CUPRINS nr. 145


Provocările regimului democratic

Mediating Democracy: is the New Media Able to Create a Pure Democracy?


In recent years, due to the extraordinary development of mass communication techniques, the possibility of reviving the Athenian model of direct democracy with the help of the new media has been seriously taken into account by many political thinkers. This new form of democracy would be at the same time direct – offering to the citizens the possibility of directly expressing their opinions – but also mediated – those opinions are expressed through the media, using the modern communication technologies. The main objective of our paper is to suggest that before embracing this form of oxymoronic democracy (direct and mediated at the same time).

Keywords: direct democracy, mass communication technologies, mediated democracy, the role of the media in democracy, political system

When speaking of direct democracy, most political thinkers are invoking the Athenian1 example. As we all know, this was a political system that allowed citizens to benefit from those few liberties that define direct democracy: they could all meet in the legendary agora, they were all granted the freedom of expressing their opinions, they could all vote for or against any decision regarding the problems related to their community’s welfare. The actual representative form of democracy is almost always criticized in the light of this ideal situation, without any consideration for the historical conditions that made this exceptional political system possible. There were only a few citizens living in Athens, they could all meet, they could all discuss public matters. The historians prove that this is only an idealized version of what Athenian democracy was really like. So, why is this ideal image, this political myth, still haunting us? The answer is quite simple: we feel the need of invoking this type of system as the actual democracy, the representative one, proves to be disappointing in many respects. The distance between us and our elected representatives is constantly growing. We feel the people we vote for always have a personal agenda, far more important that the public agenda, they were elected for. We feel betrayed by the fact that the important problems concerning our society’s welfare are left behind and the public debate is dominated by cheap political scandal. We feel that the laws are mere instrument of personal benefit. And the list could go on indefinitely. As hope dies last, the new mass communication technologies are regarded as the instrument that could bring us closer to a form of purified democracy. That is, by using state of the art communication media we should get closer to the political power. The decision would be literally in our hands, as the practices of direct democracy (the referendum, for instance), could be used on a daily basis. Still, I think there are a lot of reasons that undermine this political project. I am not trying to investigate them all.

My purpose is to show that media is not creating a modern agora that allows citizens to freely express their opinion. On the contrary, media is seriously undermining the possibility of a rational, and even a reasonable political deliberation. I shall take as a starting point an article written by one of the most important contemporary political philosophers, John Rawls, and an article belonging to a nevertheless important media theorist, Bernard Berelson. John Rawls publishing Outline of Decision Procedure in Ethics in 1951. The reason for examining this particular article from the enormous diversity of papers on this matter is the declared effort of John Rawls of identifying the minimal conditions for achieving the ideal of a reasonable discussion. Throughout his work, Rawls is trying to distance himself from any comprehensive doctrine, that is, from any clear definition of good. This is also a form of expressing the priority of right, over the several ideas of the good. His purpose is to offer the political framework that will allow citizens to reasonably discuss in order to achieve the goal of a commonly accepted decision. Although Rawls is trying to avoid the normative character of theories, relying mostly on the procedure in achieving if not consent, maybe a space of common understanding, the conditions imposed to his citizens are, as we shall see, very restrictive. In the cited article, the philosopher is trying to sketch a procedure of settling moral disputes that disregards any commitment to moral principles. How should we know how to deal with a moral conflict in the absence of any normative constraints? The answer relies in the fact that the normative aspects are to be found, in Rawls’ theory, in the characteristics of those engaged in moral or political dispute.

The reason for investigating the normative aspects of Rawls’ procedure is related to the fact that political disputes are often moral disputes. The philosopher is warning against the danger of transforming his procedure into a method of settling usual quarrels. This precise goal is not to find psychological methods for resolving conflicts. The extension that I propose seems to be consistent with the philosopher’s intention, since in a democracy the political and the moral problems are often the same. In this way, we could say that the decisional procedure proposed by Rawls can be used to solve political disputes as well. In order to discuss public matters, citizens should be competent judges. What are the characteristics of those citizens? A competent moral judge is expected to have a certain requisite degree of intelligence, witch may be thought of as that ability which intelligent test are designed to measure. (...)A competent judge is required to know those things concerning the world around him and those consequences of frequently performed actions. (...) A competent judge is required to be a reasonable man as this characteristic is evidenced by his satisfying the following tests: First a reasonable man shows willingness, if not a desire, to use the criteria of inductive logic in order to determine what is proper for him to believe. Second, a reasonable man, whenever he is confronted with a moral question, shows a disposition to find reasons for and against the possible lines of conduct which are open to him. Third, a reasonable man exhibits a desire to consider questions with an open mind (...).2

This is the moral and intellectual profile of the citizen expected to engage in a moral or political dispute. As Bernard Berelson3 points out, the political theorists are relying only on pure speculation when discussing about the moral and intellectual profile of their citizens. The media theorist is trying to build a bridge between the normative aspects claimed by political philosophers and the empirical sociological studies designed to test their contentions. This type of theoretic endeavor proves to be a very fertile one since it shows us the impact media has in consolidating or weakening the democratic political system. Berelson is examining step by step all the necessary intellectual and moral requirements and he is trying to find out if they are in fact fulfilled.

