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Am I really a threat to democracy? Pointing out authoritarianism doesn't make me the bad guy

Post-democracy is coming. Credit: LEAL/AFP/Getty


September 7, 2022   7 mins

Is it Joe Biden who is the real fascist? Or Trump? Or is it actually
 me?

The world is wearily familiar by now with the overheated and extremely public style in which America conducts its internal disputes, and Joe Biden’s speech for the American midterm elections last week was no exception.

Flanked by soldiers, Biden stood against the backdrop of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the US Constitution was written. The building was lit in ominous red. This “sacred ground”, the President said, was “where we set in motion the most extraordinary experiment of self-government the world has ever known with three simple words: “We, the People.” And, he intimated, this was now profoundly under threat thanks to “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans”, who “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic”.

The remainder of the speech re-invoked American democracy while suggesting that Biden’s political opponents were a threat not to his presidency but to all of that 200-year-old project. Both sides claimed the speech as evidence that the other side is the real threat to American democracy.

Or perhaps the real threat is me? This, at least, is the implication of a recent article in US conservative journal National Review, which noted that I’ve suggested more than once lately that I think Caesarism may be the least worst option for future Western politics, and accused me of shilling for authoritarianism. Well, yes and no. I do think liberal democracy is probably doomed. But this isn’t the fault of either Left of Right, so much as deep structural reasons.

What if, in fact, the threat to democracy is real, but the battle is already lost? What if, in fact, the West stopped trying to form democratic citizens some time ago? And what if this is a problem not just in America, but across the entire democratic world?

A couple of years ago, Adam Garfinkle made this case, in an essay examining the decline in “deep literacy” following the arrival of the internet. Delving into the interlocking histories of print, Christianity and democracy, the author argued that all three of these combined to create a particular type of subject well-suited to democratic governance. And, he suggests, the principal means by which such democratic subjects were shaped was long-form reading.

Long-form reading builds up an interlinked base of knowledge, held in long-term memory, that you can use to think with. But sustained engagement with long-form text also creates the capacity for abstract thinking, inner life as such, and a shared belief in objective standards and the value of deliberation.

Even today, there are striking overlaps between worldwide literacy and nations that embrace some form of democracy – which correlate strongly with the prevalence of Christian belief. All three coalesced in the founding of America, the new home for a polity whose emergence was bound up with the Christian Reformation that followed the arrival of the printing press.

Today, though, a nation founded in the convergence of Christianity, literacy, and democracy sees Christianity in rapid decline, as is the case across the West. Garfinkle argues that literacy is not far behind: for while on the face of it we’re reading and writing more than ever, in another sense we’re losing the central, print-era capacity for “deep reading”. In its place, prolonged engagement with scrolling, intertextual and interactive reading rewards us for losing unitary focus, and trains us not to concentrate but filter torrents of information via rapid-fire skipping across multiple sources. The result is a shift toward “continuous partial attention”.

If “deep reading” produced democracy as its governing political form, what can we expect to see associated with its networked digital successor? As Garfinkle sees it, this would probably be toward “a less abstract, re-personalized form of social and political authority concentrated in a ‘great’ authoritarian leader”.

We may already be seeing this borne out. On this side of the pond, research by the think tank UK Onward revealed support for democratic norms falling with every generation, but then plunging sharply among those under 44. Notably, Onward’s data also show that after an authoritarian spike across the board, that coincided with Covid, every demographic has returned to more or less their previous dislike of strongman leadership — again, except those under 44.

And these trends are not just observable in Britain. Most young Western people are more authoritarian than their elders. Nor is this purely a case of young Right-wingers agitating for less immigration; young Left-wingers are also willing to steamroller democracy.

UK Onward identified always-online culture as a key factor in the longing for strongman politics. This would account for the inflection point around my generation (early 40s). I was 18 when my household went online; every generation younger than me has grown up in an increasingly digital culture. And if post-literacy is the technological and cultural water we all swim in now, this accounts for a number of emerging cultural and political phenomena.

It goes some way, for example, toward explaining declining youth support for the print-era ideal of “freedom of speech”, and in parallel the increasing youth support for censorship. Freedom of speech as an ideal was predicated on the scarcity of information; today, though, information is superabundant. And when you’ve grown up with personal experience of just how foul people can be online, you might well value the role of content moderators. So, today, the battleground is over who and what gets noticed – and who gets to set the parameters.

We can also kiss goodbye to the “marketplace of ideas”. This might have seemed plausible when everyone aspired to long-form, deliberative, rationalism and a broadly shared moral framework. When these are things of the past, we all absorb disaggregated, de-contextualised snippets of information at speed, our reading material rewards us for not concentrating long enough to think something through, and we can see everyone else thinking in real time on our screens?

Well, it turns out that this makes “the marketplace of ideas” much more volatile, infectious, and politicised, and accordingly less willing to notice politically inconvenient facts. That is, less a vector for collective truth-seeking than an accelerant for conspiracy fantasy, purity spirals and unhinged meme wars. And this is chipping away at faith in the capacity of debate to make anything better.

In its place we find a growing tendency for political change to be driven by campaigning bodies that aim not to win by debating, but to do so by setting the parameters within which democratic political debate is able to take place. Whether it’s creating guidelines, writing school curricula, influencing legislation or shaping international standards or treaties, such activity takes place, by definition, prior to democratic deliberation.

Probably the case most familiar to British readers will be the Brexit debate over whether it was acceptable for the UK’s immigration policy to be set in Brussels, but other examples are legion. A lot of what’s said about “the deep state” is baroque conspiracy fantasy, but the phrase contains a kernel of truth: the political issues voters are able to influence via the polling booth are pre-set, in a process that’s increasingly obviously itself a political battleground, and one that’s largely insulated from democratic accountability.

And this hints at more profound implication of Garfinkle’s argument. Mass democracy implies a capacity for long-form thinking, along with faith in freedom of speech, the marketplace of ideas, and the power of electoral politics to effect change. If these are all faltering, for structural reasons, what future is there for the central political ideal of the print era?

Those who have encountered the “Dark Brandon” meme, in which Joe Biden is approvingly depicted by his own supporters as a semi-supernatural authoritarian, might be tempted to point to this as evidence that the youth are itching for something a bit more, erm, forceful than their parents’ feeble polling-booth-based efforts. There is also the obvious and growing problem democratic polities have with mustering the “losers’ consent” which enables the losing political teams to accept a democratic result.

Biden characterised reluctance to accept the result of a vote as a unique property of his enemies. But it’s discernible across the political spectrum – and not just in the US. Alongside the short-lived Trumpist riot at Washington’s Capitol two Januaries ago, for example, we might note the multi-year elite rearguard action against the Brexit referendum result, and the progressive #Resistance against Donald Trump.

If I’m right, this will continue to get worse wherever networked reading is replacing the deep print-era kind. As this happens, we should expect tensions to grow, too, between generations with wildly divergent worldviews. This gulf also has a material component and complex downstream implications. This week, 10 Downing Street welcomed its fourth Tory premier in six years, every one of whom was chosen by Tory Party members skewed toward that older section of the British population that still mostly believes in democratic politics. And first move by the latest incumbent in this slippery seat has been to pile yet more debt on younger taxpayers – the group that increasingly doesn’t. Something will, eventually, give.

It’s my sincere wish that our democratic ships will find a way to right themselves. But my fear is that they won’t. More than Trumpists, censorious students, anti-racists or whichever other group you view as political enemies, to my eye it’s the end of the print era that is the greatest threat to “democracy”. And the time to have done anything about it was around 30 years ago, when the first commercial ISPs launched.

Too late now. I suspect it’ll be a while yet before we see definitively what liberal democracy morphs into under digital conditions. But whether its aesthetics owe more to the Red or Blue Tribe, or to something else altogether, I predict the following: post-democracy will retain democracy-like rituals, but actual politics will happen well upstream of voting. And where such regimes exercise power directly, this will be couched in impersonal procedure that impedes direct accountability even as it enables more frankly authoritarian policies. In truth, the contours of this order are already visible: think of international treaties on emissions, Covid lockdowns across Europe, or Justin Trudeau ending the truckers’ protest by freezing protesters’ bank accounts.

So, am I hankering for authoritarianism? Truth be told, I’d be delighted to have the old political settlement back. But wishing won’t make it so. Accusing me of trying to conjure this shift into existence is like accusing someone who points out an oncoming tsunami of making it up because they really love swimming.

And if I’m right, it won’t matter how devoted older conservatives are to the print era’s flagship political form. If we just aren’t making the kind of people who founded that system, the system will become something new. And then, to paraphrase one of the great Left-wing authoritarians of the last century, Leon Trotsky: you may not be interested in Caesarism, but Caesarism will be interested in you.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

I feel I should point out that the United States is not a direct democracy. It is a representative republic. The idea was that people would elect intelligent and principled men of good character to represent their interests in the government (women’s suffrage did not exist yet). A representative republic is supposed to prevent mob rule and prevent the accumulation of power by an entrenched elite. This has fallen apart. Voters try to replace representative after representative and find out the new guy is the same as the old guy. There is an active distaste in Washington for voters who do not adhere to the neoliberal consensus and it is no secret that most of the candidates pretending to be on the fringes are just engaging in performance art. I take pot shots at the Democrats a lot but I think the best example belongs to the Republicans. They told their voters that if they got a majority, they had a plan to “repeal and replace” the ACA (Obamacare) with something better they had been working on. Not only did they not repeal or replace, they never had a serious plan to start with and were lying through their teeth the entire time. Representatives are supposed to represent their constituents and they are supposed to represent local political views on the national stage. There is little representing anymore.
The other problem is the United States Government is now often run by unelected bureaucrats in various government agencies accountable to no one and facing no consequences no matter what they do. These circumvent the authority of Congress, the Presidency, and the legal system. To make matters worse many government agencies, particularly the three letter ones like the CIA, FBI, ATF, DEA, CDC, and EPA have no problem flagrantly violating the law or the Constitution (designed to prevent exactly this) and doing things they are forbidden from doing. This goes directly against how the American system of government was intentionally designed. The CIA no longer even acts ashamed when they get caught doing things like bugging the phones of Congressional committee members. Combine these two things together along with other factors like a news media that is anything but independent, rampant corporate influence, and numerous examples of there being a two tiered system of justice between normal people and the rich and powerful and it is hard to argue for the government’s legitimacy. I have no idea where we go from here, but it does not look good.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The best President of our lifetimes, Donald Trump, is our last chance. He will break the Deep State, stop the free run foolishness of Postmodernism-Woke Neo-Marxists controlling the education systems, reduce Crime by making crime illegal again, build a wall so Drug/people smuggling Cartels are no longer in charge of the American immigration Policy, make USA Energy independent again, remove some astoundingly plentiful anti-business regulations, de-woke the Military, repatriate manufacturing, end the insane Neo-Liberal war by telling Ukrane they need to negociate or be on their own, try to keep the $ as the Reserve Currency, get China to fallow the rules on intellectual property – well on and on.

