Watching the unfolding drama of Brexit and the fall out of the Mueller report in the United States, one can’t help but feel more than a little despairing about the state of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. For sure, I’m glad to live under such a system of government, but at the same time moments like this make one realize that it’s not all that it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Meanwhile, the Chinese go on from strength to strength. It’s enough to bring out one’s inner Pobedonostsev.
I refer, of course, to the late Tsarist-era Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, known generally as the arch reactionary of the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Pobedonostsev had a few choice words to say about liberal democracy and the free press. As a rule, historians use these words to indicate the negative role he had on Russian political development. But on days like today, some of what he said doesn’t look so unreasonable after all.
The problem with democracy, Pobedonostsev argued, was that although it claims to represent the ‘general will’, it fact it gives power not to the ‘people’ but to those minority groups which are best organized. ‘In theory,’ he wrote, ‘the elected candidate must be the favourite of the majority; in fact, he is the favorite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting.’
This pretty much summarizes what Mancur Olson called the ‘logic of collective action’ and nowadays comes under the rubric of ‘public choice theory’ – the theory that government favours concentrated minority interests over diffused majority ones. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this is indeed what happens. Where the Procurator of the Holy Synod went wrong was in assuming that it only happens in democracies. In his imagination, an autocrat could stand above all this and represent the general will. But politics happens even within authoritarian states, and the results are often much the same. In fact the situation may even be worse in authoritarian states because the ‘general will’ has no alternative means of expression, such as a free press.
But Pobedonostsev was sceptical of the value of that too. Indeed he said some pretty harsh things about the ‘fourth estate’, remarking that:
The press is one of the falsest institutions of our time. … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great majority of readers … is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured for any editor who provider for the satisfaction of these hankerings.
This, I think, is a fairly good description of the dynamics behind Russiagate. Anti-Trumpers were desperate for some salacious scandal which would discredit the US president, and so the editors of the American media gave it to them. And, from the editors’ point of view, it worked. The more they played the collusion card, the more their ratings went up. Take the example of the leading Russia propagandist MSNBC. As Vanity Fair reports:
The ratings don’t lie. Five or six years ago, MSNBC’s viewership was down, and the network was flailing. As with the rest of the news media, the Trump saga has given it a turbocharge. Indeed, MSNBC had its best ever year in 2018, wrapping up with about 1.1 million daily viewers on average, a 121 percent increase from the first quarter of 2016, according to the network. Compared to the first quarter of 2017, right before Mueller got to work, ratings are now up 43 percent, the network’s data shows. In other words, if Trump helped bring MSNBC back to life, Mueller cranked up the electricity running through its veins.
If democracy was really what its name implies, now that the collusion claim has been shown to be false, those who peddled it should be expected to pay a price. In reality, there’s little chance that those responsible for the deceit will be held to account. For as Pobedonostsev pointed out,
The journalist … derives his authority from no election, he receives support from no one. His newspaper becomes an authority in the State, and for this authority no endorsement is required. … How often have superficial and unscrupulous journalists paved the way for revolution, fomented irritation into enmity, and brought about desolate wars! … It is hard to imagine a despotism more irresponsible and violent than the despotism of printed words.
At this point, bearing in mind the free press’s culpability in ‘fomenting irritation in enmity’ via Russiagate (which has poisoned American minds against Russia) and in bringing ‘about desolate wars’ (such as the invasion of Iraq), one has to admit that Pobedonostsev was onto something. Of course, his solution – censorship – was hardly any better, and probably a whole lot worse. But the basic critique is on the nail. Too much of the Western press is all too ready to spread all sorts of toxic nonsense just to improve its ratings, and it is completely unaccountable. This can hardly be said to be the ‘rule of the people’.
Do I have a solution to this problem? No, I don’t. It could be that there isn’t one, that we just have to accept Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others. I’m sure that if I did have a solution it wouldn’t be Pobedonostev-style autocracy, any more than it would be communism, or any other authoritarian system. But if we are to find answers to problems, we first need to admit that we have them. And for that, my inner Pobedonostsev may actually have a useful role to play.