerism via more consumption: the brilliance of the market!).
The formula is simple: against the demons (gender ideology and Chavismo), in favour of radical liberalism (me-me-me), and a counter culture attitude (we promote elemental aspirations such as hope and happiness). The wonder is that this is all that’s needed to win over the social networks, the media, everyday conversation and the elections. Amen.
And every antidemocratic crusade is pro-private business and celebrates this consumerist individual without a community. This battle is one of communications because it sells a lifestyle. Hence communication is more political because it’s key to trigger emotions and feelings that determine the ways in which people come together. And democracy is the most human phenomenon that we’ve created that unites to celebrate diversity and to promote collective rights. Here, I’ll propose two actions and an outlook that will help charm the population with the idea of democracy again through communication.
The key to this new outlook is removing the fan, the democratic groupie among us and putting them to use. We’re playing on a slanted pitch, tilted towards private interests and the status-quo, we’re playing as visitors, the referee is bought, the narrators are bought, and we have to play in defence of democracy, the people and other collective ways of life. It’s more about style, aesthetics, narrative and game strategy than content. It’s about making democracy sexy again.
Narrative game. To understand the role of social media and the media in democratic reproduction, one must draw upon less political theory and more upon melodramatic knowledge (popular references) and pop culture (entertainment and show). We have to connect with modes of feeling, understanding and interpreting people, and people know nothing better than soap operas and the world of entertainment (popular culture).
Ethical game. Communication shows how politics is a fusion of pre-modern practices (family, tradition and property) and chic attitudes (conspiracies, disappointment with politics, CEOcracy, and the privileges of narcissism). Politics should depart from the act of listening to citizens to construct agendas relating to their feelings and attitudes in their domestic lives.
The paradox is in the fact that while the media and social networks act on speediness, democracy and politics are carried out slowly: two temporalities, two different ways of inhabiting society.
In this context, the “democratic paradox” is played out, since on social networks and in the media, governability and the tone of social conversation is not just at stake, but also evidences our desires (more diversity, more plurality, more rights) and our miseries (manipulation, post-truths, capitalisms). The media and digital networks (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat) allow citizens, alternative political parties and social movements to exist publicly.
The issue is about how freedom of expression and management of citizen’s rights are exercised alongside catharsis and public outrage. But the power of the media and digital networks isn’t absolute, since it’s the most important minor institution of our century but they don’t constitute, just yet, a social movement and they depend on old institutionalism for their political success (media, political parties, legislative, judicial and executive powers).
The paradox is in the fact that, while the media and social networks act on speediness, democracy and politics are carried out slowly: two temporalities, two different ways of inhabiting society. Social networks do politics by politicising, from the moment when they turn the citizen into part of the swarm that buzzes-prods-stings-swells. But what we really need is for democracy and politics to buzz, prod, sting and swell.
We publish this article in the framework of our partnership with Cerosetenta