Either him or the Corporatocracy/Ologarchy owners of the ‘Uniparty’ take full control. (WEF)

Mary, give us your opinion on Trump, then we will know if you are a threat to Democracy.

Martin Rossol
Martin Rossol
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Thanks, Mary, for a good piece.
Aaron, I half agree on Trump, but unless he can garner the support of the “swamp Republicans” (which, I sense, Matt also identified) the deep state will remain entrenched. (I’m not ready to place all my money on DeSantis.)

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Rossol

Who then if not Trump or DeSantis?

Simon B
Simon B
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Dear Mr James, your entire post proves Mary’s point. You seem -like all network readers- entirely fixated on the content (Trump vs Anti-Trump) rather than the context (How did this content come to be?). Further, you appear to think that somebody’s opinion of a specific person -who represents your network’s ideology- defines them as good or evil. This is a sign of a typical religious devotion towards your network ideology, similar to for example climate alarmists. This attitude is part of the problem undermining democracy, yet all polarized groups claim to save democracy but this can only be done if we remove (Perhaps by force?) the opposition (Evil).

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon B

Bang on !

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Trump is just another example of what she’s talking about, possibly he plays the game better because he doesn’t feel any desire to pretend to encourage long form thinking or adherence to democratic norms.

M Harries
M Harries
1 year ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

I don’t associate Trump with any form of thinking. OK, he DOES think, but where the words arrive “not necessarily in the right order”

Paul O
Paul O
1 year ago
Reply to  M Harries

Interesting that it was Trump who thought Europe was too dependent on Russian energy and was laughed at.

Interesting that Trump thought enough to have dialogues with everyone from the leader of NK to Putin and as a result had less conflicts under his watch than Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc.

Odd that if you watch a Trump speech he is so quick thinking that he doesn’t rely on teleprompter like Biden or Clinton.

If you actually watched his whole speeches and not just the soundbites that leftist media choose then you’d realize he has more of an ability to think on his feet than almost all world leaders.

Don’t fall for the leftist portrayal of Trump as a nonthinker. It is nonsense. You don’t achieve what he has achieved in life without being an amazing thinker.

And I am not even a Trump supporter.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

Trump was very good at seeing problems in America and the world, but his proposed solutions were random in quality: Chinese expansionism, tariffs (dumb); COVID, Operation War Speed (brilliant); unfettered illegal immigration to the US, a wall (dumb); Israel’s relations with the Arab world, the Abraham Accords (close to brilliant); the “Deep State”, bluster (dumb);…

Unfortunately random quality solutions to a host of problems correctly identitified together with his narcissistic personality and incomprehension of the American constitutional system made for a lousy leader for a cause — restoring popular sovereignty against the drift into fascism driven by the coziness between the media, tech giants and the security apparatus — that needed a great leader.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Yetter
nigel roberts
nigel roberts
1 year ago
Reply to  M Harries

Whereas Biden



James Vallery
James Vallery
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

“end the insane Neo-Liberal war by telling Ukrane they need to negociate or be on their own, try to keep the $ as the Reserve Currency,” Thank fully it wont happen. These 2 phrases scream elitism. It needs to realise that freedom of the people is for the planet and not place its citizens above those from the rest of the world. You reap what you sow!!!
United States has been at war for about 225 of the 243 years since its inception in 1776 try keep the $ as a reserve currency . The only way to do that is through war and oppersion. .. How many nations have been destoryed because of the “lets make the $ the reserve currency”
Let that sink in 225 years of war!!! the only thing the USA exports. Is war!!! Reap the fear and paranoia of the legacy.
No nation survives no matter how great it perceives its self. They all fall. And I personally derive satisfaction of its down fall as it tears its self down from the inside. I could go into why I feel the way I do. But I wont.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  James Vallery

Perhaps you could document these 225 years of war. I’d wager some of them will be incredibly tenuous

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes indeed, a gross exaggeration!
However here is a brief list:
1: 1798-1801. Quasi-War (versus France):Draw
2: 1801-5. First Barbary War: Lost.
3: 1812-14. War of 1812: Lost.
4: 1815. Second Barbary War: Won.
5: 1846-48. Mexican War. Won.
6: 1861-5. War of Southern Secession : Won.
7: 1898. Spanish War: Won.
8: 1917-18. Great War: Won.
9: 1941-45. WW II: Won.
10: 1950-3. Korean War: Draw.
11: 1964-75. Vietnam War: Lost.
12: 1983. Grenada War: Won.
13: 1990-1. Panama War: Won.
14: 1991-3. Gulf War I: Won.
15: 1999-2022. Afghan War: Lost.
16: 2003-11. Gulf War II: Draw.
17: 2021-.Pelosi Trump War: Undecided.

Plus 1783 – circa 1900 a myriad of genocidal ‘smash & grab’ raids against the indigenous population that hardly qualify to be called Wars.

Thus the 225 year figure is somewhat incorrect wouldn’t you say?

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

“Plus 1783 – circa 1900 a myriad of genocidal ‘smash & grab’ raids against the indigenous population”
Beautifully put.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago

I’m not sure on what basis you characterize the War of 1812 as an American loss. Had the US really lost the war, it would have been subjected to the British Crown. Or are you considering the war as an attempt to conquer Canada? I think it should be scored as a draw, particularly if you want to score Gulf War II, which had the objective of removing the Ba’athist government of Iraq and installing a parliamentary democracy as a draw because the resulting government intermittently tilts pro-Iranian.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Touché.
Well as you will recall ‘we’ didn’t declare war but rather responded to US aggression. Frankly it was a rather irritating side show to our primary aim of destroying Napoleon.
However by 1814 the Royal Navy was raiding your coast with impunity, your Navy and Mercantile Marine had been swept from the seas, your government revenue in tatters, your unprovoked assault on Canada repulsed, your Capital in ruins, and the New England states on the cusp of secession, in short a qualified defeat.

In fact I’m slightly surprised we didn’t go for reconquest, despite the fact that your population had almost trebled since 1783. In 1814 you would have had no European allies to help you, as you had in 1779-83, thus it should not have been too difficult to bring you to heel. However after twenty years of war with France/Napoleon, the introduction of Income Tax etc we wanted Peace and even the Duke of Wellington thought the US was not worth fighting for, so you (sadly) escaped!

As to Gulf War II, had you been honest and stated that Saddam & Co were an existential threat to the security of Israel, you may have earned greater respect. As it is you fought a grotesque war on a very big lie and got ‘found out’, to your eternal shame.
However if your objective was to kill Saddam and five hundred thousand Iraqis and reduce their country to a cesspit of internecine conflict, then I must concede that Gulf War II was a qualified win. But let’s be fair, you set yourself a very low standard, and failed to achieve it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

There was no chance whatsoever that Great Britain could have reconquered the United States in 1814. There was by then a strong national feeling, the previous section of loyalists had largely fled, and as you said, there was a much larger population to conquer. New Orleans under Andrew Jackson offers a flavour of what would have happened!

The British, rather sensibly had by then, learned that lesson anyway. The American colonies had always been self governing free societies (excepting the slaves of course) entirely unlike say, Spanish America or later African colonialism. Once the support of the American ‘colonials’ had been withdrawn (rightly or wrongly) it was all up for British rule.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 year ago
Reply to  James Vallery

Except the US dollar has been the the world reserve currency since 1944, NOT 200+ years.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

President Trump won’t break the deep state. At best, if we can have him for the rest of his second four-year term, we can enjoy another four years of America First. The best we can hope for is trump four years and then DeSantis for eight years. If we don’t get that then America is pretty much ended.

Ian Turton
Ian Turton
1 year ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

What , exaclty, is ended? And (frankly) why is that a bad thing? I see so much of American “entitlement”. That whole God being on your side (why?), America “best” (why?). And the implicit notion that it must remain so. You are an Empire. They all crumble in time. At least the Roamsn gave the workd some good things 🙂

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Turton

The Romans gave us dam nearly everything, including Christianity sadly.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago

damn as in damnation…vs holding back water tho that could be apposite !

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

Whilst Biden hates the Brits because of his supposedly Irish connections, it’s great to know the UK has agreed to do Business with Individual States to overcome Biden’s bigotry in refusing a free trade deal. It’s terrible how his Party is turning California and other democratic states into a wasteland.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

I think the best we can hope for is Trump standing aside, eight years of DeSantis then eight years of (take your pick) Cruz, Cotton, Youngkin…
See my comments on Trump’s leadership above.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

For the dollar to be a reserve currency again, we need to bring back the Republicans who supported fiscal responsibility, rather than maniacal government spending, and bring back the Democrats who used to Build Stuff, rather than preventing us from building anything.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

Sadly Alan it was the likes of Clinton and Obama which gave the Chinese their Technology. The Space program for example.

AJ MacKillop
AJ MacKillop
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Ah the single litmus test; more of the same idiocy masquerading as oracular wisdom.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

You could actually be talking about the UK there.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

“The best President of our lifetimes, Donald Trump, is our last chance”

The farce is strong in this one.

