Populism and publicity

Whether Peter Casey deliberately indulged in a little bit of demagoguery as a last resort to save his dying campaign, or stumbled upon it by happy accident in an unguarded moment, only Peter Casey knows for sure. But enough has been said about the particulars already, and this post will resist adding further to the noise. Given sufficient time and numbers, there will always be someone who crosses the line. The more important issue to consider is society’s response, and in this instance we have seen that Ireland is unexceptional.

The paradox of the news is that it consists mainly of newsworthy events, but events that are commonplace are not newsworthy. News is by definition unrepresentative of reality. Rare events such as plane crashes and natural disasters are vastly over-represented, while everyday occurrences are ignored. “Politician says something sensible” will never hold the front page, but “politican causes outrage” will be splashed across every screen.

The news thereby acts as a positive feedback mechanism, where each trip around the news cycle boosts the perceived importance of the issue in question – so long as there is something different to be said each time. The greatest hurdle on the way to domination of the headlines is getting onto the publicity merry-go-round in the first place.

Publicity is just another form of wealth and, like all forms of wealth, you need to have it to make it. Seed capital is everything, and when you are a relative minnow the trick is to stand out from the pack. In a civilised democracy, the easiest way to break free of the political peloton is to say something mildly uncivilised.

And if your momentary newsworthiness pushes you significantly ahead of the rest, the news cycle will multiply your lead – so long as you can keep saying newsworthy things. If you already had meaningful ideas, you can quietly drop the uncivilised stuff after it has done its job of getting you onto the front page. Many otherwise serious politicians succumb to this temptation now and again.

But there are also those who don’t have anything much to say beyond cheap scandal. Their only recourse is then to keep saying uncivilised things to ride the publicity of outrage. And these are the ones who are dangerous, because after a while the Overton window moves, and mild incivility becomes normalised. Ever more outrageous incivility is required to stay newsworthy.

How can democracies resist the positive-feedback cycle of publicity power? We can draw parallels with monetary power, where the rich are taxed heavily to pay for wealth redistribution. But in this imperfect analogy the demagogues and populists would still ride in the vanguard of opinion; the goal should surely be to prevent populism from gaining traction in the first place.

Some would have the news media simply ignore populists and demagogues, to avoid giving them the oxygen of publicity. But this asks news media to act as gatekeepers of acceptable political opinion, which runs counter to the fundamentals of liberal democracy.

I don’t have the answers. But these are the questions we should be asking urgently, before Ireland falls prey to a competent populist like Orban or Trump. The Republic’s political class would be well advised to examine the history of Northern Ireland politics from the 1960s onwards, because part of Ireland already has fallen for demagoguery, and it took half a century to row back from the edge.

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