A (very) brief period of Habermasian bliss – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

A (very) brief period of Habermasian bliss

In our mediated democracy, it has become a truism to point to the demise of traditional methods of political communication. The public meetings, the speeches from the stump, even the debates about issues of the day in the pub among ‘ordinary folk’ were deemed a thing of the past.

But for at least a few brief and glorious weeks, I saw evidence of a rebirth of the supposedly now totally mediated Habermasian public sphere, as the public in coffee houses and inns engaged in informed discussion about the key issue of my political lifetime. It was wonderful while it lasted.

Even when traditional methods were used – most notably, with John Major on his soap box – they were held almost exclusively for transmission through the electronic and printed media. ‘Here is our leader, meeting the people’, while a wider view would have shown a diminutive figure surrounded by the massed banks of cameras and microphones. In other words, these events were not for direct public engagement but were part of the new mediated democracy.

Once again, that mediated democracy let the people down during the EU Referendum. The newspapers, as they did in the last two elections, had a dreadful campaign, with both sides peddling lies, half-lies and doom-laden warnings of what a vote either way would do. Broadcast media were little better, their idea of balance being to let the big guns slug it out and then pointing you in the direction of a website where you could ‘reality check’ or ‘fact check’.

Indeed, voters repeatedly cried out for some ‘facts’ or at least some considered analysis of the possibilities. Of course, the ‘facts’ were disputable, but they got personality politics of the worst kind. Not a single campaigner has a kind word to say about the nature of the two campaigns, including their own.

So, the Referendum debate was characterised by the type of name-calling and wild claims that people say turns them away from politics. Paradoxically, the only major politician who didn’t make exaggerated claims for their position, Jeremy Corbyn, is now under intense pressure to resign, largely for his failure to crank up the hyperbole for Remain.

There was one glorious exception in the political public sphere. I took part in a number of public debates, as a chair and as a panel member, and all the best points came from the floor. These debates were also lively but malice-free, a refreshing change from the tactics of our political elites.

That same willingness to debate was evidenced in the shop queues, pubs and cafes I inhabited. Sitting in the sun outside a pub in the Staffordshire market town of Leek a few weeks ago, five outside tables featuring a broad selection of views, argued quietly and without rancour. I’ve never seen this before. Traditional party politics is out of bounds for public debate by the British, along with sex and religion.

There appeared to be no such inhibitions during this campaign. People asked each other for advice and actually listened to what was being said. Many minds were changed by persuasive argument.

Sadly, what we have seen since the result was declared is more worrying. Minorities on both sides have abandoned any attempt at reconciliation. Remainers call Brexiters ‘racists’, and in return are called ‘traitors’. Racist insults and daubed walls present a disturbing picture of a totally divided nation.

This is not just a response from a small number of extremist idiots; their bile is being fed by the language of some our supposedly educated commentators who are equally guilty. The Ant and Dec of ‘serious’ political commentary, Andrew Pierce of the Mail and Kevin Maguire of the Mirror, traded scowls and childish insults on Sky News in the aftermath of the result. ‘Loser, loser’, chanted Pierce. No wonder the public regards our political classes with scorn.

But for at least a few brief and glorious weeks, I saw evidence of a rebirth of the supposedly now totally mediated Habermasian public sphere, as the public in coffee houses and inns engaged in informed discussion about the key issue of my political lifetime. It was wonderful while it lasted.