Fourth Annual Philomathia Symposium, 9 November 2017 – Where does democracy reside?

The fourth symposium focused on the question ‘Where does democracy reside?’ – a topic that has become more timely and pressing since the election of President Trump, the outcome of the referendum on British membership of the EU, and the rise of populism in Europe.

Session one: Democracy and communication technology: which controls which?

One of the crucial issues has been the role of social media and the first session dealt with the vexed relationship between democracy and communications technology.  Can democracy control the new technology, or does the new technology control and even subvert democracy?  One view that emerged from the session was that the role of new technology or ‘techno-determinism’ in the rise of populism may be exaggerated, for there is a longer trend apparent in, for example, Peronism or American conservatism.  But technology could amplify these longer-term trends, reinforcing links with like-minded views and excluding other opinions and complex stories.  The algorithms used by social media create ‘vertical’ links to similar stories, rather than alternative views.  In other words, democracy is about who controls algorithms – a matter that is so technically complex that no one person can understand them.  The session debated how to deal with this problem: should technology companies change their mode of operation so that their users are provided with different views; or is it more a matter for training and education in complexity and criticism?

Session two: Can democracy meet the challenge of climate change?

The second session turned to a specific case – whether democracy can meet the challenge of climate change.  We returned to the question of the media, and the creation of doubt about the general scientific consensus on the human impact on climate.  But other issues also arose.  Responses to climate change entail allocation of the costs and benefits of the energy transition, which involves decisions between different groups within a society, between nations at different levels of development, and between generations.  Do we take action now that will impose costs on currently living citizens and voters at the expense of future generations who do not have a voice in our decisions – and indeed might not be born if we do not take action?  How do we deal with political myopia or short-termism, and how do we balance the local and national with the global?  These issues of global governance versus economic nationalism have been thrown into stark relief by President Trump’s claim that he wishes to make American great, even at the cost of trade war and the weakening of global governance.

Session three: Can statebuilding ever be ‘post-conflict’?

The third session turned to another case study that again raised general issues.  How can states be rebuilt after conflict?  The main theme was the extent to which former armed movements can be transformed into political parties – a process that has been treated as exceptional rather than commonplace.  Can non-state armed movements that are based on exclusion and hostility become political parties than can mediate conflicts and provide organisational structures that allow participation?  During the period of conflict, the armed movements articulate radical ideas of how the state should be transformed: can these ideas be reconstituted after the end of hostilities?  Can the issues of state legitimacy be resolved?

Keynote lecture: Professor Theda Skocpol, Harvard University

The symposium ended with an outstanding keynote lecture by Prof Theda Skocpol, Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard. Her theme was ‘The forces battering American democracy’.   She brought the election of Trump to the centre of discussions on the first anniversary of that startling event.  She showed how both major parties in the United States, but above all the Republicans, have moved away from the political centre in recent years.  She gave less weight to social media than some of the participants in our first session, and instead emphasised institutions and organisation.  In a compelling and detailed analysis, she showed how the Kochs and their associates created a network of institutions and think tanks, and embedded organisers within crucial electoral districts to forward their vision of free market, anti-state policies.  They were, she pointed out, more like a Leninist party – whereas the Silicon Valley supporters of Democrats were less organised and cohesive.  This was a vision of democracy being threatened by a tightly focussed group with a powerful agenda – and one that positively welcomed Prof Skocpol’s analysis as proof of how effective they are.  This group was not particularly sympathetic to Trump’s brand of populism, but saw him as a useful tool in bringing in a wider electorate.  The person who is a ‘paid up’ member of their ideology and organisation is the Vice-President, Mike Pence.  Should we be pessimistic or are there grounds for hope?  Prof Skocpol emphasised institutional and organisational processes rather than techno-determinism, and saw signs that new groups could mobilise against Trump – above all, women who organised the marches after Trump’s elections, and created new forms of association.

The symposium, as always, raised many questions for us to ponder – a sign of the intellectual stimulus and provocation that we associate with the event, and with the Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme.  The event brought together scholars across the social sciences with colleagues in the sciences, and involved journalists and policy makers.   The organisers, speakers and audience expressed their thanks to the Philomathia Foundation for its continued generous support.

Martin Daunton
Director, Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme

To view the Programme and the biographies of the speakers, click here.




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