The Brexit and the US elections political campaigns raised serious questions about the efficacy of our current practice of democracy, the responsibilities of government to its people, and the role of governance in a globalising world. In reality, there were some merits to all sides of political arguments. Unfettered, spirited and respectful discussions could have allowed those merits to shine. Issues could have been discussed holistically and maturely. New ideas and solutions could have evolved as a result of mature discussion in the public sphere.
This is not what happened with Brexit and the US elections.
In both cases, I watched people become hate-filled and fascistic against those they disagree with politically. Some are people I know personally, good people, whose lives I know to be committed to improving the wellbeing of humanity, who are wedded to the deepest principles. Yet, whether subtle or overt, the virus of oppositional and violent thought, speech and action took hold.
How did this happen? Heavy machinery of propaganda were deployed.
Citizens, media and civic institutions were mobilised as agents of dehumanisation, to conceal the noble moral, political, social and economic arguments being made by those supporting the ‘other’ political stance. Good people were manipulated into believing that their core moral principles were in jeopardy unless they vehemently opposed.
People lost the ability to empathise. Rational discourse broadly disappeared.
It’s all about how the brain works
David Eagleman explains what happens to the brain when it is immobilised by propaganda. Propaganda causes individuals to perceive those who are the subject of the propaganda with the part of the brain that deals with objects. People are turned into objects. Exaggerations, misinterpretations and falsifications are used to transform otherwise empathetic human beings into those who in the worst cases are willing to destroy and murder others on mass and in unison.
What is most troubling and ironic, particularly in the case of Brexit and the US elections, is how so many accepted and propagated the culture of falsification and hatred in the name of democracy, decency, humanity and even anti-fascism. But this is far from the first times these tricks have been pulled.
In recent history, Hitler rode to power and to his villainous aspirations of genocide and European domination on the coattails of justice, decency and humanism. This play of turning people into ‘others’ through the use of propaganda has blighted humanity since time immemorial. Perhaps the desire to propagate and the readiness to consume propaganda is driven by the limbic part of the brain – the so called ‘lizard brain’ that operates on fight or flight, hunt or be hunted instincts. But recorded human history can also be characterised by efforts of numerous cultures trying to move away from this kind of behaviour, towards a collaborative model. Efforts perhaps driven by the more evolved parts of our brain, most notably the frontal cortex – facilitating cognitive processes that allow us to feel empathy.
It seems our brains have evolved to deliver two competing experiences of the world: the zero sum paradigm and the win win paradigm.
Under the influence of the limbic brain and within the zero sum paradigm, we react to difference with fear. The rich fear the poor, the poor fear the rich. One society, culture or religion fears the other. The constant nagging feeling is that our survival is threatened by the other, and can only be guaranteed if we run from or we destroy the other.
In contrast, in the win win paradigm, using the frontal cortex of the brain, we can all win. If we can all win there’s nothing to fear of the other. On the contrary, in the win win paradigm we benefit from each other’s wisdom, perception and perspective. Differences are to be treasured, embraced and nurtured.
If our brain functions in this dual capacity, this should have tangible implications for our next steps in terms of politics and technology.
Our political forces us to be divided
An important question raised by Brexit and the US Elections is whether our current practice of democracy is delivering governance that meets the needs of the people. But what is democracy?
In practice, democracy often just means people vote and the majority wins. As an ideal, democracy means governance is according to the will of the people. But majority-rule and the ‘will of the people’ can mean very different and sometimes contradictory things. Why? Majority rule by definition means that the needs of the minority will be ignored.
The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ (people) and ‘kratia’ (power). People power. The people rule. This is the idea that ‘the people’ should be free. Free from oppression of the elites. Free to rule themselves. Because people know what they need. This may sound obvious, but it was quite the revolution after the emergence of city states beckoned top-down elite leadership in order to maintain efficient order in increasingly complex societies. In this context, the pursuit of people power has been by and large implemented using the simplest model: vote – majority rules. The goal has been to find an agreeable way to disagree.
The problem with majority rule democracy is that it sets us up to fall back into the zero sum paradigm, and for the zero sum paradigm to be exploited and propagated by the elites. We have left ourselves wide open to inclinations of fear of the other; the competitive notion that if you win then I will lose. We are open to propaganda. To be made to feel malice, jealousy, fear. Even early philosophers like Socrates were convinced this would happen (https://youtu.be/fLJBzhcSWTk).
And this is what we witnessed with Brexit and the US elections. The spectacle of otherisation channeled through our current model of the majority-rule democratic medium, in ways that have left the world shuddering in the absence of empathy.
But we are acting as prisoners of our past, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants. Our collective cultural inheritance has become the subject of conspiracy, doubt and ideological fatigue, rather than the object of inspiration – a gift we have the unparalleled power to build upon today.
Democracy can only work if we constantly return to the drawing board to re-examine its meaning and how we practice it. We know that our current practice of ‘majority rule’ feeds oppositional discourse. At the same time we know that on the one hand brain is wired to be exploited by oppositional discourse, and on the other it has the capacity to rise above it.
Could it be that our institutions of governance could be redesigned so that the cooperative part of our brains are more exercised in our political discourse, participation and decision making? Could rejigging our institutional framework of governance make us less susceptible to compromise and the exploitation of our limbic brain?
These are questions we should not be afraid of exploring. No system will be perfect. But one that is better than what we have today can be further improved tomorrow.
Whilst democracy can never happen without some kind of decision-making voting apparatus, it is possible for us to relegate those divisions to substance rather than identity. Here are some examples of what we could do.
a] Appoint the cabinet directly through elections: This would force political campaigns to focus on the substance of the candidates policy platform. Citizens may still end up very divided on certain issues, but it’s more likely there will be areas where any citizen has voted like another. Plus, elected cabinet members would be more accountable to their electoral commitments.
b] Use technology to enable citizen participation in policy development and implementation. We live in the age of the internet, so this is possible. Participating in developing and implementing solutions for the issues that really matter to us will make us more informed about the issues we are voting on, more aware of the complexities, and less susceptible to oppositional discourse. Also, given that relevant stakeholders will be involved in identifying the issues, political candidates will be in a much better position to base their policy platforms on meeting citizen needs.