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
1 year ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Is that supposed to be an argument? If it is, you’ve failed.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

I don’t think you have understood the argument if you think Donald Trump is the answer! He has been, er, tried already and achieved very little. Not that Mr Trump has shown any real interest in thoroughgoing reform. Ultimately as he shows by endlessly falling out with his own supporters, the only thing Donald Trump cares about is Donald Trump!

Sam McGowan
Sam McGowan
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The problem with American “government” is that it’s no longer made up of elected officials. For every elected official, who is supposed to represent the will of the people, there is an army of unelected government employees who actually write and carry out the policies adopted at every level from local town councils to Congress. This vast bureaucratic army has been around since King George gave up on America but it increased drastically in size during the Roosevelt Administration. Bureaucrats became entrenched during World War II and now the US is governed by political scientists, many of whom are Jews, who went into government rather than trying to actually make a living as most Americans do.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam McGowan

Surely the Jews have made an enormous contribution to finance (Wall St) and the Arts (Hollywood). What was/is the attraction of Public Service may I ask?

Robert Pound
Robert Pound
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I don’t think anyone has ever mistaken the US for a direct democracy (though some of the individual states have elements of direct democracy, such as the system of referendums, that are largely absent from the UK – the Brexit referendum being very much the exception to the rule). Mary was clearly not discussing direct democracy. It was obvious she was talking about representative democracy, or as you call it republicanism (the term republicanism means something else in the UK, and something else again with reference to Irish politics).

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The problem all Western Democracies have is their bureaucratic “experts” usurping power. “Democracies” in the West are democracies in name only. Almost all of the key decisions are “expert” bureaucratic regulations which are unratified by legislatures. Government by the consent of the governed is considered obsolete, based on the idea that “experts” can make superior decisions compared to the collective decisions of representatives elected by the people.

I don’t see this as a demand by the people for more autocracy. Rather, it’s a power grab that’s not been resisted effectively. However, there has been widespread resistance. Brexit, Trump’s 2016 election and the yellow vest protests in France are all manifestations of resistance. So far, bureaucratic censorship of legacy news and social media has been stronger. Also, direct abuse of power, like the Russia Hoax, has worked to cripple enemies politically.

The question is whether the repression can suppress dissatisfaction with the poor economic results of the “experts.” Relatively free market capitalism is the innovation that led to historically unprecedented wealth for humanity. Government by the consent of the governed and the rule of law have proved very successful. Autocracy has historically provided very suboptimal results in economics, causing quite a few autocracies to become more democratic over time.

In particular, the folly of depending on intermittent wind and solar energy is going to become obvious in Europe this winter. “Experts” who claimed this would work, who outlawed fracking for natural gas and oil, should be completely discredited. If “experts” can keep their hold after a total disaster they’re responsible for, then Mary Harringtom will be proved right. The kids (under 40) will be proved too ignorant for self govenrment.

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago

Please read the above carefully! It is tempered, concisely expressed criticism, and contains proposed solutions.

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Sad, but Oh so true.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

Congratulations on being attacked – you have arrived. Very nice piece btw.

Emre 0
Emre 0
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Indeed, she’s one of the few writers/thinkers who can actually make sense of the world around us today.
Two things I find very concerning – it’s a little like that time people took impossible mortgages before the 2008 crash. Things are happening but they aren’t getting attention.
As she says: (1) The new generations don’t believe in democracy (2) the two main American political parties have publicly declared each other illegitimate.
Combining the above, we’ll end up with a single-party authoritarian regime which will probably resemble the Orwellian world of 1984 quite a lot – if the Democrats prevail that is. If MAGA prevail, I can’t even imagine how it would look like – considering they’d need to defeat or co-opt today’s imperial establishment. Perhaps that’s the Caesarist option in question.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago
Reply to  Emre 0

There’s little chance of MAGA prevailing if they leave all the unaccountable bureaucracy intact like Trump did.
During the “pandemic”, CDC directors wielded power over hundreds of millions of lives that no founder of the republic could have ever dreamed of.
And every politician-statesman seemingly had nothing to say or do about it for years.
Complete betrayal. We deserve whatever comes next.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jason Highley
JJ Barnett
JJ Barnett
1 year ago
Reply to  Jason Highley

Yes, what the CDC did during Covid, it’s many decrees, it actually had zero authority for. None.

It’s a shame so few people know about their constitutional rights, and the workings and authority of the various institutions of state, because the correct thing to do would have been to simply ignore the CDC. They were wielding an authority they did not have (the Emperor has no clothes) and they got away with it because people obeyed. Had they been challenged with defiance they would have tried to exert authority (they don’t have) and ended up in the courts, where they would lose like OSHA lost on the vax mandates.

The article is kind of saying the same thing — we are no longer sufficiently educated or well rounded to think our way through the problems we face, and hence we are ripe for predation by petty (and not so petty) tyrants.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Emre 0

I feel this is more intergenerational rather than across the left and right – notwithstanding my distaste for the progressive left in the west.

And on that intergenerational schism, at the moment the younger generations are too poor, too psychologically fragile, too hapless, and just less savvy in general to wrench control off of us boomer and late genx oldies just yet – as the sixties/seventies generations grabbed the reigns from the WWII generations in the past. But they eventually will as we fade and break on through to the other side, and they inherit our assets. Meanwhile, as the author says, I suspect we will have increasing tensions intrageneration.

Fredrich Nicecar
Fredrich Nicecar
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

“No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” another Jim quote.

Paul K
Paul K
1 year ago

Seems convincing to me, although:

‘post-democracy will retain democracy-like rituals, but actual politics will happen well upstream of voting.’

Hasn’t this already happened, quite some time ago?

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul K

True, with one exception. The Brexit vote, which produced a result opposite to that which its instigator Cameron intended.
I doubt that we’ll ever be trusted with that sort of democracy again. We won’t be allowed to vote the wrong way ever again.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

O yes ‘we’ will, and with any luck the Restoration of Capital Punishment will be the subject.
“You know it makes sense”.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago

Oh really? Out of Labour, Conservative, LibDem, Green or SNP who do you think is going to put ‘capital punishment’ in a manifesto or to a referendum?
It’s really none of my business, but whom do you intend to vote for? There’s no-one left who will deliver what you want, or even promise it.

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

Yes, And the way it was sought to be negated conforms with the observations in this piece. Voting has almost become a complete waste of time.

Tony Reardon
Tony Reardon
1 year ago

As is frequently the case “Yes Minister” gets to the heart of the issue as to who really runs the country. Here is Sir Humphrey on the subject:

Subsequently I explained, in confidence, the following essential points on the subject of reshuffles. I told him to commit them to memory.

1) Ministers with a grip on the job are a nuisance because:

(a) they argue

(b) they start to learn the facts

(c) they ask if you have carried out instructions they gave you six months ago

(d) if you tell them something is impossible, they may dig out an old submission in which you said it was easy

2) When Ministers have gone, we can wipe the slate clean and start again with a new boy

3) Prime Ministers like reshuffles – keeps everyone on the hop

4) Ministers are the only people who are frightened of them

B.W. suggested that it would be interesting if Ministers were fixed and Permanent Secretaries were shuffled around. I think he only does it to annoy. He must realise that such a plan strikes at the very heart of the system that has made Britain what she is today.

Just to be safe I instructed B.W. to memorise the following three points:

Power goes with permanence

Impermanence is impotence

Rotation is castration

New Prime Minister, all new Ministers – civil service in charge as usual.

STEPHEN GILDERT
STEPHEN GILDERT
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Reardon

That is absolutely frighteningly insightful and hilarious

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago

AMEN!!

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Reardon

Bernard: “But aren’t they supposed to in a democracy?”
Sir Humphrey: “This is a British democracy Bernard!”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzfNEF0e-y4

JJ Barnett
JJ Barnett
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Best. TV Show. Ever.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

The death blow will be the end of the secret ballot.
The secret, in-person, physical marking of a vote in a public place.
The shift towards postal voting in USA 2020 was bad enough, and that will be replaced by online voting and then it’s all over.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

Mary Harrington, at the moment you’re the main reason I stay here.

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

Our children have grown up in an era of benevolent totalitarianism. They are measured, observed, tested and lectured to at every moment. Their social milieu relies on the goodwill of global advertising corporations. Teachers and examiners command their every move at school to ensure they follow the creed. Bureaucrats tell them how to work, and what documents to file (with every more forms to fill in) or close them down. Machines tell them what to move, where to go and what to sign. Money never rustles as it changes hands, but sits as electronic numbers in a bank that observes every penny spent, that can penalise and restrict access at will. Ownership has what you buy sitting in electronic vaults where a business can remove or delete or shut down things you’ve bought or created, just because it can.
Our children have been taught that the only thing they can do is stay within the tramlines. No railing against the machine or the machine will crush you.
To those of us brought up in an era of punk, where anyone could do anything, where we all had a chance to change the world, where boundaries were there to be broken, where the masters were to be challenged everywhere, at all times, the willing acceptance of curtailed freedoms, of privacy by form not by right, of silence instead of speech, is a loss beyond comprehension. But if you never had freedom, why would you know that you want it?

Paul O
Paul O
1 year ago

Brilliant essay and very thought provoking.

The phrase “long-form thinking” summed it up for me.

It is clear that the peoole who blindly jump on the latest ’cause of the day’ (BLM, save the NHS, Ukraine, LGBT rights, don’t kill granny, etc) are the people who have lost the ability to long-form think.

I’m losing the ability to long-form think they have thus lost the ability to debate and end up shouting like demented animals at anyone who doesn’t 100% agree with them, and relying on calling them names (racist, fascist, right-wing extremist, homophobe) simply because they’ve lost the abity to debate and discuss.

Mary is right to question whether this terrible trend can be reversed.

Alas, I don’t think we can rely on the under 40s to fix the problem.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

Our Alpha-plus elites haven’t lost the ability to think. They’ve just decided that it’s easiest if the plebs can’t. Expect something akin to technocratic serfdom (remember WEF’s Kalus “you’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy” Schwab?) backed up with social credit system.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

It is worth recalling that it was Englishman and Englishman alone, who masterminded “the most extraordinary experiment of self-government the world has ever known” as Mr Biden so modestly put it.
Englishman with the veneer of a classical education, a nostalgic appreciation for the ‘Good Old Cause*, and in some cases a belief in the efficacy of slavery, who ultimately would come up with the most successful experiment in governance since Ancient Rome.
Biden and his antecedents had very little to do with it, as one might imagine, and it ill becomes him to brag in such a revolting manner.

