New Internationalist

Dumbing down democracy

Issue 405

Richard Swift fears for a political culture where we are being treated like small children.

Yola Monakhov / PANOS
Political Gothic – Republican style. Yola Monakhov / PANOS

‘Grow up!’ We have all said it. We’ve all had it said to us. Sometimes it’s just gratuitous, but all too often it’s an accurate description of real behaviour. The psychological tendency to revert to childish impulses and reactions exists in us all.

But what happens when an entire culture and its politics systematically caters to such impulses? Sigmund Freud had a name for this. He called it ‘infantilization’, by which he meant either getting stuck in or reverting back to a childish state, in order to avoid dealing with real-life problems and dilemmas. It can take many forms – narcissism, magical thinking, belief in invisible friends or enemies, desire for the protection of a mythical father (authority) or mother (nurturer) figure. None of these reactions is healthy for a self-governing democracy rooted in the notion that citizens need to come to terms with the issues they face and make collective decisions. But they continue to prove themselves exceptionally useful to the governing political classes, diverting popular alienation away from their use of power and the enjoyment of their prerogatives.

Capitalism has always been associated with different states of mind. In its earliest phases, theorists like the German sociologist Max Weber and the British historian RH Tawney connected capitalism’s rise with the Protestant values of parsimony and salvation through endeavour. The idea was that frugality (save your funds to invest) and hard work shaped a personality fit for success both in heaven and on earth. While impediments to wealth-gathering were discouraged, private acts of philanthropy were lionized.

In our own times things have moved along – late or turbo-capitalism suffers from a crisis of ‘overproduction’: too many goods chasing too little demand. If you discount (as the market does) all those billions who have needs for basic food and shelter but lack the money to constitute legitimate ‘demand’, there is just too much stuff being produced. But it is the health of this production that keeps the economy humming along – creating jobs and profits (and, of course, waste, poverty and pollution).

Easy credit certainly encourages people to buy more stuff, but the crucial element for doing this is the advertising industry. So buy! buy! buy! is the mantra of our particular era. To make that happen, what seems to work best is to treat consumers like spoiled or anxious children. In his voluminous recent book on the subject Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin Barber connects turbo-capitalism with a cult of perpetual childishness, which is sweeping the industrial world.1 In English they are called Kidults or Adultescents; the Germans speak of Nesthocker; for Italians they are Mammones; Freeter in Japan; Zippies in India. A culture is emerging based on a prolonged lifetime of buying ever more toys (fancy cameras, jet skis, SUVs, a myriad of electronic paraphernalia) – nicely caught by that Florida bumper sticker: ‘The one who finishes with the most toys wins’.

We don’t need to be told much more about the sorry way in which advertising infantilizes us. The deformations of values and personalities that result are by now the subject of a vast, hand-wringing literature. Entire magazines, such as the clever Vancouver-based Adbusters, are dedicated to combating the deformities.

Less investigated, however, is the way the culture of infantilization is poisoning democratic political life across the industrial world and now beyond. This is not a conspiracy, but an entire industry. Pollsters, spin doctors, think-tanks, consultants, political marketers, makeover artists, writers, researchers, electoral demography experts, psychologists, backroom boys and girls and a host of other specialists cash in on the multi-million dollar business. Whenever election time rolls around, big political machines kick into high gear. God help you if you are in their path. Celebrity consultants, like Lee Atwater, Karl Rove or Dick Morris, have proved masters at pushing the right buttons. In the process they have become the folk heroes (or villains) of US political culture.

Lowest common denominator

Make no mistake – there is serious money on offer. The last US Presidential election was the first to cost over a billion dollars in total. Senate and some House seats can cost millions. The stakes are high and winning has become a finely tuned art. The idea is to ‘position’ a political candidate (watch that body language, control that photo-op) through a combination of saturation advertising and media manipulation. They combine in a pattern of emotive images designed to push the electorate’s buttons.

Forget intelligent discussion of policy options or significant political alternatives; this is about appealing to people’s lowest common denominators; their insecurities, neuroses, resentments and fragile egos. Tactics range from straightforward ‘integrity ads’ (to sell fatherly candidate X) through to negative advertising (besmirching the dubious character of candidate Y). If that doesn’t work, you can always swing a few votes through dirty tricks, such as annoying computer-generated phone calls on election day to leave the impression they were made by your opponent – a little manœuvre the Republicans used in the 2004 Presidential campaign.

The US model of politics based on money and personality is being exported around the world. The sheer number of political consultants is just one indicator. European spin doctors, like Alistair Campbell in Britain, Dominique Ambiel in France and Bodo Hombach in Germany, now dot the political landscape. There is even an International Association of Political Consultants, holding annual conventions (this year in Bali) to discuss what works and what doesn’t. The issue is not so much the ideological orientation of the politics as the way democracy is managed and manipulated from above by a group of experts willing to use whatever works to get the job done.