The first requirement is related to the intellectual skills of the person who has to take a moral or political decision. Rawls is emphasizing the role of the intelligence in this process of decision making. A certain level of intelligence is not enough to determine whether a normal citizen should be qualified as a competent judge. Citizens must have a certain personality structure. It is easy to understand that certain personalities function better in authoritarian regimes, while others in democratic regimes, and the level of intelligence has nothing to do with it.

In the effort of translating Rawls’ normative requirements into empirically tested assertions, Berelson identifies some personality traits that can be synthesized as follows:
• A citizen has to be interested in problems exceeding the framework of daily preoccupations;
• A citizen has to display a certain emotional detachment that will allow him to participate in public debates;
• A citizen has to possess the ability of obeying some decisions and the ability of critically expressing himself, with regard to certain public interest decisions that are or not related to him;
• A citizen has to constructively criticize authority;
• A positive self image;
• The conviction in his or her ability of reliably participating in political business and changing things;

If we accept this translation of Rawls’ requirements, we should be able to see whether media is in fact helping to develop such traits, or, on the contrary, it’s only making matters worse. The method I shall use in investigating this problem consists in taking these requirements and try to see what are the findings of the sociological studies regarding those imperatives.

On the first hand, citizens should be interested in matters remote from their everyday preoccupations. That is, people should be interested in politics, political systems and democratic procedures. The dominant media of our days, television, has moved its interest from problems concerning public affairs to domestic quarrels. The political talk-shows are replaced with discussions regarding private matters. This is what researchers4 are calling the intimacy turn in television. One can argue that blogs and the Internet are offering a viable solution to this problem. But blogs are usually places where people talk about their personal problems, hopes and convictions. Although it offers a great possibility of interaction, the Internet consists mainly of local communities. This is a technological tool that can be used for interpersonal communication (e-mail or messenger type programs) but also for public debate (political forums). As we all know the apparent freedom of expression of the actual forums is undermined by the political parties, which are paying certain people to enter forums and express only those messages previously agreed upon. The fact that people are not usually interested in politics is illustrated by the simple observation that most of them, at least in our country, could not be able to answer simple questions, like who are our ministers. The commercial media is cultivating this lack of information since, paradoxically as it may sound, public interest information does not interest the public. That is, the TV channels functioning as public services, focusing on public interest information, have small audiences and the TV channels presenting juicy details of famous people’s little quarrels are gaining all the public interest. The apparent paradox is easy to solve: we assume that the public sphere is naturally interested in debates and discussions regarding political subjects, but, in fact, it is not thiswhat public is really looking for.

The second requirement is related to the emotional detachment that citizens should display when discussing political issues. The empirical data5 shows that it is very important to use powerful symbols in political communication. This is because there is a close connection between the interest in politics and the emotional involvement. So, this requirement could never be met. That is, the more interested people are in politics the more they are attached to their convictions. The political message transmitted through media will never target those well informed people, simply because they are already informed. The possibility of a rational debate is thus undermined since all political discussions should target people who are not yet decided or informed. In this way, the door to the image conflict is being opened. The politician will dress as the stylists are telling him, talk like the PR specialist is dictating and act like his campaign manager will decide. This kind of negative effect of the media has been discussed when J.F. Kennedy first ran for presidential elections. In 1960 the electoral debate was transmitted on television for the first time. The following research showed that the people watching TV voted for Kennedy, while the people who were listening to the debate on the radio voted for Nixon. This can only be explained as the result of the fact that the image of the young Kennedy was far more appealing than the image of Nixon. The stronger arguments of Nixon were defeated by the fresh look of Kennedy.

The third requirement is somehow related to the first two. In order to be able to express critical points of view regarding authority, one has to be informed and educated. The authority and the legitimacy of a democratic society are based on people’s ability to understand the role of democratic institutions and the principles governing them. I cannot see how media could help in developing civic consciousness, since commercial imperatives are driving them in a desperate quest for high audiences. It is not plausible to believe that public debate on democracy’s principles should help media channels reach those audiences.

