Fri Feb 7, 2003

Democracy in Action

President Bush made a short speech that contained some of his toughest rhetoric on Iraq. “Saddam Hussein will be stopped,” he said at the end. And in words that reporters must now be used to writing, the Times tells us that “The president then left the room, without taking questions.”

It’s quite difficult to find a record of all of the times President Bush has gotten up in front of an audience—of reporters or regular people—and taken unscripted questions. You’d think someone would be keeping track of this. Shouldn’t be too hard—for one thing, it has to be a short list. As far as I can tell, the last time he answered any questions was on a “nature walk” over Christmas break. Being able to have the boss explain himself to you, rather than just tell you what’s going to happen next, is supposed to be one of those fringe-benefits of living in a democracy. I think many Americans are forgetting what it’s like to see that happen.

I was reminded of this because I heard a report that Tony Blair had been on Newsnight (a current affairs programme on the BBC) answering questions about Iraq. He was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. Paxman began the interview like this:

Good evening, welcome to a Newsnight special in which we’ll be cross-examining the Prime Minister on the confrontation with Iraq. After yesterday’s performance at the UN America looks more determined than ever to go to war. Our government is George Bush’s closest ally yet many here and around the world would not believe the case for war has been made.

Tonight in the Baltic Centre in Gateshead we’ve invited the Prime Minister to face an audience of ordinary people from here in the north-east, all of whom are sceptical about the arguments for war with Iraq.

Facing them is the Prime Minister.

(During the questions from the studio audience, someone called Blair the “member (MP) for Texas North,” which was rather good.)

All of this, of course, was a perfectly run-of-the-mill political debate. Nothing special about it. Paxman asked some tough questions, Blair did his best to answer them, audience members had their say with the PM and it all went out on a short tape delay. For example:

JEREMY PAXMAN: And you believe American intelligence?

TONY BLAIR: Well I do actually believe this intelligence – JEREMY PAXMAN: Because there are a lot of dead people in an aspirin factory in Sudan who don’t.

TONY BLAIR: Come on. This intelligence is backed up by our own intelligence and in any event, you know, we’re not coming to this without any history. I mean let’s not be absurdly naïve about this – JEREMY PAXMAN: Hans Blix said he saw no evidence of hiding of weapons.

TONY BLAIR: I’m sorry, what Hans Blix has said is that the Iraqis are not cooperating properly.

JEREMY PAXMAN: Hans Blix said he saw no evidence, either of weapons manufacture, or that they had been concealed.

And so on. The point is that this was an informed conversation with the Prime Minister about the possibility of going to war. An interview of this sort with President Bush by a journalist of Paxman’s calibre, or anyone else—never mind follow-up questions from random audience members—is simply inconceivable. President Bush isn’t able for it, and frankly neither are most of the big-league TV talking heads.

Jurgen Habermas’s early work on The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere argues that a “political public sphere”—people arguing about the issues of the day, making the state justify itself—emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was very different from the “representative publicity” of the feudal period, where the monarch and the nobility simply displayed or “presented” their authority to their subjects. The monarch’s procession through his kingdom was the archetype of this kind of publicity—the role of the slack-jawed yokels was to be amazed at the authority of the king. Habermas is pessimistic in this book. He thinks that in the 19th and especially the 20th centuries the public sphere became “refeudalized”, with citizens once again becoming spectators of political authority. Political arguments “are translated into symbols to which again one can not respond [to] by arguing but only by identifying with” (206).

Tony Blair’s appearance on Newsnight would probably be an instance of refeudalization for Habermas, because most people are just watching the show—if even that. But it’s all relative. I think most of us would settle for just being able to passively watch President Bush have to defend his policies in front of somebody.

In the meantime, it looks like I’ll have to settle for the likes of Bill O’Reilly telling guests who refuse to be browbeaten to just “Shut up! Shut up!

Update: As predicted, both Kevin Drum and Atrios are amazed at the idea of an interviewer giving an important political figure a hard time over a vital issue of the day. It’s a sign of how bad things are on the American political scene. As I’ve mentioned before, some of this can be traced to a complete absence of vigorous parliamentary debating societies at U.S. universities. What passes for debating over here is a kind of roboticized, high-speed version of the real thing. Many British public figures, including Jeremy Paxman and Tony Blair, would have cut their teeth at their local Debating Union. Believe me, you don’t know what it means to think on your feet till you’ve stood up in front of 400 easily bored Undergrads, a substantial number of whom are sharper and funnier than you and who won’t hesitate to shred you into little bits if they don’t feel like you’re worth listening to.