The model is being exported beyond the industrialized world. The GSC Group has done the same kind of job in Bolivia; Campaigns and Grey in the Philippines; the Penn, Schoen and Berland polling company in Venezuela. Here the model tends to get grafted on to existing political cultures: machismo in Latin America, ‘big man’ politics in Africa and parts of the Pacific, a sort of pseudo-piousness in the Islamic world.

Make no mistake – there is serious money on offer. The last US Presidential election was the first to cost over a billion dollars in total

The costs for democracy are beginning to be measured in the hard statistics of apathy. Abysmal US turnout rates at elections are legendary – not much more than a third of voters bother to turn up for congressional (non-Presidential) elections. Now the rot is spreading across the industrial world. Three-quarters of the worst turnouts in European elections in the past half-century happened after 1990. Since the 1980s, membership of political parties has dropped dramatically in almost every industrial country – by as much as 50 per cent in some cases.2 Youth voting is down: in Britain it’s 39 per cent below the average; in Canada 20 per cent.3 One response to an infantilized politics appears to be just to walk away.

Of course it can be argued that infantilization is nothing new. In his piece in this issue Ashis Nandy traces it back as far as colonialism and slavery. Certainly, whipping up the mob by a demagogue is at least as old as Ancient Rome. The notion some people have that they are more worthy than their fellows is a very old one indeed. Until the advent of the universal franchise, consent was only useful (particularly in times of war and crisis), not absolutely necessary. Infantilization might occur as a function of economic and social privilege, but the systematic colonization of the mind has only been honed over the last 150 years or so.

We have now reached what are arguably the right conditions for a ‘perfect storm’ of infantilization. The technologies of mass persuasion are in place – most prominently TV and the internet. Our democracy is sometimes referred to as facing a ‘crisis in governability’ – by which the establishment means that the system needs a firm hand on the tiller. Globalization and its enthusiasts have dislodged many of the work and community identities (to say nothing of the actual workplaces and communities) in which democratic politics have traditionally been rooted. Those left politically adrift are often in a vulnerable state, easy prey for the infantilizers. A wave of militant fundamentalisms has ushered in an era of false certainties. Yet massive problems, such as climate change, an energy crunch and the threat of terrorism loom, with few credible solutions in sight. Our kids might think it’s time to call in Batman or Wonder Woman. Are adult reactions likely to be all that different?

The notion of infantilization can serve many political masters. In its conservative variant it has been used to underpin the critique of the ‘nanny state’. A classic 1970 text of this orientation was Klein and Jonas’ Man-Child: A study of the infantilization of man.4 They take the by now oft-repeated view that programmes intended to aid the poor and combat inequality in fact instill a childlike dependence in an ‘underclass’ that prevents it from getting a hold of its own boot straps. Such notions are useful if you think the poor are that way because they lack initiative. Recent versions of similar views have been encoded into the British legal system as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) designed to micro-manage the behaviour of recalcitrant teenagers or cranky pensioners.

Such a narrow reading of infantilization does little to shine any light on the source of it and how it gets reproduced in the media and politics. There’s nothing here about the way those who use the techniques of infantilization can themselves become its victims. A good example is the way Robert Mugabe constantly plays with the historical grievances of Zimbabweans while himself apparently convinced that 1,000 per cent inflation is due to a few greedy shopkeepers. Crack some heads and all will be put right. This is a kind of ‘magical thinking’ common to many politicians, not least the late unlamented Tony Blair, so proud of his brave legacy in Iraq. Trevor Turner explores this kind of magical thinking on page 18.

Although having pretensions to being a ‘science’, psychoanalysis – like Marxism – is at its best when identifying tendencies rather than giving precise definitions and predictions. Any exploration of infantilization is by its nature imprecise and subjective. One of the dangers of such a critique is that it will be used against children. Too often kids are made to grow up too quickly, yet in an infantilized kind of way: young girls replete with lipstick and sexualized fashion, young boys made into ‘little celebrities’ on the athletic field.

We need to be clear about this – it is absolutely appropriate for an infant to act like an infant and a child to enjoy childish things. Children should have a secure space to behave in these ways. There is even a case to be made that adults should never lose the sense of playfulness and wonder at the world that comes with childhood. But the purposeful dumbing down of politics to cater to a series of petulant and self-centred impulses is of little service to either adult or child. It currently stands in danger of ‘hollowing out’ what democracy we do have – leaving an empty shell inhabited by political hacks and hucksters; all, to be sure, with spotless reputations and the proper ‘professional’ credentials. For the human species, the price for refusing to grow up could prove high indeed.

  1. Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults and swallow citizens whole, Benjamin R. Barber, Norton, 2007.
  2. Peter Mair, ‘After Democracy’, New Left Review No 42, Nov/Dec 2006
  3. Politics of Fear, Frank Furudi, Continuum International Publishers, 2007
  4. Man-Child: A Study of the Infantilization of Man, David Jonas and Doris Klien, McGraw-Hill, 1970.

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