The forth requirement regards citizen’s ability to constructively criticize authority. In order to criticize it, he or she has to know what this authority relies on. This imperative imposes certain knowledge of the institutions and the principles of democratic political systems. For the same reasons expressed above, it is fairly unlikely for this requirement to be met.

The fifth and the sixth requirements are interrelated. That is, sociological and psychological data show that people affected by neurosis and depression are very unlikely to be interested in problems on the public agenda. Moreover, people have to trust the political system and to be confident that their participation should make a difference. This is one of the most vulnerable points of the actual democracy that I don’t think could be overcome with the help of the media. Most people feel that their decision and often their vote are useless. Installing a modern voting system in every home is not a feasible solution. As we are all concerned with our every day work it is unlikely that we will be able to focus for a long period of time on public agenda issues in order to vote. Of course, one could joke about it and say that our Parliament members are almost always asleep, so it should not be so difficult to take their place. But the voting procedure, even reduced to a single click, is a time consuming process, as we are living in a country with millions of people and not in a city where only men have the right to vote. Today’s problems are not as simple as the Athenian’s problems and I find it hard to believe that our citizens would sacrifice a nice chat on the Internet in order to vote some boring laws regarding intellectual property or civil procedure regulations.

This rather pessimistic perspective on the possibility of building a direct and yet mediated democracy, with the help of the new mass communication technologies, is completed by the radical point of view of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. She is trying to prove that the best way to understand media effects on public debate is not to speculate on what media is doing to people, but rather to empirically test what people are doing with the media messages. Her radical point of view is showing that media is not improving the democratic political system. On the contrary, it is weakening this system. She distinguishes between public opinion and published opinion. The published opinion is the opinion that the media is choosing to present to the public and very often it has nothing to do with the public’s opinion. The published opinion is, as most people feel, the opinion of the majority. Expressing a point of view contrary to this published opinion is an emotionally consuming process: people always fear the rejection of the society. In this way, the published opinion becomes a powerful tool of coercion and not the modern agora that could offer to each citizen the space to freely express his opinions. Noelle-Neumann is very reluctant in offering the published opinion a meaning related to the theoretical concept of critical public opinion. The public opinion is definitely not a source of wisdom which improves the government by its criticism. We have to give up this ideal, even if main political scientists, sociologists and philosophers still cling to it, extolling “critical public opinion” or public opinion committed to public welfare. This kind of public opinion is an invention. It cannot be discovered by empirical methods of observation. Also, in the analysis op opinion formation processes, one does not come across any phenomena that might be explained by the assumption of such kind of public opinion.6 That is, the media selects some opinions and publishes them and those opinions are felt to be the relevant opinion of the majority. The members of the public are not opposing these opinions since they fear social rejection. The opinions selected by the media, in other words, the published opinion, are functioning as a tool of restricting the freedom of expression. Using sociological instruments of investigation Noelle-Neumann proves that the public may express very different opinions when the disclosure of identity is not imperative. When sociologists ask questions about certain issues disregarding the identity, the fear of being rejected is thus eliminated and the members of the public express opinions that have nothing to do with the published opinion.

For the reasons explained above I think that it is impossible to obtain a pure democracy with the help of the new mass-communication technologies. The new media will offer an enormous variety of information and it will certainly facilitate the communication process. For instance, the Internet could offer the possibility of expressing points of view while hiding identities. Even nowadays there are public forums, for instance, that allow people to discuss anonymously. This rather pessimistic perspective should not be a radical one. We could never predict the way future technology may evolve, but, considering nowadays possibilities it seems impossible to build a direct and yet mediated democracy.



1 As Quentin Skinner and other political thinkers show, the Athenian model is in fact a political system remote form the idealized image that we all share. In other words, there were a lot of inconsistencies with the ideal of pure democracy. For instance, women were not granted the right to vote, the people born outside the city’s borders could never receive citizenship etc.
2 John Rawls, „Outline of a Decision Procedure in Ethics”, The Philosophical Review, 60 (1951): 178.
3 Bernard Berelson, “Democratic Theory and Public Opinion”, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 16 (1952): 315.
4 Todoran, I. „Lacrimi, râsete, aplauze. O incursiune în universul spectacular al televiziunii contemporane”, Revista Română de Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice, 6-7 (2003), Ed. SNSPA.
5 D. Charleston, L. Mae, 2007 „Posing with the Flag: Trait-specific effects of symbols on person perception”, Journal of Experimental Social Psycholosgy, 43 (2007): 241.
6 Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, “Public opinion and the classical tradition: A Re-evaluation”, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 43 (1979):153.


MARIA CERNAT - Lect. univ. dr. Facultatea de Jurnalism, Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice, Universitatea „Spiru Haret”.




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