‘Will you just shut up, man?’ ‘I was kidding on that.’ ‘Do you have any idea what this clown is doing?’ ‘Don’t ever use the word smart with me.’
These exchanges are not merely the result of an infantile playground argument, but the manifestation of a political discourse arena in bedlam.
Over the last few weeks we have witnessed the horrors of poor political discourse, with two US presidential election debates. Irrespective of one’s political alignment, it is surely a matter of fact, or at the very least, consensus, that both candidates displayed an ability worryingly underqualified for the role of President of the United States, albeit to different extents.
Yet, this trend is not limited to US political discourse. The world has, in recent years, seen a rise in authoritarian and populist forms of government, which often desire the suppression of voter and media freedom, as seen with India’s Prime Minister Modi, and his military lockdown of the Kashmir region since 5 August 2019.
The effects of political imbroglio are devastating for democracy. The Financial Times reports that ‘such processes make up close to 40 per cent of all contemporary collapses of democratic regimes.’
Moreover, political debate becomes less and less important in the decision making process; polls have shown that just 3% of people were very likely to have the debate impact their vote choice. Less voters are, effectively, making up their minds during or after a debate, leaving their purpose unknown.
But why is it that rich discourse and debate is so central to the functioning of the democracy we love?
In both the Hellenistic and Enlightenment eras, theorists have placed particular emphasis on the need for intellectual involvement from electorate and politicians alike, to maintain a healthy democracy.
Socratic opposition to democracy was predicated on the notion of democracy being ineffectual if not intellectually contested.
This is seen with the Ship of Fools allegory in Plato’s The Republic. It is not the most skilled sea-farer who is elected to steer the ship, but he who can appeal most to the emotions of the electorate, the modern day populist, who is voted-in. For this reason, Plato offers that an unelected ‘Philosopher King’ should lead.
When considered in the contemporary political context, this philosophy seems prophetic.
The damning dichotomy between the United States’ and New Zealand’s recent electoral debates illustrates this perfectly. Points of difference between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins included cannabis-use, the legalisation of euthanasia, the pandemic response and the national debt. These issues, due to the polarising absence of intellectual discourse, are a matter of ideological warfare in the USA, where politicians cling to emotion, identity and personal insults to make their point.
New Zealand’s approach of calm, affable and intelligent debate avoids this, which goes a long way to ensuring that the most able candidate is indeed shown to be such. This helps to subside Socrates’ fear of democracy resulting in the wrong helmsman steering the ship: Ardern has eliminated the virus within New Zealand and gone on to win a landslide.
The Enlightenment’s advocacy of democracy was based on similar principles. Jean Jacques Rousseau remains an instrumental figure in political philosophy. He venerated democracy as a ‘social contract’, to reconcile the natural liberty of the individual with political authority. This, to represent and achieve the ‘general will’; the consensus of what is good, or desired. Rousseau offered that this be achieved by ‘assembling the people’: a fully representative political discourse, to discuss common interest.
On top of this, John Stuart Mill appeared in a post-modern defence of representative democracy, valued when advocacy of ideas is present. For Mill, to not engage in proper debate about societal issues is to ‘rob the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation.’
The recent decline in the value of political debate has severe repercussions for the democratic process, which has served so many for so long.
We need to converse meaningfully with one another, to discern what is truly for the betterment of society. It is those at the top, or that desire to be, that must take the lead.
It is them who must lead by example.