You’ve heard it about a thousand times before, especially lately. “Our democracy is in danger!” And yet, our news and political analysis, especially since former President Donald Trump’s leaving office, remains the same. What’s happening today? What bills are being proposed? Will they pass Congress? We get dozens of articles every day, full of facts and figures, which are either difficult to know what to do with or spoon-feed us political opinions that we are told are correct.
In a way, yes, the show must go on. Politicians must continue politicking. Bills must still be written and passed. And we still need news to cover all that.
But today we also need something else. We need news and analysis which provides readers with the tools to go beyond the headline. We need coverage that doesn’t just cover but considers what all this means for democracy on the broad scale and in the long term, because not just our democracy, but liberal democracy around the world, is in danger.
Liberal democracy—or democracy as we know it—isn’t just the vote. It is a wide-ranging constellation of rights, freedoms, opportunities, and the vote. Liberal democracy means equal representation and opportunity at the ballot box, in the courtroom, and in the economy, and in many ways it’s already broken here in America and elsewhere. What’s left of it is in even greater danger if we can’t bring it to its fullest potential.
If you’re reading this and are aware of our mission at Spectacles—to provide a new way of seeing politics committed to the preservation and promotion of liberal democracy—you’ve probably got a few questions. Why ‘liberal democracy?’ What kind of media does liberal democracy need to flourish? Why Spectacles?
Liberal democracy is, quite simply, the combination of liberal individualism and rights with democratic equality and governmental structures. Just as liberal democracy is the amalgamation of all those rights and freedoms we—and probably you—hold dear, those privileges cannot be preserved without this combination of liberalism and democracy. They are inseparable from each other, but that isn’t stopping many challenges to that idea from gaining popularity today.
Without democracy, liberal equal rights are meaningless. Take for example America from the period of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement, what we know as the Jim Crow Era. In this period, Black Americans were legally entitled to equal rights and representation. We even passed two amendments to the Constitution to make that explicitly clear. However, as the right to vote—i.e. democracy—was restricted, particularly across the South, those rights were undermined or even effectively eliminated. Legal equality and individual rights went out the window, without any politically-accessible recourse through which those affected could self-advocate.
When you don’t have the ability to vote and defend your interests through political action and engagement, your rights will not be protected, no matter what a piece of paper says.
Similarly, without liberal individual rights, democracy cannot be reliably preserved. Without universal individual rights, there is nothing stopping a democratic majority from abusing some minority and taking away its political power. Consider the world’s first democracy: Athens. In the Greek city-state, votes were held and democratic participation in politics was expected. However, the Athenians had no concept of individual or equal rights, and the franchise was not extended to women or foreign residents, while citizens kept slaves. Democracy was a rule by the majority of those privileged enough to be citizens, no matter what kind of abuse the majority might heap onto some minority or non-citizen individual, who had no guaranteed rights to dignified life.
When you aren’t protected from the whims of a majority by certain equalities, rights, and provisions, it isn’t likely you’ll be able to maintain—or even acquire—an equal voice in politics. Athens may have been ahead of its time in some ways, but its democracy failed to guarantee the human rights and freedoms that we believe are inherent today.
These may seem like far-fetched ideas or hardly relevant today, but they’re closer to home than you might think. Hungary has a Prime Minister who has explicitly stated his goal of establishing a democracy without liberalism, so that he can strip those not judged to be authentically Hungarian of their rights. What’s more, this man was brought onto Fox News and endorsed by Tucker Carlson for creating a “freer” society than America.
Liberal democracy requires a fine balance to be maintained. A drift toward liberal individualism can generate enormous inequality which will undermine democratic equality and accountability—as it has in many places. A tendency toward absolute equality and unconstrained majority power also has the potential to destroy individual rights which are so precious.
Liberal democracy around the world, and especially in America, will continue to struggle with problems of racial and economic inequality, the casualties of globalization, and the increasing appeal and power of alternative regimes like those found in China, Hungary, or India. As we do so, we must reinvigorate a belief in the value of this tenuous marriage or risk losing it altogether.
To do that, we need media which is accessible and serious and committed to articulating, defending, and promoting liberal democratic values. When all we are presented with, day-in and day-out, is the kind of reporting we are all familiar with, it’s easy to either get lost in the weeds of an issue or become so obsessed with some problem that we forget the complexities of politics. The news convinces us that politics is simply a game of “problems” and “solutions,” but we need to think ecologically about politics, considering how each decision might have impacts far beyond what we expect.
Every single issue in politics is tied together in some way, and it all comes back around to affect that balance between liberalism and democracy. We need fewer articles from experts in an incomprehensibly specific field talking about how we can “fix” something without regard for consequences beyond a specific issue. Take, for example, CNN’s chief national security correspondent apparently implying that civilian leadership of the military is a mistake. Surely the military knows military matters best. However, this idea demonstrates a failure to remain aware of the broader consequences abandoning that would bring: total lack of military accountability to the public, for one.
This is merely one instance, but the problem is systemic in our news media. Coverage is regularly over-specialized to a point of forgetting the bigger picture and filled with sensationalist headlines and images that entertain rather than inform.
Citizens of a liberal democracy need news which treats politics holistically, exploring the long-term, broader impacts rather than getting bogged down in details which prove either useless or misguiding. We need analysis which is serious about providing something useful to the reader rather than generating controversy or clickbait. And we must have media which can help readers connect the dots between theory and practice. At the same time, it isn’t helpful to venture into the territory of overly abstract ideas and terminologies. It is both possible and necessary to combine inquiries into the theories which undergird the practices of liberal democracy while relating the day-to-day relevance of those very practices. In essence, that is our mission at Spectacles.
After all, liberal democracy is just a working theory—one we’ve been working on for quite a long time. It’s all too easy to forget that and think that our system is infinitely resilient when it is not. Everything has its breaking point.
It’s time to start taking care of our democracy, and that means nourishing it with the right perspectives and intentions. It’s time for a new way of seeing politics.