THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MEDIA AND POLITICIANS Essay – by Elena Chobanian
The media have been the predominant source of political information for citizens in a democratic society. Mass media has a colossal influence both on people and politics, since it shapes public opinion, and its role becomes more powerful especially during elections when political parties are sensitive in terms of how the media shows their public appearances. Ideally, the media should fulfill the political role by “disseminating the full range of political opinions, enabling the public to make political choices and enter the national life.” In democratic societies, for instance, the media is a communication channel which ensures the exchange of opinions both in power and general public, governments and political parties don’t put direct pressure on the media (depending on the country). In liberal democratic countries it informs the public and acts as a watchdog of the government. On another hand, mass media must make the political system more “transparent”, by helping people participate in political decisions, understanding the operations of government, etc. Unfortunately, in practice, most of the time the media plays different roles. It simulated transparency and doesn’t serve the political values that motivate the “transparency”, hides important information in a mass of manufactured political realities. Although, the political transparency is impossible without mass media coverage. Politicians, even governments can manipulate the coverage of information to achieve their political and economical goals through diverting audience attention.
According to some sources, there are two types of media: informational rich, which are the elites who seek information from a diversity of elite specialist media, political elites also pay attention to the media to monitor what coverage they receive, and issue that journalists place onto the public agenda. And information poor, that is voters. In this case politicians deploy the mass media to communicate with voters. Most voters are almost entirely dependent upon the mass media for information about the political process, candidates and issues.
Juergen Habermas, a German sociologist,defines the media as a space for public discourse which must guarantee universal access and rational debate in society. But, in practice, the free market rules and competition create restrictions for journalists, and commercial television channels are forced to respond to the interests of advertisers, as well as politicians.
The technological development changed the politics-media relationship. Since the rise of the internet in the ‘80-90s, the social media have involved many actors: regular citizens, nongovernmental organizations, activists, politicians, software providers, telecommunications firms, governments. In the new media environment various social networks and blogs started to play a significant role in communication and the society became an active player. Even if through the new technology – web sites and sophisticated computer programs – the politicians-voters communication has become more direct, media’s role and responsibilities are still argued. An ineffective, not classical media make politicians likely to pander and control the media.
The dominant and powerful medium of political communication in our contemporary world is television. It creates, with the internet, new forms of political reality and the virtual world. Television tends to accentuate entertainment, that kind of television keeps viewers’ attention. Television is the right place for the celebrity coverage, for political conflict and so on. Stories about backstage political manoeuvring and control offer a kind of transparency. However, they divert attention from substantive policy debates, and since politicians know how important media is to influencing citizens, television through its image manipulation helps create a new reality populated by media consultants, pollsters and others.
The internet, an anotherimportant medium for politicians,has enhanced the effects of television by shortening the news of reporting, makings mass distribution of information inexpensive making possible new journalistic sources that compete with television coverage. The internet is a mediated access to wide range of information, two-way communication channel, distribution channel for wide variety of content, low barriers to entry for access and global reach of a connected network. However, it can worsen television’s tendency to emphasize celebrity and gossip.
Media events manipulate political transparency.
Politicians stage events are covered by the media, which show them engaged in the business of governing over public policy issues. They show the politician with own family, like an ordinary, likeable person. Media events offer basic information, but in fact they offer political image and showmanship. American politics has employed media events for many years. For instance, the Clinton Administration has used media events to great advantage. Thus, thrusting entertainment in citizens, politicians keep people from watching other things.
Shanto Iyengar, professor of Political Science and Communication Studies at UCLA, researching the framing effects of news coverage on public opinion and political choice, expressed: “Their explanations of issues like terrorism or poverty are dependent on the particular reference points furnished in media presentations.” According to him, the framing of issues by television news forms the way the society understands the causes and the solutions to central political problems.
In the late 1960s, Maxwell E. McCombs and DonaldL. Shaw studying the agenda-setting capacity of the news media in American presidential elections, in their 1977 book, The Emergence of American Political Issues, McCombs and Shaw wrote: “The most significant effect of the media was its ability to organize our world for us. The news media are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.”
Robert Karl Manoff,from the New York University, arrived at the same conclusion in the1987 issue of Center Magazine. “One of the major problems of today’s journalism is that the press is allied with the state. The press is a handmaiden of power and American politics. It reports governmental conflict only when conflict exists within the state itself.”
As to the objectivity in journalism, it is based in favor of the status quo and against independent thinking. During the presidential campaign in 1988 journalists rose the anger among voters instead of bridging the gap between public and politicians, which means that the public is losing its grasp on the democratic process. Even when the media does offer analysis, it may not offer people large opportunity for action. Hence, it doesn’t strengthen the public dialogue. During elections, the media in general removes its focus from the classic, ideal role as society’s guard dog and focuses on the parties inner issues. Reporters have no choice but to cover the people chosen to lead government, but smaller parties seem to suffer in the everyday news stream.