*(The English Civil War, 1641-49)

F K
F K
1 year ago

Once upon a time, there was a physical ‘market place’ of ideas. Town and village notice boards, meetings in the town and village halls and
 actual marketplaces, selling
 food, goods and services. There was also gossip in the street and over the garden fence. And a ‘framework of morality’ to attempt to hang it all together – dare I say church and school and community. And, of course, there are always those with power and vested interest (even in the local fruit and veg show and, well, try standing at the school gates!), and sometimes that power and vested interest was misused. However, as long as people could physically come together to share experience, thoughts and ideas, however seemingly banal, there was hope and at least some sort of meaningful life, as maybe lockdown taught us. And yes, the printing press enabled those thoughts and ideas to be more widely spread and able to be thought about (although the witch hunts seemed to be a knock on effect initially). But beware
 the problem with this model of existence is that your family, neighbours, friends, community are all watching (no wonder there were witch hunts!). And feeding back to you. And metaphorically stroking and patting, but also warning if we wander onto dangerous ground. And that is powerful stuff. Learnt over hundreds of thousands years. Just like Grimms fairy tales or any other myth or religion to make sense of the world and our place in it. It takes a ‘village’ to bring up a child. And then that child becomes the ‘village’, taking on their responsibilities in turn. But, all I need to do is skim, scroll, tap, click and hey guys look at me! Shall I press send? Indeed another stunning and brilliant essay by Mary Harrington. There is a slow food movement. How about a campaign for a ‘slow news based on actual certifiable facts’ movement. Where participants are actually accountable to the people they have to physically co-exist with. But surely that is old hat because we intellectuals are all internationalist and globalists now. My truth
 unless of course you’ve spent the day slogging away doing the hard lifting to then come home to feed and care for the family. Exhausting that. And someone has to do the hard lifting for any society to run successfully.

Last edited 1 year ago by F K
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

“Most young Western people are more authoritarian than their elders. Nor is this purely a case of young Right-wingers agitating for less immigration”
What is undemocratic about wanting less immigration? We’ve got a serious housing emergency.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Yes…note the weasel word ‘agitating for’. How dare the ‘agitate’? They’ll be ‘ranting’ ‘troubling’ ‘rhetoric’ next!
They’re not ‘agitating for’. They want; they are desirous of; they wish to see; they are arguing for.
Come on Mary, you’re not Hilary Clinton or Polly Toynbee. Acknowledge people’s legitimate concerns, rather than just tipping the linguistic pool table to portray them as vile ‘Deplorables’.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago

It’s only anecdotal, but from my conversations with some of the young’uns, it’s not so much historical ‘strongman’ solutions which hold appeal, but as yet unsubstantiated new models of leadership and purposeful direction across the dimensions of their lives, (where the virtual is newly very significant).
But direction and purpose is in short supply because as Mary notes it is technology, rather than ideology, which is sucking the air out of traditional representative democracy.
This was substantially foreseen by Davidson and Rees-Mogg twenty five years ago of course.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

In all honesty though why would youngsters have any faith in the current political setup? They’ve endured stagnant wages and insecure employment, seem house prices soar out of reach while rents skyrocket, they’re the first generation on record forecast to be poorer than the one that came before, and all the while they see a system that taxes them heavily to pay for an older cohort much more wealthy than themselves, whose wealth is protected through the triple lock and other measures.
In their shoes I’d be thrashing around looking for alternatives too

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Too true.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

What exactly do you mean by “youngsters”, because there are plenty of millennial in my neck of the woods who own their own homes, renovating them and taking holiday away from home? They may be poorer on record than the previous generation but what exactly does that mean, by how much? Im a boomer and I didn’t have what they had in terms of material wealth. I don’t regard myself and any others as more wealthy than them. Lucky, maybe, but not more wealthy.
But that’s not really my point. I don’t think their position in society is necessarily the reason for their thinking, and neither does Mary Harrington.
They may not have faith in the current political setup, but neither did we during the years of Vietnam. it’s not so much their “thrashing around looking for alternatives” as the direction in which they lean,
An interesting second thought here: that, looking back, how so many on the left, in their rebellion against the system, lionised figures like Castro, Trotsky, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. They seemed to embrace the extreme opposite of what they were against. And yet they could not have been ignorant of the facts.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Just because you anecdotally know a few millennials who have got onto the property ladder doesn’t mean what I say is incorrect. Millennials as a group are the first generation who will on average die poorer than the generation that preceded it.
You claim you didn’t have what they have in terms of wealth, but unless you’re an outlier that simply isn’t true. You would have been able to buy a home and raise a family on a single average salary, something many youngsters now are unable to do despite both working full time. Just because it now costs the same to holiday abroad as it does domestically doesn’t alter the fact that financially your age group had it much easier than those that followed.
Also whilst social media undoubtedly amplifies things, if the underlying problems facing that generation weren’t there they wouldn’t be looking at alternatives. Almost every violent revolution came about due to vast inequality in a society, something that has been steadily increasing in the west for decades

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Anecdotally? A few millennials? That might suit your position, but if you’re right it means that something like 80% of homes are owned by Baby Boomers. Does that even make sense? These generalisations don’t help. So I stand by what I said.
“Millennials now make up 43% of home buyers – the most of any generation. Generation X bought the most expensive homes 
” National Association of Realtors.
“ The latest surveys have millennial homeownership at 47.9%. That means the number of millennials that own their own home is estimated to be 34.5 million. That number is projected to rise even further in the coming years.” https://housegrail.com/how-many-millennials-own-homes/
Hardly a “few”.
And just on another note: millennials are expected to inherit the greatest amount of wealth than any generation has received. I’m sure you can work that one out. So they will not die poorer.
You say it isn’t true that I didn’t have what millennials have in wealth. Generalisations again. Many boomers did well, many did not. Many wanted wealth, many did not. Many had choices, many did not. You think every boomer had a house in their early twenties? They did not. Many struggled. But this is not my point. My point is that I don’t see their attitude towards authoritarianism being the result of their social position.
And as for your comment on revolution being the result of vast inequality, do you really believe we are there? We are getting there, but we are not there, and that does not explain a turn towards authoritarianism. Just who do you think of this younger generation leans most towards authoritarianism? Not the poor I imagine. More likely university educated youths.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

“The latest surveys have millennial homeownership at 47.9%. That means the number of millennials that own their own home is estimated to be 34.5 million.”

That is the only statistic you need to prove my point. Despite millennials now coming up to 40 years old, less than half of them own their own home. How many of the baby boomer generation had failed to get onto the property ladder by that point?
Also seeing as the population of Britain is around the 70 million mark, there isn’t even 34.5 million millennials let alone 34.5 million millennial home owners.
You also claim that millennials are now the biggest cohort of those buying houses, however again that proves nothing. The older generations already own houses so are unlikely to be buying many, and the younger generations have even less chance of getting on the ladder than the middle aged millennials so it makes sense they’re currently the most active.

The facts are that on average millennials are much, much worse off financially than your generation were at their age and are unlikely to ever catch up.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

My point is not the numbers. My point is that it can’t be assumed their position is behind their authoritarian leaning.
I don’t know why you’re talking about Britain, unless that’s where your perspective is coming from?
For your interest:
”68 percent of Boomers owned their own home by age 30–34 compared with 50 percent of millennials at the same age.” https://phys.org/news/2022-02-millennials-australian-housing-older.html

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Isn’t it true that to buy a house younger people take on a lot more debt than we boomers did? when we bought a house the average cost was 3 times average income, now it’s 5 times average income.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

Sorry, but this is not the point. My point was that I don’t see the often referred to difficulties of the following generation being responsible for their authoritarian leanings. If you can find proof of the connection between your house purchase ratio and authoritarian leanings then I would be interested to see it.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

I got your point Brett. Don’t know why others didn’t, as you stated it clearly enough.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

In Britain the average salary is around £29k, with the average house price around £285k according to Google, so it’s closer to 10x rather than 5

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Hold on, hold on. You’re quoting Australian figures – a country with a huge land mass and relatively few people. ‘I don’t know why you’re talking about Britain…’
My guess would be, because this is a British publication, as are most of its readers.
Here in Britain, I do not believe anything like 50% of 30-34 year olds now own their own home. That would certainly have been the case 30 years ago, but now? Not a chance. Here we have a small cartel of four politically well-connected mass housebuilders, heavy regulation to make sure smaller outfits cannot compete, and these four ration supply to extract massive profits. Every new Government promises planning reform: once elected, none ever does anything.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

Actually we have commenters on Unherd from many countries providing different perspectives which I like.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

yES – IN nz 200K DEP and 800k mortgage to get into the average house – most young folk can not even save the deposit let alone service 800-mill debt esp with interest rates unstable. Dunno what happy country Brett H comes from but my first home in NZ was 4x my below average salary .

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

“Hold on, hold on. You’re quoting Australian figures – a country with a huge land mass and relatively few people. ‘I don’t know why you’re talking about Britain
’ 
My guess would be, because this is a British publication, as are most of its readers.”
What on earth does your comment on land mass have to do with it?
And this is an online magazine, it’s not necessarily read largely by British readers. It’s not all about Britain you know. There’s a world out there. Just peruse the articles on UnHerd.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Nah Brett’s figures beat your argument, you’re just dancing around like a politician trying to re-interpret facts that don’t support your views.
Well done Brett – you got him!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

How so? Even his figures (which I dispute) show home ownership rates have fallen from over 2/3 to less than half for that age bracket

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“if the underlying problems facing that generation weren’t there they wouldn’t be looking at alternatives.”
Anecdotal or researched?

