Is this the end of the age of cynicism?


12:06 pm - November 6th 2008

by Thomas    


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Barack Obama has built enormous levels of goodwill in the manner of his emphatic election victory and claimed in the opening stanzas of his victory speech that it represented a triumph of hope over cynicism (“It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”)

In the enthusiasm of the moment, some commentators (among them the BBC’s own Matt Frei) went so far as to claim his victory has overturned a political consensus held for a generation: that negative campaigning is the only way to win – the lunatic assassination plot against Obama can be cited as one extreme example of the nature of reactions that may be inadvertently encouraged by negativity, and this may in fact be the best argument against negativism.

Yet in the midst of so much euphoria created by the high turnout and real choices on offer we forget that McCain still polled more than 56m votes, many of who WERE motivated by fear and cynicism about Obama. Call it what you want, but negativity or cynicism is still a highly potent part of the political mix and will remain so even while Obama resides in the White House.

By now we are all familiar with the credit given to Obama’s campaign for linking netroots organisations together and transforming them into agents of practical activity with a ground force of volunteers who could mobilise the vote. While this victory can be seen as the culmination of a process, it also forms the foundation of a new citizen base with whom politicians can engage in a more direct manner than ever before. But Obamafans should be warned that this represents both an opportunity and a risk to his political fortune.

As bloggers become ever more influential and vocal, our slice of society can quickly turn against him, should a sense of betrayal be allowed to grow. If this happens the window of opportunity opened by his rhetoric of hope will be thoroughly smashed and we will all feel a chilling backlash.

So where could it all go wrong?

For starters Obama shot to prominence on the back of his opposition to the ‘dumb war’ perpetrated in Iraq, even while many in the Democratic party supported it. He skilfully built a base among the anti-war camp, yet he also quickly answered the accusation that he is a pacifist by shifting the focus of the ‘war on terror’ to the conflict in Afghanistan – if this is just a two-step of moving US forces from one ‘un-winnable war’ to another then he will face economic as well as moral opposition.

Additionally he cleverly positioned himself as the change candidate. He has come to embody the symbolic changes required to move on from George W. Bush’s tenure, and yet he supports Bush’s bank bail-out – if he doesn’t resign his senatorial seat before being called to vote on its enactment, he will undermine himself even before his inauguration.

In either of these cases, just as in all other possible scenarios, the primary and most immediate scrutiny will come from the blogging community of professional and citizen journalists. But it will be the over-opinionated latter group (ie us) who will serve as the litmus test of his policy direction.

So what pre-emptive counter-cynicism initiatives can be adopted?

In this country the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 was supported in Parliament by a cross-party team of MPs (lead by David Drew, Nick Hurd and Julia Goldsworthy), and regulations came into effect on 3 November 2008 requiring local authorities to formalise consultation processes with the express aim of improving civic participation and avoiding the decline into apathy and ignorance. It is the hope that greater participation and more effective communication between citizens, politicians and the civil service will lead to greater awareness of the choices involved and that this will moderate any cynicism in the public debate.

In re-announcing the government white paper Hazel Blears has been widely reported by The Telegraph and The Guardian, among others, as being critical of online culture and the way in which reactionary opinion fosters cynicism and breeds apathy. She also claims there is a class bias in blogging and told the Hansard Society yesterday that bloggers are generally written by “people with disdain for the political system and politicians” – all this from a government minister who blogs herself, and who promoted the idea of entry into a prize draw for people who can be bothered to go out and vote!

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that we Brits enjoy complaining, it is also true we often prefer it if we don’t actually have to get off our own behinds to do so – perhaps we really do want our democracy to be given the Simon Cowell make-over treatment!

The SCA is actually a very positive step to assist activism which is supported by a wide range of groups, such as Unlock Democracy, through the local works coalition. So perhaps before rushing to condemn Blears for a single controversial statement (taken out of context), we should take the time to listen to the proposals which are designed to assist local activism and support the practical efforts which must complement blogging, if we are able to cross the divide between ideas and action.

Surely Barack Obama would approve. And just as surely, this is an awareness raising campaign which LC should be fully supporting as we head into our second year.

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About the author
Thomas is an independent-minded community activist and regular commenter at Liberal Conspiracy. We don't seem to be able to get rid of him, so we thought it probably best to let him write for us.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,E-democracy ,Local Government ,Media ,United States

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Reader comments


…defending Blears… this is where I put my head down and run for cover!

Grab a helmet on the way, thomas.

“As bloggers become ever more influential and vocal”

Evidence for this bold and self-congratulatory assertion ?