Tricks used during elections.
Sometimes the crowds of people (rallies) are made up of campaign workers and volunteers, so that the TV cameras don’t capture an empty room. They’ll be dressed so they appear to be moms and dads, factory workers and teachers, but that can be just an illusion on TV and magazines. You can see his wife baking cookies for charity in their newly remodeled kitchen and get her secret recipes (Obama’s recent ads serving food to homeless people). Those people are carefully chosen so they appear in photos and in news coverage. He can talk about his family and his hopes for a better world for all of citizens, appearing a relaxed and human candidate. The more social sites followers and likes, the better.Another trick is to say that the candidate is really busy and can’t take any questions at all, so he can be on time for his next event. Campaign experts know an exclusive interview will be given more space in a newspaper or more time in a TV newscast than a day-to-day campaign story. That’s free publicity! Thanks to campaign laws of the media, ad space has to be sold at the lowest available rate, and media outlets have very little control over what is said in a political advertisement.
Indicators of media logic are journalists dominating politicians in news reports regarding the length of speaking time or fragmented reporting of a political discourse at the expense of debate. Media logic is increasingly guided by a commercial logic, and globalization reinforce that effect as global forces within national media systems promote the commercialization of broadcasting. For example, in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland there is a “democratic-corporatist” central european media system, where the press freedom developed early and journalistic professionalization is strong. Spain, France and Italy belong to the polarist-pluralized media systems where the press is elite-oriented with limited overall circulation, and television dominate the media market. America and Germany show patterns where candidates run controlled campaigns for which they are punished by journalists. Denmark, Great Britain, Switzerland and France show more interactive campaign styles where the journalist is still dominant and the candidates often need to defend themselves in press-politics interactions. Italy and Spain show very interactive campaigns and the journalists grant candidates rather long sound bites.
In an analysis of more than 30,000 news features about the ruling government aired on Danish radio over the past 20 years, a team of scientists have proven that critical coverage in the media leads to a decline in public approval ratings. The government has easy access to the media. The new study denies the theory that more media coverage is always good for the government.
Shotts and Scott Ashworth from the University of Chicago, analyzed the common assumption that a healthy media would make office holders less likely to pander. They constructed a theoretical model using well-established principles of game theory and found that if the media always produced correct commentary on policy choices, there would be less motivation for politicians to pander since voters would know what policies were in their interest. That freedom allows the politician to avoid pandering and take actions that are good for the voters without fear of being criticized by the media.
Arthur J. Heise, associate professor at Florida International University in Miami, sees the role of the media as a “public management function. “Many in the news media could agree that they are not covering the affairs of the state as fully, as penetratingly and as aggressively as they might”.
The following model assumes that media commentators are unbiased to present the news (classical role of the media and journalist) and people act rationally in their best interests, even though sometimes the media acts as a “yes man”. The figure 1 shows that the politicians-media relationship is closely, especially related to the debate on freedom of speech in a globalized, “liberal democratic” world.
Fig.1 Fig.1Interdepedendence of politicians and media in a globalized world.
Fig. 2Classical model of media and journalism
The figure 2 shows that the media’s responsibility is to connect equally the citizens and politicians, trying to create a balanced coverage during an election campaign to make sure that they listen to all parties. But, again, this is only the ideal model of the media, how it “should be.”
According to some specialists in the field, mass communication today operates autonomously due to commercialization, professionalization and technical innovation. In political world, mediatization can even have some positive effects by providing politicians with an additional arena in which to reach their goals and by making politics accessible to ordinary people. So, based on the media’s own economic logic, that it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the needs of the democratic process, it has led to the worry that mass media is profoundly transforming political communication into liberal democracies, undermining the functions of political institutions.
Media and politics will always have close connection, at least for the next five years, even if both view each other as adversaries. As the media is the most important source of political information for the wider public, politicians need it as a tool to get the exposure to win elections and gain as much power as possible. On the other hand, as a watchdog in politics, the media has the duty of criticizing decision-makers in society, but it will be possible only if the media and journalists are independent, because the majority of mass media channels are created by politicians/political parties to serve their own interests, which means the authorities generally control media coverage and repress its independence.
As to ordinary citizens, passive recipients of information, they are simply an audience to what Bill Moyers, an American journalist, has called the “monologue of televisual images.” Television determines what people believe to be important by paying attention to some problems and ignoring others, and the decline of party-controlled media and the rise of “independent”, commercially-minded media have transformed mass communication. However, there are still some independent journalists, who dislike being instrumentalised by politicians, present the facts without fear or favor of politicians. And one more thing: neither journalists, media, nor politicians are perfect, just like every ordinary individual in our real world.