Jude Wilkinson explores modern threats to fair and transparent democracies across the world.
Crisis produces social change. The nature of this change does not primarily depend ‘on the ideas left lying around’, as Friedman would have us believe, but on what those in power want.
I make this assertion for two reasons: first, the notion that change affected by those in power derives from ideas floating about the political ether presumes that those in power are directionless, reaching out for ideas in an apolitical vacuum; in reality, the primary object of the current party of government has always been the maintenance of power. During a period of crisis, they invariably attempt to entrench their own authority at the expense of their opponents.
I admit that I am describing tactics more than policy, and Friedman was describing policy more than tactics, but see the government announce an end to free movement: ‘we’re ending free movement to open Britain up to the world’, Priti Patel declares, a vaguely Orwellian phrase if ever there was one. Policy and tactics are the same thing - to move on the debate, create media noise to evade scrutiny over the second worst death toll in the world.
Second, crises have primarily produced transformational change where a political force had been planning and strategizing for a significant period of time. To say that the ideas from the Beveridge Report were just ‘lying there’ when Labour took office in 1945 ignores the political will and planning necessary to transform ideas into workable policy; to create narratives that turn the impossible into the inevitable.
This is not to argue that ideas gestating in the political subconsciousness do not shape the narratives that define politics, or that academic literature (when disparate ideas coalesce into something more tangible) does not affect the approach taken by think-tanks, or that the reports of think-tanks do not influence real policy decisions. But this process takes a great deal of concerted political will.
Moreover, whether or not these ideas can induce change depends on how effectively political leaders interact with the media to influence political debate - to make ideologically motivated change seem necessary rather than radical. To some extent, the methods used by democratic and semi-democratic regimes have blurred. Governments brief sympathetic publications more than non-sympathetic publications - the incumbent US administration trashes critical media as ‘fake news’, whilst an increasingly aggressive UK government has excluded critical media from ministerial interviews.
Equally, some differences remain. Authoritarian regimes intimidate, coerce and literally own the media. In Hungary, after years of press interference, Victor Orban wields unprecedented control over the flow of information. Unencumbered by conventional political tactics, Fidesz was able to scapegoat George Soros for the 2015 Migrant Crisis - a factually absurd but politically effective attempt to exploit nationalist, eurosceptic sentiment.
More recently, the suspension of the Hungarian Parliament on 30th March imbues in Orban more power than any other European leader. The statute allows the government to prosecute those who promote ‘distorted facts’; what counts as ‘distorted facts’ is unclear.
Ironically, Western leaders have been able to distort the truth - though not to the same extent as Viktor Orban - without having to ‘own’ the media. This is in part because leaders have become impervious to ridicule and shame. The Prime Minister is able to defend his chief adviser even with the threat of internal rebellion, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The US administration has endured worse scandals than the current government, but Trump's loyal voter base doesn’t care. Through undermining faith in critical sections of the media, political leaders have rendered themselves impervious to criticism or indeed the truth.
What will it take to restore this trust? There has been an exciting growth in independent media and news sources. They offer an exciting future for those on the left, responsive to their audience, offering analysis which isn’t superficial, creating links between ideas and movements. This democratic medium is surely the way forward.
Jude is a volunteer with Raleigh International currently producing a podcast series on homelessness and mental health.
He tweets at @judefkwilkinson