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If only they could experience the dole queues of the previous generations or the mass slaughter of global war

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago
Reply to  Guy Pigache

Yes it was the boomers who reaped the benefit of the resulting post-war world.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

So you’re unaware that Britain still had rations as a result of the war until the mid fifties. Some benefit? I also remember kids being taken out of school and sent to health camps in the early sixties because of their poor health. And I remember the kids who had polio. Like everything else the benefits didn’t come until after years of work. So, once again: don’t generalise.
So after everything else the boomers are now responsible for sending the world spinning into authoritarianism,

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

my son is the alternative – pointless to participate in the system so have a vascectomy , work part time , live cheaply or in a movan, go surfing and rock climbing and volunteer to help those most exploited by ‘the system ‘ ie animals. trouble is it is all the smart ones who have figured out the system that are dropping out – leaving the ‘drones’ to run the show – and ,as Mary points out, it is the drones who are incapable of much real intelligent thought and prey to easy programming. We are stuck I guess. Am glad was born in 1957 !

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

In a recent interview with Thomas Fazi, Freddie Sayers remarked that, for many people, embracing authoritarianism is attractive because it relieves them of responsibility for their own lives in an increasingly unpredictable and, for many, unmanageable world. I suspect there’s much truth in that view, especially in relation to young people.
Modern democracy, combined with neoliberal economics, has simply failed young people in developed countries, although it has likely improved the standard of living of many poor people in the developing world. In the West, there are now too few well-paid jobs. Even lower skilled jobs, once the preserve of high school graduates, now require an expensive degree as the price of entry simply because there is too much competition for those jobs. Housing is also prohibitively expensive. In my opinion, these economic issues, among others, are the main reason the young are turning away from traditional democratic norms and embracing an authoritarianism that might, they believe, provide them with the means for living, even if that’s in the form of state benefits.
The role of the internet in undermining development of reasoning skills, and an appreciation for the value of reasoned debate, doubtless has its place in the transition to a post-modern world, but I feel it is, perhaps, an overly intellectual explanation for the phenomenon.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s more plausible than people choosing authoritarianism just because they feel they have missed out. Why would they feel their future lies that direction? Unless they’re ignorant of what it means.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I see it more as a practical observation rather than an intellectual explanation JB. Beyond the Internet’s effect on depth of attention, new tech is changing the dimensions within which people now live their lives. The fact that a police apprehension event in Minnesota USA, can trigger immediate, explicitly supportive protests around the planet, shows how weak (young) peoples’ moorings are to the locus of their physical presence. But that’s where the institutions of representative democracy reside. Metaverse tech is going to exacerbate all of this.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Interesting point. Thank you.

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

An excellent point.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There’s a lot in that. It’s also a general unwillingness to grow up – where to “adult” is to adopt a persona for a few hours, before returning to a default child-like state of dependency. Children need authority figures to protect and nourish them, and so it’s not surprising that a generation of people who can’t or don’t want to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives crave an authoritarianism in which they gladly exchange agency for “safety”; where they don’t have to face the psychological horror of a pluralistic political debate in which someone might challenge their Weltanshauung with “unacceptable views”; and in which all the bad things that happen are someone else’s fault.

Why is this? Perhaps it’s something to do with the absence of role-modelling by the boomer generation whose brains were adled into an ahistoricalism by television, drugs, mod-cons, and inconsequential copulation? And, therefore, that generation’s failure to pass on the Judeo-Christian belief systems and family values in which their post-war prosperity and freedoms were grounded, instead passing on to them a narcissistic sense of entitlement to automatic rewards at the individual and societal level?

I also want to think of a reason why Mary Harrington’s analysis might be faulty but, sadly, I can’t.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

“Children need authority figures to protect and nourish them, and so it’s not surprising that a generation of people who can’t or don’t want to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives crave an authoritarianism in which they gladly exchange agency for “safety”; â€œ
Ironically it’s the forms if societal authority they rush from into the the arms of intolerant and totalitarian authority as a way of escape.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

“totalitarian authority”

This is an oxymoron. Totalitarianism lacks any authority. All it has is brute force , The real fact is that submission to ‘authority’ is always, and everywhere rational and voluntary and as such any authority exercised as a result is legitimate.
The reason that most British people obey the law is not because the law compels them to act in a particular way. It could not possibly ever do so. If it could there would never be any crime. What it says is ‘Here murder is forbidden. Murder (or steal or defraud or attack or lie where the truth is required) and you will be punished’.
Seems fair enough to me.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Ian Abella
Ian Abella
1 year ago

It is very nice to see ideas that were curated people such as Curtis Yarvin and other neo-reactionaries are now becoming more mainstream within conservative dialogue. Conservatives, if they wish to conserve anything, must abandon their old obsession with “liberalism” and wake up to the current reality instead of preaching about 1980s small-government nonsense.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Abella

Conservatism is dead. It has conserved nothing and for that it become a shambling corpse only. Pure reactionism is no longer sufficient to preserve the west.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

I agree. I believe the answer may lie in Christian Integralism, and the creation of a new ‘warrior’ code for young men.

rob monks
rob monks
1 year ago

another interesting well-researched piece which makes me think, and looks at things I didn’t take into account.
As an old man, of the baby boomer generation, I think there has been a deterioration in prolonged reading. As you mention it has been replaced to some extent by ‘scrolling, intertextual and interactive reading’ and the emphasis is on filtering ‘torrents of information via rapid-fire skipping across multiple sources. The result is a shift toward “continuous partial attention”.’
At the same time I wonder if there are some other factors which contribute to the decline of democracy and more authoritarian approaches. eg. The dogmatism on both sides of both woke and anti woke cultural wars, I’m not sure if we can entirely blame the internet for that. Are these symptoms more a result of an aggressive culture? Not sure.
Still a very insightful piece. Technology is political and has been responsible for an unncessary speeding up of what we do. It seems to be more about short deadlines than lingering and reflection.
Your prediction makes good sense:  predict the following: post-democracy will retain democracy-like rituals, but actual politics will happen well upstream of voting

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago

Thanks again for such an interesting piece and I don’t doubt the trouble. But I’m not completely convinced by the deep literacy thesis.
Reading almost certainly changes people’s consciousness, yes. The sharp increase in literacy amongst ancient Hebrews in the 6th century BC exilic period, as the Bible began to be written down, correlates with the emergence of monotheism: an oral culture is a distributed culture, whereas a literate culture requires the individual to find the meaning of words within themselves, hence fostering a gathered, unified sense of reality – including monotheism. But not democracy. At least, not back then.
Conversely, if the origins of democracy are to be found in ancient Athens, I don’t think literacy had much to do with it – though there was a growing sense of individual consciousness. Witness the shift in sculptures in the 5th century BC from generic kouroi and kores to figures with individual beauty and inner poise. Ancient, partial democracy was a compromise between this new consciousness of individuality and older traditions of collective rootedness to gods and land. But I don’t think reading had much to do with it.
Conversely again, there are the moral panics that surround deep literacy in the modern period. When people started reading novels, for example, there were worries about idleness and indolence. All that sitting around reading.
So I actually wonder whether the marketplace of ideas is the problem, when marketplace means free trading for its own sake, rather than as a means of arriving at goods – in the deep sense of what’s good for life.
When even civilisation is depicted as just one possibly interesting manifestation of ideas after another, as the recent BBC Civilisations remake portrayed it, contact is lost with a transcendent centre and sense of the good, which might triangulate myriad experiments and quests, and hold them in dialogue together.
Maybe the rise in authoritarianism is a misplaced yearning for such holding.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

Agreed, the ‘deep reading’ point seemed rather facile and, dare I say it, smacked of intellectual snobbery. You don’t read deeply therefore you are stupid, easily led, prefer dictators. That sounds like the Democrats and their ‘deplorables’.

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Or maybe it just hits you too close to home.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

To answer the headline question, I’d say MH is the opposite of a threat to democracy. Some are better technical writers or give the impression of being far more connected to the inside track, but Im not aware of any journalist better at identifying our deep underlying social problems. All the more impressive as MH sometimes comes across as being self taught with possible gaps in her knowledge. Very possibly she is inspired.
As to possible gaps relevant here (or maybe conscious omissions for concision ) it may be worth pointing out there’s been over a dozen great thinkers warning of the risk of Caesarism in late civilisation. Oswald Spengler most notably, who thought it was the almost unavoidable outcome of the late civilisation trend away from organic embodied thinking towards mechanistic , hyper critical & hyper rational thought (something that was clear to folk like St Simeone & his buddy Comte almost 200 years ago.) Extreme authoritarianism arrived a little earlier than Spengler expected (Nazis) – perhaps due to unusual psycholgical conditions in the Weimar republic: anxiety, sexual disfunction, atomisation , loneliness. As explained by Arendt (Origins of Totalitarianism) and others. For decades after WWII the west had a counter reaction against authoritarianism but that is clearly running out of steam. And some of the Arendt causes of Totalitarianism are back with a vengeance, this time we have abundant data to prove it. So we’d be at significant risk of more authoritarianism even without the digital cause. Though I think MH has again cast light on a key element, which makes authoritarianism even more likely. Possibly not inevitable though, it may be the case that citizens in the West value our personal autonomy more than those in any other civlisation, which can be a weakness but may be enough to avoid the drift towards authoritarianism. Or stronger leadership could even turn out to be a good thing…

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Great comment.
Individual autonomy may indeed be the feature of which authority(s) people choose to belong to, (or at least endure) for their welfare in the future.
It was tech which did in the scope of the Church’s sovereignty, (Gutenberg and all that). And now tech is doing so to the realm of the nation states.
Tech means people are no longer inexorably moored to the territorial authority of their birth or residence in terms of their economic and social lives. (Man U has zillions more followers outside of the city than within it.)
The existing representative political institutions are therefore pretty impotent in most of the dimensions tech now dominates. And that loss of status means no real leadership is sustained there, so the administrative apparatus also becomes flaccid,(such as the police).
The second half of “The Sovereign Individual” (Davidson/Rees-Mogg 1997) is well worth a re-read at this point I would say.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Thanks for the great reply. Yup there’s a double movement re tech & its affects on de-cent v centralisation / authority. I’m with MH & Spengler that authority will win out in the end. But would have to admit most good emperical evidence seems to suggest tech’s net effect is to support de-centralisation. Certainly, if one has the wealth to be sensible, it would be foolish to go all in unhedged against the Davidson/Rees-Mogg prediction.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

“For decades after WWII the west had a counter reaction against authoritarianism but that is clearly running out of steam.”
I would take issue with this. It seems to me that the (mainly 1950s/60s) revolution was precisely the imposition of a new lack of legitimate authority based on utopian dreams. It was in fact the desire to impose a new form of totalising moral control on society as a whole, which reduced every question to the personal desires of an elect social class (held to be representative), and this was overwhelmingly derived from left-wing conceptions of a bureaucratic elite qualified to decide all of our moral (rather than legal) goals. There has been little change in this state of affairs up until now, I should think. In fact it has intensified.
A ‘counter attack against authoritarianism’ sounds ‘liberating’. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 year ago

Reading alarmist op-eds it appears anyone who disagrees with post-democratic, global billionaire funded, NGO led technocratic utilitarianism, is labelled a fascist and a threat to democracy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Raiment
John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

Well put!