How about this ::

1. Bloggers were heavily courted by the candidates for Dep Leader of the Labour Party

2. Nick Clegg now gives regular audiences with bloggers, indeed the Lib Dems are treating their bloggers with increasing importance

3. Barack Obama used social media, including the influence of bloggers, to beat Hillary in the primaries

4. During the US elections, bloggers and online activists have increasingly replaced the mainstream media in fact checking the statements of political figures

5. The media now check the blogs for stories, and follow our lead. Especially industrious bloggers like Unity, who do research and check their facts

6. With newspapers using AP and PR guff more and more, blogs continue to grow and grow

I’m less bothered about strict assertions than I am about raising awareness of this act.

The SCA essentially rewites the rules of local government, so any blogger who is interested in grassroots activism really ought to be aware of its contents. If for example you want to save your Post Office this gives you power to do so.

The SCA is the product of MPs on all sides of the house, so if we ignore it we also allow Labour to to claim all the credit for it when they use those powers to save plenty of Post Offices.

Thomas,

I like alot of what I see in the SCA, however I would say that there has been coverage on the Lib Dem blogsphere (not on mine but James Graham to name one did a piece) and the SCA doesnt make up for Blears being totally in the wrong about blogging…

Thomas:

At the risk of sounding cynical, while there are a lot of fine words in the SCA, I’ve personally been here several times before; Community Empowerment Networks, Community Challenge, New Deal for Communities, Local Strategic Partnerships, Local Area Agreements and so on, and so forth…

So not only is rhetoric all to familiar but I could give a masterclass in the various different ways in which initiatives like those set out SCA start out promising a lot and end up delivering next to bugger all and the many and varied ways in which the fine-sounding intentions of government are all too easily derailed in practice.

That’s doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t make an effort to use the provisions in SCA, in fact what we should do is make every effort to test the Act to the point of destruction but let’s also be clear what these initiatives are, which is what all the earlier ones were, carefully contrived substitutes for direct democracy which exist to create the illusion of democratic engagement without ever seriously threatening the established power structures and those who inhabit them.

Central and local government are all in favour of community engagement, just as long as that engagement validates their plans – it’s when communities see things differently and have different priorities that the problems emerge, the barriers go up and you find just exactly how little real power or control has actually been devolved to local level.

So, for all that Blears cites Porto Allegre as an exemplar, the government’s scheme for ‘participatory budgeting’ is but a pale shadow of both the democratic centralism of the Worker’s Party i the city or of its nearest right-wing equivalent, Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Power is never given away, it has to be taken, and our approach to the provisions in SCA has to be to push it as far as its possible to go, in order to identify where the barriers lie, and then work to push past those barriers towards a greater level of direct democracy at local level and an increase in genuine democratic control within local communities.

Aaron – those are all fairly subjective judgements, nothing other than glorified focus groups, or sophisticated marketing campaigns, in other words blogging has just replaced the low tech methods of the past. How on earth can you attribute Obama beating Clinton to blogging without any evidence that that it wouldn’t have happened anyway ? Most bloggers are idealogues who may have found a wider audience but are generally preaching to the converted (right, left and everywhere in between). There’s absolutely no evidence, other than in the minds of bloggers that they are any more influential than any other media.

two words cloud my mind……TONY BLAIR……I sincerely hope BO isn’t half as bad as TB…and he would sure have a long way to go but I think such unbridaled optimism is well, optmistic…..not only is the task ahead difficult, but I don’t think he really has the commitment or mandate to rattle the cage that much….he is still stcuk within the usual constraints…he didn’t receicve contributions just from the inernet (http://hellbroth.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/basher-barry-gets-the-bucks/) and otherwise he has been fairly vacuous, therefore implying to my admittedly cynical nature that he will be more of the same (pro bsuiness) just with a marketing strategy that appeals to literate people as well….

Oh Matt, please let’s stop this. This is isn’t what the thread is about, and I have no desire to hijack thomas’ thread (or join you in pedant’s corner).

However, I gave you several perfectly reasonable examples of how mainstream politics has embraced blogging. I never said Obama beat Hill because of blogging, I said he used it to beat her – while also using many more tactics too.

So I really don’t understand why you have to pick thomas up on his point that blogging is becoming more influential (when it demonstrably is) – other than you trying to be a smarty pants.

If you have a problem with blogging per se, that’s fine, but this isn’t what this thread is about. Thanks.

It’s funny you should make the Obama/Sustainable Communities Act comparison – our own Steve Shaw, speaking at the Association of Convenience Stores (one of our biggest supporters) conference today made the same point.

