As our traditional tools for identifying popular will break down, we need a new approach to the development of public knowledge
Reading Time in Minutes
- Populism is on the increase in part because technocrats have lost the ability to converse like human beings.
- At the same time, the ala carte menu on offer from social media means that our “ability to know the world, and to know ‘truth’ has been degraded”.
About Mick Fealty:
Contacting Mick Fealty:
By Mick Fealty
Aimsigh do thobar féin, a chroí,
óir tá am an anáis romhainn amach:
Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí.’
Cathal O Searcaigh
In a time of want, says the poet, there must be a returning to ‘sources’. Firstly after the financial crisis and now in the midst of Covid 19, there have been many ideas for Ireland’s regeneration. They range from piecemeal reform to let’s get rid of the state.
What’s missing in a digital age, where public voice is endlessly atomised, is a broadly shared narrative – anchored in an understanding of where people and the country’s place in the ever-shifting contemporary world.
When we problematise populism, we are mostly considering an issue of what we consider to be an obstacle (that refuses to get out of our road), rather than how we solve a more basic fault which is that institutional democracy has drifted out of signal with its polis.
Populism is a long tail failure both in the capacity and the willingness of elected politicians to listen out for and then enact the democratic will of the people.
There are at least three constituent parts to the way modern democratic politics operate:
- The term populism is a confusing one. For generations, political parties have measured success in their ability to attract more of the ‘popular’ vote than anyone else. It’s suddenly unpopular because mainstream is losing its capacity to be popular.
- Opportunism is also used as a term of abuse, but even a glance at history grasping opportunity can lead to effective long-term actions, such as the UK Labour Government in 1945, and the Thatcher/Reagan administrations of 1980s.
- The third but much less talked about element is the technocratic ability to understand the machinery of government (and the wider market) sufficiently well to bend them to your will in order to do the things you’ve promised during the election.
These new populist poets (to borrow Mario Cuomo’s famous distinction between campaigning and government) succeed against dry technocratic regimes because many well-meaning technocrats have lost the ability to converse like human beings.
There are a number of contributing factors. Where once we had a plural press (as gatekeepers to our collective sanity) we now have monopolising platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where ‘editorial’ decisions are controlled by non-human algorithms.
With no integrating human intelligence at work each individual citizen takes their own lonely journey into a wilderness. As Jaron Lanier puts it, “your ability to know the world, to know truth, has been degraded, while the world’s ability to know you has been corrupted”.
Meanwhile, as this artificial world speeds up its demands, minute by minute, government must plod on at the same old analogue pace. The grinding tedium of law making affords little opportunity for engaged lawmakers to fight back within the same urgent timeframes.
In such conditions, where context is a purely individual experience by design, international treaties, and other binding conventions can feel like they only reduce the scope for new forms of action or meaningful listening by elected representatives between elections.
For the new entrants things are different. Power, rather than agency, seems to be both the immediate and long-term object and ‘ingroup comradeship’ takes the place of ‘meaningful participation’ in terms of developing policy or collective actions once in power.
In other words, the rise of populism is symptom of a deeper malaise in the modern governance system, namely that the old bridges which carry relations between the traditional centre (where key resources are) and the edge (the parish) is broken.
The capture of the public conversations across the democratic west by a small number of digital firms has shown up issues that have been present for decades. Growing inequality and the capture of markets by wealthy elites is leading to unassuageable public anger.
As Lonergan and Byth observe, we live with “a world where the maps guiding our action seem to be both less accurate and decidedly skewed to the interests of an entrenched elite, and we shift from economics as imagined to angrynomics in practice”.
For example, 90% of US stock market activity is share buy backs, so global markets continue to do well even as the real economy tanks during the Covid crisis. Such stories may be beginning to emerge in serious policy forums, but there’s still no sign of solutions.
The new populist comes unincumbered with serious public expectation. So, he can befriend the most marginalized and neglected and scoop big electoral prizes. But his ability to tell stories is not usually matched with capacity to make the technocratic elephant dance.
The fact is we need our populists to be more technocratically able, and our technocrats to find sufficient humility to take instruction from those who put our elected representatives in charge of our public administrations. It’s not really a question of either/or, but both.
The US’s slump into circular (and exit free) culture war narratives is really a failure of the central machine of government to connect with the interests of a diverse citizenry whose parish domains in some cases lie not too far distant beyond the Washington beltway.
But, we are deluding ourselves if we imagine this is just an American problem.
So, how can the reduction of human diversity to bare numbers be reversed? How do we get back to where our institutions can be more certain that they actually “know what they know”. The route out of unattractively dry technocratic discourse is not more of the same.
Rory Sutherland provides a rather heavy hint in his recently published book, Alchemy:
“The need to rely on data can blind you to important facts that lie outside your model. A new campaigning style, a single rogue variable or a ‘black swan’ event can throw the most perfectly calibrated model into chaos. However the losing sides in both these campaign [Clinton and Remain, both in 2016], have never once considered that their reliance on logic might have been the cause of their defeats, and the blame was pinned on everyone from the Russians to Facebook. Maybe they were blameworthy in part, but no one has spent enough time asking whether an over reliance on mathematical models of decision making might be to blame for the fact that in each case, the clear favourite blew it.”
Hard to argue with that. So here’s a practical idea…
Over the last few years myself and John Kellden have been working on a methodology which reverses the traditional dynamic of the focus group where instead of gathering opinions on stuff we already know we ask them to tell us what we don’t know, through anecdote.
This deliberately unfocused approach involves the gathering of small stories that illustrate the feelings (not the averaged thoughts) of ordinary people. Whilst opinions tend to converge then diverge, stories invariably diverge even if their themes converge as universal.
It’s not just because understanding the unknown unknowns has become more important in the whirl of digital society, but as part of a three stranded process over time it is capable of building an ongoing participatory inquiry into the sense and purpose government or itself.
The aim is to build a more reliable narrative map for deciding what’s needed whilst at the same time immersing politicians and policy makers in the quotidian language of ordinary people to create a shared and a sharable understanding of key the problems ahead.
By combining inputs from three strands of working groups we would create a bridge between anecdote and narrative, building a rich and meaningful ‘tapestry’. It’s based on a stakeholder metalogue model, rather than dialogue, to build up a picture on a blank wall.
And it starts on the premise that that a bridge needs building from the edge to the centre and back again: thus, we developed the idea of the three “buns” (‘bun’ meaning the base or mountain foot in Irish):
- Bun scéalaí (storytellers): People who are ‘committed’ to their locality or parish. Their stories provide the core material and act as anecdotal pins placed on the wall.
- Bun na spéire (horizon): Social activists who are cognisant of what needs to be done and have a view of the horizon. They provide the wall with movement and lines of further inquiry.
- Bun an thuiscint (understanding): Specialists with a mountaintop view who possess crucial lines of sight on complex issues. They contribute meaning and act as legend to the evolving wall.
This is a mapping process where anecdotes are tagged and become pins on a large blank wall. With added lines of sight on problems raised, can lead to discovery through reflecting on, reviewing and identifying missing pieces and better informing us what can be done.
Out of additional inquiries comes a richer tapestry woven allowing new narratives to be shared and jointly owned among various (sometimes competing) stakeholders and able to bridge the growing gap between the democratic centre and the places real people live.
Such narratives continue to be refined and developed in terms of of desirability, feasibility and sustainability, and an anchoring such narratives into existing discourses to offer a robust narrative bridge as a working alternative to current drift into discord.
Imagine the satellite is down and GPS no longer works, so that feeling our way to what is true can only done mile by mile. This is a map that people don’t have to believe because of what they’re told by some expert in a white coat, but because they were part of making it.