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago

The Garfinkle article Mary links to mentions Neil Postman – – if anyone hasn’t read his little book ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ they should. I read it when it came out and I’ve never forgotten it.

Our brains are a bit like our muscles – they respond to use. I had been learning the piano for about 15 years, practicing for about 45 minutes a day, which seemed about my limit. Then I decided to really see how far I could go, and took a few years out of the workforce to give myself the time. I was totally amazed to find that in a short time I was practicing 3 hours a day. My teacher kept giving me bigger things to learn, and the more I did, the more I could.

Now, still at work, and old, I have a fractured attention span like most everybody. I am reading the Andrew Roberts biography of George 111, but at 200 pages I took a break and read Anne Tyler’s new novel, and at 400 pages I took another break and read Colm Toibin’s new novel. With the end in sight I will push on, but when I was younger I would have just read it through in a couple of days. I reckon I still think long-term and in a complex way about issues, compared to young people today, but that’s probably the legacy of half a century of ‘deep reading’.
(ps. ‘open plan’ offices wreck anyone’s concentration, so that’s another thing messing up the ‘yoof’ – they can’t even concentrate on their work, let alone their recreational reading.)

Last edited 1 year ago by Russell Hamilton
JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 year ago

Thank you for this – well put.
Incidentally, the systems where the decisions are made well upstream of the voters are well known to us who were adult before 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down: It is “Democratic Centralism”, where the Party decides what and who is voted on, thus assuring the ideologically correct outcome.
Also, I would argue with your contention that we live in an era of unique superabundance of information. In absolute terms, no doubt, but in relative terms, the advent of the movable-type printing press brought a storm of handbills, some of them informative, but many scurrilous and peddling the wildest conspiracy theories. The authoritarian answer was the registration of printing presses and censorship, the democratic response was the responsibility of publishers for their product.
While I share your concerns, I am more optimistic – while in the formerly free West those who risked their lives to defend freedom have mostly died, in Eastern and Southern Europe we still have a constituency for whom authoritarianism was a reality much more recently, and seared in the memory of our generation. Our Eastern European friends have their own historical hang-ups and democratic growing-up to do, but they have seen the tangible and psychological differences freedom makes, and will – hopefully – come to our rescue, however fitful and idiosyncratic that process may be.

Gavin Thomas
Gavin Thomas
1 year ago

The problem in the West is that politics has become a career and we have ‘professional’ politicians who have never worked in the real world.
Once elected, they cling to power to aggrandise themselves and their friends. Everything is short term and only done if it benefits them or disadvantages their enemies.
There is no long term thinking, nor any consideration for the wishes of the electorate – once they have voted.
America, like Britain is not a democracy, it is an elected dictatorship.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 year ago

In its place we find a growing tendency for political change to be driven by campaigning bodies that aim not to win by debating, but to do so by setting the parameters within which democratic political debate is able to take place. Whether it’s creating guidelines, writing school curricula, influencing legislation or shaping international standards or treaties, such activity takes place, by definition, prior to democratic deliberation.

The control of language to influence debate – Blair (the other Blair – Orwell) called it New Speak in 1984.
Making some words verboten, making some words we are familiar with mean something different (what is a woman?)… it’s all an attempt to shape the way we think by manipulating the language.
Surprising how much of 1984 has come true without us noticing or worse without us caring.

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
1 year ago

“If we just aren’t making the kind of people who founded that system, the system will become something new.”

I agree with you regarding the deep reading and by extension deep thinking about ideas. I would add that it seems we have created a system in which the most frequent form of communication, even between family members, is texting in all its various forms depending on which apps you prefer. This has quickly become deeply ingrained in older people as well as the young. In addition to creating new people devoted to as little personal interaction as possible with others, their parents have willingly been molded to behave in the same way. It seems that whether you are 18, 38, or 58, the main way of having a ‘conversation’ today is by tapping away with your thumbs on a little screen in between managing the activities of increasingly busy days. Using textversation as the primary mode of communication has made many personal interactions stilted and hurried, often leading to misunderstanding and even casual, unintended cruelty. If people interact this way in their personal lives, it’s no surprise they’re not interacting well in their public and political ones.

Btw – No, you’re not a threat to democracy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Robert Hochbaum
Garrett R
Garrett R
1 year ago

The thesis that long form reading enabled the rise of democracy and modern government feels flimsy at best. Europe tore itself apart some 100 years ago that long predated modern media strategies. It is true that the radio, mass print, and rising literacy enabled nefarious (and evil) forms of persuasion and propaganda but these forms were also defeated. Social media as we know it is 20 or so years old but the seeds of our discontent have germinated for decades.

I saw no mention as to why the youth feel discontent with the world order. For the most part, youth in the west are rioting. They have seen material declines in their hopes for the future. We need to ask ourselves why we do not see such rioting in the east and the answer feels obvious. Speak to any Indian, Chinese, or southeast Asian citizen and most have experienced a 20x-40x increase in GDP per capita since 1980. In the west, just a handful of nations have replicated such astonishing growth, which are Poland and Chile. As a youthful member of the west, I have seen a horrific gutting of future prospects with stark rises in housing, healthcare, and education costs. This is not caused by social media.

Finally, some anecdotes. Chile rejected its populist constitution and sent it back to the drawing board. It was the longest constitution ever written, which flies in the face of Mary’s thesis that long form writing is dead. In the US, abortion was returned to the states. Though I deeply disagreed with the decision and believe I have been vindicated in my conviction that Republican politicians merely used abortion to raise votes, there is an argument to be made that this was a democratic exercise.

I think this article made a few good points but blaming social media for the destruction of democracy is a bridge too far. There are far more compelling arguments that can simplistically be boiled down to, “Can I live a good life with reasonably hard work?” For many youngsters, that contract was broken by their elders in the west.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Garrett R

“blaming social media for the destruction of democracy is a bridge too far”

Do read Neil Postman’s ‘Amusing ourselves to death’. I think he died before the internet hit us, but his arguments about the effects of TV (and now true of all electronic media) on society are very persuasive.

rob clark
rob clark
1 year ago

Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Ms. Harrington, another good read. On your prediction:
“I predict the following: post-democracy will retain democracy-like rituals, but actual politics will happen well upstream of voting.” 
I think we are already at that point here in the States!

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

Great article, though depressing.

There is only one aspect missing: any new system based upon stupider people – and that’s what’s being predicted here – will itself be stupid and prone to error. That doesn’t mean it will be self-correcting necessarily, just that it will never pass the test of comparison with history: people won’t be able to look back and observe that things are better now than they used to be: they’ll be doing the opposite.

And this can’t remain stable and self-perpetuating for long: we can hardly expect that a society comprising people not possessed of deep, long-form literacy can also be highly skilled, so it will face a grinding increase in poverty, collapsing institutions and economic decline – things which even the the least literate people are capable of observing and concluding that things aren’t going well.

But there is something else that springs to mind here too, and it’s that we may be partially onto the chicken/egg debate about whether deep education provides the conditions for democratic system, or is an educated society something that is a welcome downstream consequence of wealthy democratic systems? There are arguments on both sides of course, or it may well be that each acts as a positive feedback for the other. In short, it may be less simple than supposed above. In particular I have reason to doubt the relevance of the recent findings that young people are becoming instinctively authoritarian: younger minds have always preferred quick, simple and decisive action over nuanced and careful deliberation, and I suspect that the latest findings in this context reflect this age-old pattern rather than being a new and worrying development. That’s not to say that people under 40 aren’t eventually going to get sick of tolerating the gerontocracy we appear intent on building, just that when there’s an eventual blowback it will just be the same old battle of conflicting interests between groups that civilised politics has always been able to resolve sufficiently well until now.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Cantab Man
Cantab Man
1 year ago

The true threat to democracy and freedom of conscience is the proliferation of collected-but-incomplete data, coupled with the natural/ evolutionary tendencies of authoritarianism within the human race.

With Marxism, Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, think of the many categories that were used to persecute those who were not “on the right side of history” according to Lenin.

It didn’t work but we have many in government and academia who still believe “real socialism hasn’t been tried yet.” What was a key drawback 100 years ago? Not enough data to drive effective top-down command-and-control of the people and the economy.

Now we have data from the Internet of Things (IOT) that allow greater and more effective control. What better time to curtail individual freedom and manipulate democracy.

You’re using too much energy because your air conditioning is set to 80 instead of 85? With thermostats now connected to the internet, government can work with company providers to set your thermostat to 85. Your input is not needed.

Are you speeding in your car on the freeway but keeping pace with others during rush hour? Government can work with insurance agencies and technology-centric automotive companies to curtail your speed…maybe sending you a speeding ticket in the mail without a cop pulling you over.

Are you a member of the ‘wrong’ race for various government-approved affirmative action programs or are you supporting the wrong political candidates and causes as a member of a ‘privileged race’? Can’t hide that from the future (for you or your children) once you take that DNA test issued by a company that may be mandated one day to work with the government, and there’s also credit card data on your monetary contributions and location tracking for time contributions to political candidates or movements that may also be available to those in power. Must be because you’re racist (or pick another intersectionalist category that can be collected via data to demonize you.)

