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The Crises of Democracy: a Case for Interdisciplinarity

Boris Johnson announces plans to suspend parliament. Political tensions at Westminster flare. Tens of thousands of people take to the streets across Britain chanting ‘stop the coup’ and pledging to ‘defend democracy’. Britain is due to leave the European Union by 31 October 2019.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continue. The authoritarian leader of mainland communist China ignores the autonomy enshrined in the 1997 handover. Demonstrators fear for the future of the ‘one country, two system’ policy, and with it, their civil rights.

Tensions escalate in Kashmir after the Indian government remove the Muslim majority region’s special status. This is the second consecutive five-year term for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

This is just a snapshot of the latest headlines.

What do cultural trauma, climate change and technology have to do with democracy? And why is interdisciplinarity important? My research looks at how the British popular press of the early twentieth century dealt with Irish-British relations. Now I’m turning my attention to the contemporary media and the headlines that shape today’s world.

Worldwide crises are engulfing older, more established democracies as well as their newer counterparts. Populist and autocratic parties are winning at the polls. Institutions and legal systems are being dismantled. Oppositions are being silenced as power is consolidated. Democracy is in retreat.

Disillusionment with democracy itself is growing. The triumphant confidence that accompanied the three decades of post-Cold War democratic expansion has disappeared. With the future of democracy now less certain, do we need to reimagine this failing political system? How can we address the needs and grievances of the disenchanted voters turning to the extreme right? What can a society’s past traumas and history reveal about where the current risks might lie?

Wildfires in the Arctic Circle and the Amazon Rainforest.

A funeral for a glacier in Iceland.

Record-breaking heatwaves in Europe.

Again, this list could go on. The tip of rapidly melting icebergs, these events of summer 2019 are stark reminders of the very real threat to the future of human civilization. The UN has called for drastic action and set a deadline of twelve years to alter this course.

The climate emergency puts additional strain on already strained political systems. Democracies will have to adapt to cope with the challenges of displaced populations, competition for scarcer resources and extreme weather conditions.

The climate emergency is also exacerbated by the current political climate. The Amazon fires, for example, have been aggravated, if not caused, by the deforestation encouraged by the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Blaming arsonist environmental groups and condemning calls to discuss the crisis at the G7 summit as ‘unacceptable colonialism’, Bolsonaro’s responses are equally revealing. Neither he nor his Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, believe in climate change. Brazil is by no means exceptional. From Trump to the Alternative für Deutschland, climate change denial is a defining characteristic of today’s extreme right.

WhatsApp used to spread ‘fake news’ among the over 300 million users in India.

Australian federal police raid the homes of journalists who had reported on defence matters.

Facial recognition technology and surveillance undertaken by private companies in London to unknown ends.

Technological advances and changes to the media landscape are similarly entangled in political crises while further endangering the future of democracy. I’m interested in how the media might be shaping modern crises in democracy, rather than simply reporting them.

With journalists targeted and silenced by populist leaders, the press is not as free as it once was. The internet simultaneously allows politicians to communicate directly with the masses. Traditional news outlets have also been hit hard by the changes of the digital age. As print and profits decline, many titles have been forced to close. Already concentrated newspaper ownership is thereby further concentrated.

New online and alternative media platforms bring their own questions of regulation and authentication. Netflix’s latest offering, The Great Hack, is a bold attempt to communicate the complexities of the Cambridge Anatlytica scandal a year after the whistle was blown on the UK-based political consultancy firm. The company harvested personal data from 87 million Facebook profiles worldwide to produce targeted content and spread misinformation without user consent or knowledge. While mostly famously linked to Trump’s successful US presidential bid and the Brexit leave campaign of 2016, this data breach was exploited to manipulate electoral outcomes worldwide. The scandal was a disconcerting wake up call to the power of big data and powerlessness of traditional checks and balances. It is part of an ongoing crisis. Thanks to such ‘weapons grade communications techniques’, ‘disinformation’ has been given new potency in a global propaganda war. The issue of ‘fake news’ is now so pervasive that it was named word of the year by Collins Dictionary in 2017. Likewise, advancements in AI technology come with concerns about security, privacy and ethics.

Even as I write this post, the examples cited are being usurped by new headlines. It will be out of date by the time it is published. The selected stories thereby serve to illustrate the scale of the problems facing societies globally. Many others could have been chosen. What does any of this have to do with interdisciplinarity?

The multifaceted challenges facing democracies are bigger than any one researcher. They are bigger than any one discipline. They aren’t confined by national boundaries. We must therefore shape our responses accordingly.

To meet these challenges, we must understand how and why this system of government developed in the first place as well as the roots of the current crises. To successfully counter authoritarianism and populism, we need to understand its appeal – past and present – and examine methods of positive resistance. And if we are in fact facing the end of liberal democracy, we need to explore alternative systems of government and protect human rights and civil liberties.

This is what 40 researchers from five continents and 30 disciplines began to do at the July 2019 Global Humanities Institute funded by the Consortium of Humanities and Centres Institutes and the A.W. Mellon Foundation. Having just taken up the post of Beate Schuler Research Fellow in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute, I was lucky enough to join them. I saw first-hand the power of bringing different disciplinary perspectives to case studies of cultural trauma from diverse historic and geographic contexts. Through a connected and comparative approach, old questions were reconsidered. Assumptions were challenged. New questions were raised. Some new answers were even found. I left inspired by the power of Arts and Humanities research to help make the world a place we want to live in.

I am now working to develop a network of scholars researching the disparate but connected aspects of global crises of democracy. We will broaden the theoretical lens: cultural trauma, climate, technology. We will also expand the expertise: AHSS and STEM. Our questions remain the same: Why isn’t the system working? What can be done to save it? Our answers will be interdisciplinary.

by Dr Elspeth Payne

Dr Elspeth Payne is the Beate Schuler Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute, Trinity College Dublin, where she is working to develop the crises of democracy project. She is also continuing with her own research on the renegotiation of Anglo-Irish relationships in the British tabloids across 1922 to 1932 and the construction/consumption of these media sources. Elspeth holds a PhD and MPhil from Trinity College Dublin and a BA from the University of Oxford. Email: payneel@tcd.ie

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