Unity is simply wrong to state the SCA amounts to little more than warm words. In legislation words are important, and in this piece of legislation this is very much the case.

The main point to make is that it is NOT a consultation exercise. The government is obliged by law to work with local authorities to reach agreement, just as the local authorities themselves are obliged by law to reach agreement with their communities.

Think this is just empty rhetoric? Well, the lawyers of the Department of Communities and Local Government didn’t think so when we were negotiating in committee last year. They spent months trying to strip out all the language and replace it with civil service-friendly language about “consultation” (= cherry picking). The DCLG (not Blears herself I would add who has tended to be supportive) is also very shy of even mentioning the SCA beyond its statutory obligations. That’s why Unlock Democracy is having to work so hard on dissemination.

Those pointers, combined with the allergic, classic-Sir-Humphrey-style reaction that I’ve come across whenever I mentioned the SCA to a DCLG civil servant (usually involving several four letter words) suggests that it is, as Thomas suggests, a potentially powerful tool and a lot more than just nice words. It does however depend entirely on the enthusiasm, good will and ability of individuals to push their own agendas forward using it. That doesn’t sit comfortably with a political culture with is riven with cynicism, but nonetheless, if we can get a critical mass of people to engage with it, I have no doubt it will have a significant impact.

Addendum: we now have 22 local authorites and counting opted in, including huge councils like Sheffield and Birmingham. And that’s just a couple of weeks into the call. Can we build that critical mass? Yes, we can.

I sat with a few aging radical academics over at an unnamed Greenwich Village university last night (I know, get a life) who came to their posts during the formulate years of the revolution and during congratulatory salutations they settled down and began to talk about what’s next. First there was much about “do this, do that” very practical and local political.

But then the discussion got to what’s next. And they began to tick off the academic disciplines that had just become “completed” which is a nice way of saying “obsolete”. Their work is done except for the memoirs. And they also began to talk about what it’s like not to be the opposition any longer. Then the more radical Marxists types took charge of the discussion (just like them huh?) and all of a sudden even Obama wasn’t enough. But the idea still remained that the outs are in and bricks are best thrown from the street not from inside the house.

So I wrote about the idea of “The End of Cynicism” and posted the article today. Very interesting to find similar thoughts here. Mine a re a bit more from the perspective of a “thunderclap” that I think is rocking the halls of the “institutions of voice” right now.

Doug Barone
http://www.dougist.com

Unity,
please do give us a masterclass – we need to know how to turn tools like the SCA to our advantage to ensure that powers are devolved to us locally otherwise decisions will never meet with our approval.

It is up to us.

Blears is herself guilty of exacerbating poor political engagement. Look at her ‘Communities in control: real people, real power‘ white paper that she pushes in her speech. You can pay £33.45 if you’re one of the one third of the population who don’t have internet access. Or else you can download a 1,809 kilobyte PDF document or two three megabyte Microsoft Word documents. The white paper is 157 pages long by the way. Then you can read it off the screen or print it out if you’ve got a printer that’s up to the job. How’s that for encouraging engagement?

Those are some pretty big barriers to entry that the government themselves have erected. I take it Thomas has got a spare 33 quid, bionic eyes or a top-notch printer. I don’t, unfortunately.

How about this…

Why doesn’t Thomas think of a way of usefully dividing the white paper up and delegating the analysis? Do it through Liberal Conspiracy. I’ll put my money where my mouth is and objectively look at a chunk if it’s done in the right way.

Yes! That’s something a group blog like LC would be excellent at. It’s probably best if Aaron or Sunny coordinates the effort, but you can count me in!

The white paper is divided into 8 chapters, with the first introducing the political argument and the other seven covering separate major issues, so perhaps the easiest way it to divide it up along those lines and produce a critical series of articles with brief summaries, conclusions and any glaring omissions etc to spark off discussion.

In order, chapters 2-8 cover the issues of becoming active in your community; access to information; having an influence; accountability; redress; standing for office; and ownership and control of local services.

So, d’you volunteer any preference?

Ok then. Seeing as how I’m unhappy about how difficult they’ve made it to read the bill, I’ll take ‘access to information’.

thomas – since you’ve kick started it, why don’t you divide it up? Write another blog piece announcing this and let’s see if we can get more takers. I’m not in the country yet – coming back next week, so its still difficult for me to coordinate things from here. But take the initiative and go ahead – why are you relying on me when you want to talk about bottom up participation? (its a good point by the way).

18. douglas clark

thomas,

I’d be happy to help.

What’s the criteria for reviewing a section?


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