A FEW nights ago I stopped working and sat down to watch the telecast of Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee concert.
Having been born in Wales to a Welsh mother and Scottish father, I was naturally thrilled when Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey performed! My mum had always reminded me as a young boy that both these great singers were from Wales.
As I watched the concert and then listened to the Prince of Wales' speech at the end, I could not escape the general consensus that the Queen certainly is someone who stood above the fray.
She is someone whose example of commitment, service and selflessness inspired. Monarchists and republicans alike all recognise her virtues. No matter what your political views, everyone I know respects the Queen and holds in high regard her commitment to service, country and the Commonwealth. She possesses a real legitimacy and authority above and beyond the fray and temper of contemporary politics.
Political arguments aside, irrespective of republican or monarchist sensibilities, the Queen's civility, image, legacy and stature has been characterised by that most difficult to achieve characteristic: trust.
I could not help but compare this to the way many politicians are viewed today by so many citizens.
The recognition by scholars, political pundits and citizens alike that civility in public life is on the wane is now standard fare in our criticism of the current state and health of our democracies.
I have written before on this topic (Learning Curve, June 3) and others have done so in far more informed ways than me.
To what extent our incivility and polarisation are products of a culture that increasingly views a democracy through the lens of individual rights and self-assertion rather than through the framework of social solidarity and inclusiveness, and care for all our fellow citizens is, I think, an open question. The extent to which our incivility towards each other in the public realm is fuelled by our inability to trust and respect each other and our public institutions seems obvious.
Civility requires recognition of others as worthy of care. I have discussed the issue of democracy and obligation previously (Learning Curve, June 10) as well and my sense is that without some transcendent loyalty or ethic of social solidarity, which provides social integration with its ethical and transcendent motive, we face a situation where democracy becomes merely the practice of individuals or, at best, groups of people asserting their rights, wants and demands without any necessary consideration of the common good.
Alain de Benoist writes: "In a revealing manner, the spontaneous implication of the word 'democracy' has changed... It used to mean the collective power, the capacity for self-government. It now refers only to personal liberties. Everything that enhances the role of individual prerogatives is judged to be democratic. A liberal vision of democracy has supplanted the classical notion. The touchstone is no longer the sovereignty of the people but the sovereignty of the individual, defined by the ultimate possibility to cancel, if necessary, collective power. It follows, step by step, that the promotion of democratic rights leads to the incapacitation of a democratic politics (see www.alaindebenoist.com/pdf/the_current_crisis_of_democracy-anglais.pdf, page 6)."
The need for us to seriously reflect on the importance of social solidarity, which is the basis both of civility and national integration, is clearly in evidence given the increasing incivility, polarisation and possessively individualist culture which now passes itself off as "democratic".
Critics of democracy have long pointed to these traits of contemporary societies as evidence of the failings of democracy. We do democracy a disservice if we do not take a cold hard look at the excesses that contemporary society is suffering from.
Pierre Rosanvallon reminds us that democracy is not a one size model; it is an experience (see Democratic Universalism As A Historical Problem, https://laviedesidees.fr/IMG/pdf/20080407_rosanvallon_en.pdf). The way different democracies are experienced by citizens in diverse circumstances and cultures is important to its continued legitimacy. In other words, if democracy is increasingly experienced as uncivil, polarising and selfishly brutish then consequences surely will follow. Democratic legitimacy does not just rely on what we as individuals can get from our society. Our freedom to do as we please must be tempered by a transcendent solidarity grounded in civility and mutual respect and understanding.
Currently, we are seeing public discourse increasingly polarised and uncivil. Even more worrying is the manifestation of what can only be called a paranoid style, where the most ludicrous and extreme allegations against institutions and individuals seem to be accepted as truth without further thought.
This paranoid style (to use Richard Hofstadter's famous phrase) is clearly manifest on the Internet where all manner of extreme allegations and assertions are made and often uncontested.
I do not think that this characterisation of most politicians and of government as utterly corrupt and irredeemable is justified at all. Nonetheless, this paranoid style of discourse now influences how people view numerous public institutions.
Democracy itself is being reduced to the mere technique of gaining power. This is now often advanced through the most acerbic and extreme allegations and critiques. The deeper underpinnings of a functioning and cohesive polity are being whittled away. Is it any wonder if in conditions such as these, democracy itself is being critiqued? Our experience of democracy is what it is.
If our experience is increasingly brutalised and marked by distrust and bitter division then we will increasingly associate this with our understanding of democracy. This is deeply worrying.
I referred above to the late Francios Furet's (see www.nytimes.com/1997/07/16/arts/francois-furet-historian-70-studied-the-french-revolution.html?src>pm ) student, Pierre Rosanvallon.
Using Kenneth Arrow's famous formula, Rosanvallon reminds us that, trust is a kind of "invisible institution" (see Counter Democracy: Politics In An Age Of Distrust, Cambridge University Press, 2008, page 3).
Trust is the hidden hand of social cohesion and national stability. Without this invisible institution, the very fabric of social cohesion and national integration is at risk. Rosanvallon points out the critical functions of trust.
He writes: "Its functions are at least three in number. First, it represents an expansion of legitimacy, in that it adds to a mere procedural attribute both a moral dimension (integrity in the broadest sense) and a substantive dimension (concern for the common good).
"Trust also plays a temporal role: it implies that the expansion of legitimacy continues into the future. Thus Simmel observed that trust is essentially 'a hypothesis about future behaviour'. Finally, trust is an institutional economiser, in that it eliminates the need for various procedures of verification and proof. The gap between legitimacy and trust has been a central problem in the history of democracy (Ibid, pages 3-4)."
The destruction of civility and trust, the increase in social polarisation and the mainstreaming of a paranoid style in political criticism are all taking their toll on the legitimacy, not just of the institutions of government but even more worrying on the institution of democracy itself.
I fear ultimately the price of incivility; extremism and polarisation may be very high. I began with a simple observation on my thinking as I watched the diamond jubilee.
While I would have enjoyed regaling you with a discussion of the hits of Tom Jones, my sense is that the virtues that we see and appreciate in Queen Elizabeth -- duty, civility, temperance, fair-mindedness and compassion -- are the kinds of trust-building characteristics that we so need in our contemporary democratic discourse. If only it were so.