The proliferation of data is too tempting for authoritarians to let lie, and authoritarianism is in some people’s evolutionary nature – it isn’t going anywhere. Why should these authoritarians let an individual make a decision that hurts the society in the eyes of the authoritarian? Can’t let them be on the “wrong side of history” according to that authoritarian if the person’s data can be used to stop it.

In my opinion, this growing data-rich environment, coupled with do-gooder authoritarians who are salivating at the possibilities, will drive the end of democracy, the exercise of free will, and respect for individual choice.

We’ll see.

Last edited 1 year ago by Cantab Man
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

What a fabulous article! I should state at the outset that i’ve yet to read Comments, so much of what i’m about to post may already have been covered – apologies if so.
First of all, this is exactly the type of immersive thought-provoking piece i signed up to Unherd to be able to read and comment upon; no surprise that it comes from Mary Harrington who alongside Kathleen Stock must rank among the finest arbiters of how our world is developing and the implications behind it. So much so, it’s no wonder other pieces often feel trite and unfulfilling to read.
My adult lifetime firmly straddles both sides of the “long-reading” analysis of how the internet is changing our ways of thinking. So, i can use myself as a suitable medium for analysing how things have changed, and what that actually means in terms of living and participating in the democratic process. This process is, of course, ongoing and far from conclusive since change will continue and probably in ways we have yet to foresee.
But as an interim conclusion, what concerns me is the divide between those who are able (for whatever reason – time being one of them) to process large amounts of shorter-form reading and those who aren’t, or won’t. In a way, it’s a different version of the divide between those who used to read (when such media were the main ways of keeping abreast of the news) broadsheet newspapers and the so-called ‘red-tops’ where silly headlines scream a twisted version of highly complex and nuanced arguments. They still do so, of course. One of the annoying things about Unherd is that it sometimes strays too far down the ‘red-top’ headline route, which is off-putting and make me feel less inclined to read the piece itself, which often proves to be much better balanced than the headline suggests!
Still, the divide is different but remains as a driver of how our democratic systems will evolve. I suppose any system of polity has to evolve – standing still isn’t an option, and perhaps we shouldn’t be overly pessimistic about how the future of democracy might look. If one thinks of how it’s still less than a century since universal adult suffrage in the UK, there’s been a continuous evolution since then and i’m pretty sure that those who at the time opposed the right of adult females to vote thought it’d lead to all sorts of dreadful consequences. We may look back in a further hundred year’s time and wonder what all the fuss was about in terms of how the transition from longer-form to short-form reading affects the democratic process – the truth is, we simply don’t know! – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be either entirely or even mainly negative but rather, simply a reflection of the increasing complexity of the world and our ability as humans to keep abreast of it.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

I find it impossible to disagree.
“the political issues voters are able to influence via the polling booth are pre-set, in a process that’s increasingly obviously itself a political battleground, and one that’s largely insulated from democratic accountability.”
Once it is lost you won’t get it back.
But we haven’t got there yet. Can we not at least ameliorate the baleful effects of the digital world by using our schools and universities to promote deep reading? Surely it was through such conscious education policies that we got it in the first place.

Last edited 1 year ago by polidori redux
Duane M
Duane M
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Can we not use our schools and universities to promote deep reading?
Having retired (in 2019) after26 years of college teaching, my answer is, “Not likely”. And it wasn’t just due to a steady decline in student preparedness; most of my colleagues declined to assign the sort of long-form writing that leads to next-level integration and synthesis of new ideas. Because, grading essays is difficult and time-consuming. On top of that, the administration only ever paid lip service to the notion of logical argumentation and genuine critical thinking.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Duane M

True. Academic rigor is seen as hopelessly outdated at best, right-wing at worst.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Practically, if people want their children to learn to deep-read, they need to remove them from public education. Most schools don’t encourage real literacy, even in the university bound children.

Duane M
Duane M
1 year ago

This is the best summary of our current situation that I have seen. Everything that Mary writes here resonates with my own (68-year) experience, which includes 26 years as a professor at an undergraduate liberal-arts college.
The decline of long-form reading is a significant contributor to the gradual decline of critical thinking skills. At the same time, there have been so many other cultural changes (and more changes continuing), many of which interconnect and feed back to accelerate the overall social upheaval.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
1 year ago

Thought provoking essay by MH. And in many ways right. I can certainly see (now) how freedom of speech might not be important to a young person who has been bombarded their whole life with low quality information!
I can still recall reading (on paper!) the notable 2008 essay in Atlantic Magazine “Is Google Making us Stupid?” and not fully understanding the implications of not needing to know facts. This reality, along with the seeming infinite torrent of competing distracting media streams clearly have reduced the desire of many to think deeply with dire consequences for our societies I’m afraid.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
1 year ago

Somewhat defeatist. No? The author is right that the Covid ‘pandemic’ showcased for us the future (longing for and faith in a Caesar ‘who’ would deliver us from evil). That it was a generational response (even post-Pandemic), I cannot agree. Instead what happened mirrored the Dark Ages when the lamp of learning was kept alight by the few labouring in monasteries giving birth ultimately to the Renaissance for which we are or should be grateful; except this time round it has been the few courageous academics, scientists, doctors (including Malone, whom UnHerd labelled ‘controversial’) who despite being ‘not noticed’ curtesy ‘the algorithm’ successfully challenged Caesar. This fact signals for me there are deeper non-material emergent processes reliant on each of us evoking by summoning those selfsame practices the author believes have passed their sell-by date: deep reading, sustained engagement, abstract thinking, deliberation and an inner life. In short, not capitulation to Caesar.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

One of the things that gives me a but of hope for the world is the popularity of long form podcasts like Joe Rogan and lecturers like JBP. The fact than many young people have a yearning (and an attention span) for in depth discussions like these is encouraging.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
1 year ago

A very good article. The problem is that as every year goes by the long form gets longer and the distractions get greater. Each generation is born with a blank sheet and to make intelligent decisions they need to learn an ever more complex context. It takes time and effort and they face a bewildering array of information sources.
The same happens in administration, political leaders do not have the time (or for some the inclination) to understand all the implications of a policy and its implementation. The civil service has expanded to accommodate this, it requires trust and co-operation between administrators and politicians to balance power with knowledge. It will require a remarkable leader to accomplish it and govern intelligently.
Finally individuals have an increasing sense of entitlement, including the right to have a say irrespective of the effort they put into thinking things through.

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

The abolition of exams in favour of assignments has also played a part. No need to learn and commit to long term memory, just cut and paste and forget.

Last edited 1 year ago by Will Will
Alex Tickell
Alex Tickell
1 year ago

I am a manual worker, full of despair at the society we have allowed to take root in our great country.
I come here mainly to find out what Mary is thinking and this essay is important. we all know that UK society is in decline, but few of us realise that much of the damage is done by the lack of interest in reading, especially amongst the inhabitants of my social sphere.
Now it’s all about quick one liners and sound bites people lack the power of concentration or the ability to reason. We are becoming a nation of stupid entitled yobs.
I gave up on democracy years ago we never actually had it, it was simply a device to keep useless jobsworth politicians in position to better themselves. Now we can see, as the veil is being pulled back, the true nature of current Western society. Mary is a lone voice who understands what is happening to society and her words are like a glass of fine Malt whisky, bringing cheer and a sense that renewal is indeed possible.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alex Tickell
R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

Liberal democracy is a luxury that won’t survive the decline to come, if it has in fact even survived to date. I personally believe not. Money owns western politics.

John Robson
John Robson
1 year ago

While I hesitate to recommend Marshall McLuhan because (a) it sounds pretentious and (b) for a communications guru he was remarkably bad at communicating, his central argument about the way in which literacy reshaped society, and in which declining literacy will therefore necessarily change its shape again, is highly relevant here. His famous aphorism “the medium is the message,” meaning that how we take information in dramatically affects what information we absorb and how, is horribly pertinent to social media.
P.S. Given the emphasis the author rightly places on “deep reading” I suppose it’s OK to suggest slogging through McLuhan’s problematic prose in quest of his important insights.

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 year ago

Thank you for a thought provoking and interesting article. Not too convinced, however, of the “long reading” connection to acceptable dictatorial governance. As a species who took some 43,000 years to develop a written language, and then a few thousand more years to shift from oral to silent reading, we may be privileged in today experiencing yet another shift to further stimulate settings of “the little grey cells.” The impact of Silent reading that provided such scope for scholarship and the enriching establishment of Universities does seem threatened by whatever it is going on among the under 44 year olds. Skill shortages do suggest there are failures in the teaching and career ambitions departments that are unrelated to authoritarianism in the classroom, or along the corridors of power.

Pat Q
Pat Q
1 year ago

Oh Mary, will you marry me? I’ll treat you well if only you continue to write these insightful, incisive and thoughtful articles.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Thanks, Mary. Sending this to my millennial kids in LA. We recently had a FaceTime discussion about freedom of speech, which is sacrosanct to my husband and me, and very fluid to them. When we’re out there for Christmas, this and many other topics you address so adeptly here on Unherd will make for a very interesting holiday! Keep ‘em coming!
Oh, and I don’t know who to credit, but someone said “we should strive to leave better children for our earth”. I hope I have!

S Bursby
S Bursby
1 year ago

“
the time to have done anything about it was around 30 years ago, when the first commercial ISPs launched.”
I agree with most of what you say. But you hit the nail with the sentence above. Always the same story 
 people keeps inventing things -i.e the internet, mRAN technology-, without measuring the consequences of those unregulated fabulous inventions to humanity and the fabric of society in the long term.
Then the Big Fish comes along use it and abuse it to make billions without due accountability. For a while we believe we are all beneficiaries of the invention. Until one day we wake up to the reality of its devastating effects 
 always too late! Big Fish has taken all it could swallow and doesn’t care about the chaos left behind.
Perhaps we are all too lazy to question and demand accountability. Perhaps we are too naïve and gullible and deserve what we get 
 the result of being too shortsighted.
 

