Tanner’s self-serving diagnosis on our political culture

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Review: Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy
By Lindsay Tanner, Scribe, $32.95.

The “sideshow syndrome” is Lindsay Tanner’s label for what he sees as the current malaise of participatory democracy in Australia and other Western countries. The syndrome consists in the media and public’s disengagement from serious discussion of issues, and retreat into an increasingly trivial and superficial realm of scandal and gotcha-journalism.

The role of contemporary political debate is simply to provide the sensation, outrage and easy laughs of cheap street theatre. Politicians must embrace this, as a simple matter of political survival.

Tanner is smart enough to acknowledge the danger of overstating the novelty of the current moment. Aspects of the sideshow syndrome have always existed. Nevertheless, he thinks that there has been a decisive change in the fairly recent past, and that the viability of the Australian political system is now under threat.

No one can disagree with Tanner that the public sphere would be better off if the tabloid media—or, for that matter, The Monthly or 7.30—did things differently. What one can disagree with him about, as many have already done, is what the root of the problem is.

Complex phenomena like the quality of a society’s political discourse are inherently multifaceted, and unlikely to submit to single-factor explanation. This makes it all the more bizarre that Tanner wants to convince us that responsibility for the sideshow syndrome rests solely with the media.

On Tanner’s version of history, TV started it, newspapers followed suit, and politicians had no choice but to go along. It’s all the media’s fault; it’s as simple as that.

Politicians’ role?
Tanner doesn’t give any real attention to the many other considerations that any serious exploration of political discourse necessitates—such as, most obviously, the possibility that politicians have just as much to gain as journalists from the trivialisation of political culture.

Nor does he even entertain the possibility that the sideshow syndrome could be a response to the striking contraction of the ideological spectrum attendant on the ALP’s embrace of neo-liberalism.
For Tanner, none of this is a factor: politicians are simply the victims of the prevailing mode of political debate, not its instigators or beneficiaries.

Tanner says that he’s pessimistic; he worries about the demise of participatory democracy and the risk that political issues will disappear from the public arena and be reabsorbed even further by a privileged elite.

That sentiment, however, disguises the profoundly elitist tenor of the rest of his book. On Tanner’s view, the reason the media is as it is is that it’s servicing the preferences of an uneducated public, the “lowest common denominator”. These preferences can’t be changed: they’re part of people’s genetic makeup.

People are basically too stupid to take important issues seriously. Only the educated (which increasingly means, of course, privately educated) can see through media spin to the substance of political debate.

Not only is Tanner pessimistic; he is also thoroughly quietistic. Nothing can be done, he tells us. In particular, traditional government mechanisms—regulation, incentive, punishment—aren’t readily applicable to the current crisis of political culture—not, that is, that there’s the slightest evidence of political will to regulate the media.

Tanner also denies that any responsibility for the trivialisation of political discourse lies in the concentration of media ownership which governments have allowed to occur.
This is a puzzling conclusion, since he claims elsewhere that one of the reasons radio is to a large extent immune from the sideshow problem is that more licences were issued in the 1980s—a regulatory decision that opened the field to more players.

On Tanner’s view, nothing can be done. Australian political culture will polarise further; members of elites, like Tanner himself, can only stand back and wring their hands as the real political decisions become more and more their preserve. In that situation, few politicians will make Tanner’s choice to simply opt out.

One of the noticeable things about Sideshow is the way that Tanner pays fleeting lip-service to counterarguments and alternatives to his own view, but never develops them. The result is a confused, hasty and unnuanced picture of current politics.

Tanner deserves credit for trying to reflect seriously on complex and important questions. That his reductive and simplistic conclusions have been hailed as an insightful contribution to political analysis speaks volumes about the uncritical superficiality of even the “serious” Australian political commentary that he admires.

By Nick Riemer

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