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

There is a good point here. It is much harder to read even an article like this on line than it is in print. On line reading encourages at least three sins:
1) Non-serial reading (though I also jump around in books)
2) Skimming
3) Jumping straight to the comments section (I’m very guilty here) before reading the full article
If this were in print, I would certainly read it much better as it deserves. I still read – and often prefer books. However my teenage son reads almost nothing – reading print has largely gone out of fashion in his generation.
It is also noticable how much higher the “error rate” (typos, factual errors, obviously false statements and arguments) is in modern on line media than it was in the lead type days (when errors were slow and expensive to fix).
But I’m far from convinced this means democracy is over.

Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
1 year ago

Another insightful piece from Ms Harrington. I note with interest this particular statement: “I predict the following: post-democracy will retain democracy-like rituals, but actual politics will happen well upstream of voting. And where such regimes exercise power directly, this will be couched in impersonal procedure that impedes direct accountability even as it enables more frankly authoritarian policies“. Surely this is how both Russia and the EU operate now and have done so for some time?

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

I wonder if this lean towards authoritarianism in those under 40 is really a bit of play acting, an indulgence. Once it comes knocking on their door the reality might bring them back down to earth. The internet is a great playground without consequences (unless you’re a target). The lack of deep-reading might be responsible. But everyone’s on the internet now, all ages, all of them jumping around from one thing to the other. But the older age group veers away from authoritarian ideas, possibly because they grew up in a very liberal society, or they know better.
But I find the whole generalisations about generations to be pointless. Millennials: 25-40. What could a 25 year old possibly have in common with a 40 year old? There must be millennials out there playing the game, getting on, working out the system. What do they think? Do you think young lawyers might have done a bit of deep-reading, or young executives managing a business with a degree in business? Are they the same as students arguing for socialism, or young men working on a building site? How do we account for all these differences while arguing that those under 40 are leaning towards authoritarianism because of one observed behaviour.
There has to be more to it than that. Or maybe less,

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 year ago

“Well, it turns out that this makes “the marketplace of ideas” much more volatile, infectious, and politicised, and accordingly less willing to notice politically inconvenient facts. That is, less a vector for collective truth-seeking than an accelerant for conspiracy fantasy, purity spirals and unhinged meme wars. And this is chipping away at faith in the capacity of debate to make anything better”.

Argument by use of fallacies

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

It might be helpful if you explained why you think those are fallacies. Otherwise I fear you’re just examplifying Mary’s point re chipping away at faith in the efficacy of debate.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

A cursory glance on social media, message boards etc, there is an endless stream of bad faith debates: strawmaning, ad hom, sealioning, begging the question appeal to emotion, appeal to…

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

Sorry – had misunderstood youre point.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Sorry, rereading it, I could see how it could be misinterpreted.

Another example of the pitfalls of using modern media, the lack of context or nuance that Mary has described in this piece 🙂

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Raiment
Tyler 0
Tyler 0
1 year ago

It’s generous of Mary to include the link the National Review article, which makes sound (and, it has to be said, somewhat obvious) arguments against her emergent “Ceasarism”.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

Maybe this is the limit of both reason and feelings that we have access to. We can only ever swing from one idea to the other with slight permutations of culture and contemporary values. It’s not much, but then again maybe that’s all we are. And if you’re lucky you might live right on the cusp of change. Which means it’s no one’s fault, but just reaction.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
1 year ago

The USA has only managed to appear a functioning democracy by hiding its serious and intolerable defects: racism, poverty, misogyny, inequality, drugs, uncontrolled capitalism, and so on. If you want to see functioning democracies look at Northern and Western Europe.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

America is merely a narrative. Western Europe? We’ll see.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

The end of liberal democracy? What like the end of history in the nineties?

Why are writers so hyperbolic these days?

Elizabeth dSJ
Elizabeth dSJ
1 year ago

Democracy is a false idol.
Democracy is less than 10 MPs attending a Commons talk on yet another brown-on-white mass rape scandal, this time in Telford.
Democracy is oligarchs displacing the native population of Europe with outsiders in the tradition of Ancient despots.
Democracy is criminalized speech everywhere but the U.S., which is ironically pilloried for its ‘undemocratic’ Electoral College.
The American ‘Founding Fathers,’ even Jefferson, warned all of us that democracy is bad. We should have listened!

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Does anyone else understand how this statement is relevant and what Mary is trying to say here ?
In its place we find a growing tendency for political change to be driven by campaigning bodies that aim not to win by debating, but to do so by setting the parameters within which democratic political debate is able to take place. Whether it’s creating guidelines, writing school curricula, influencing legislation or shaping international standards or treaties, such activity takes place, by definition, prior to democratic deliberation.
Probably the case most familiar to British readers will be the Brexit debate over whether it was acceptable for the UK’s immigration policy to be set in Brussels, but other examples are legion.”
I really don’t understand how this is at all relevant here or quite what she thinks was “wrong” about the Brexit debate in this respect.
Or is this more of the same sort of thing I still hear a lot:
“A referendum wasn’t they right way to deal with this …”.
When you ask someone who says this “Well what is the right way ?”, there’s never any answer.
In that respect, she has a point – the critics of Brexit are still trying to shape the parameters (“gaming the system”) – only in this case too late !

Garrett R
Garrett R
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

I can’t speak to the the Brexit example but I believe I might understand what she’s saying. I think she’s saying the public square has now excluded issues or opinions worth discussing via blanket bans because of the very symbol those ideas may or may not represent.

For example, in earlier times it may have been appropriate to debate in a university whether or not men too needed dedicated resources like women might have. For example, maybe there should be a men’s center that is designed specifically to address the needs men have. Today, even introducing such an idea risks the label of misogyny and ostracism. In this way, the parameters of the debate have changed. The topic of a men’s center is out of bounds even for discussion and this policy is enforced through social coercion. No amount of facts will change this (such as colleges having a more imbalanced gender ratio now than in the 1970s when discrimination against women was outlawed).

On the conservative side, the best issues I can think of that they pulled the same stunt are on climate change and abortion. There was no amount of fact or room for disagreement within their camp.

Hope that helps.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Garrett R

Thanks, it does.
But I still don’t see how this applies to Brexit and immigration policy.

George H
George H
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

I think the point she was making was that one of the arguments for Brexit was that it had the potential to bring back into the arena of democratic political debate something that had been placed outside the parameters of such debate.

Nick SPEYER
Nick SPEYER
1 year ago

A very good article – Unherd at its best. Personally, I don’t fully believe that the correlation between ‘deep learning’ and democracy is so clear that we should accept it as fact. Certainly, however, deep learning has decreased. I believe that this started with television (the fall in IQ following the widespread adoption of television is documented – though again one should be careful is asserting direct correlation). I would also agree that it has accelerated with the internet – and in the short term this will continue. However, I think that other changes in society also need to be taken into account.
I don’t wish to argue about this, however. Far more important are the conclusions that the world has changed and that we need to examine whether the democratic systems which have served us fairly well in the past will continue to serve us in the future. The problems and risks of benevolent authoritarianism are obvious. Much as younger peoples examination of them as a potential solution is understandable, it would only take an essay of similar length and depth written by the same author to show that it is probably not a good idea.
What then? I have argued before when other articles have rightly stated that democracy is reducing that the problem is not the democratic mechanisms which are currently in place. I believe they still work and that the problem lies with the politicians and political parties. Many of these are either fighting a war which ended decades ago or fighting internecine wars over imbecilic ‘liberal left’ ideas. What is lacking are alternative figures around which people can coalesce. Brexit is a very good example. Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party never held any positions of political power in the UK but were undeniably a very major force in bringing Brexit about. They were influential because they represented the views of, at the very least, a sizeable minority. At this point, the Conservative Party was forced to adopt some of their ideas and most pertinently to promise a reforendum – or risk no longer being the party of government. The rest is now history. It came about through democratic mechanisms (albeit indirectly).
What is lacking currently is a clear articulation of the problems discussed above and a credible figurehead with plausible solutions to coalesce around. This may or may not happen. I would agree with the author that, in the short term, politics will move upstream. If the problem is real and plausible solutions are proposed even outside of government then they will force their way into politics in the same way as Farage and Brexit.
There is of course another point that cannot be ignored. The world is not going to stop changing while we scratch our heads and think of solutions. In fact, change is accelerating.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nick SPEYER
G F
G F
1 year ago

Long-form reading builds up an interlinked base of knowledge, held in long-term memory, that you can use to think with. “
In an argument about education I was told – by teachers – that rote learning was bad – it was about good memory – point being that knowledge is specifically the retention / remembering of information, otherwise you don’t have knowledge, and therefore no foundation to think with.
We weren’t the last generation (early 40’s) to recall a time before internet, we were the last generation who were taught this way to retain information, whether we knew it or not at the time.

Iris C
Iris C
1 year ago

The idea of universal suffrage – where taxpayers have a right to vote for a government to represent them – seems incontestable. However, fixed term governments lead to short term and expedient decision-making, particularly during the last eighteen months or so, affecting economic stability and our currency.
However, we had dictatorial government during the Covid pandemic where opposing views were stifled both by government and the press. Had they been aired and there had been a wide debate on the subject, then we may not have the problems we are facing today with education, the cost of living and strikes.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

To those here like me who agree with Mary: What is to be done? If our fellow citizens are rendering themselves no longer capable of self government, how are we to respond? How is the heritage of Weestern Civilization to be maintained through what will only be described as a new dark age? Relocate to a different country? Retreat to a hermitage? How to educate your children for what’s coming?

I’m serious about this question. Ideas?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago

I fully agree – many thanks for the clarity Mary. A functioning democracy MUST have informed participants to maintain it – ever aware of simpleminded motivations to twist it towards dysfunctional ends. Ken Wilbur pessimistically posits only 5% of the current population are capable of this for all the reasons you have outlined. I am glad I am a long reader born 1957 and glad that I will shuffle off my mortal coil before the ramifications of ever declining real knowledge begins to real-ly bite.