Last week, two videos circulated online of very small groups of protestors abusing politicians and journalists in Dublin. We shouldn’t give these fringes the publicity they crave, but they shouldn’t be ignored, either, at a time when the political sands of democracy are shifting in a worrying way.
The Swedish general election result, which saw a surge in votes for the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrat party, is the latest case in point. The EU has also cut funding to Hungary due to ‘rule of law’ concerns under their current nationalist Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. A few days previous to this cut, MEPs declared the country no longer a fully functioning democracy.
Think about it: there’s no such thing as a perfectly functioning democracy, but you’d still rather live in Ireland than Sweden or Hungary if that’s the route down which both are going.
Mutterings of ‘civil war’ in the US may seem farfetched, but the fact it’s uttered at all is disturbing. Trump has not gone away. He’s still stirring the pot. He was the first person I ever heard coin the provocative trope, “fake news”. It was the phrase bellowed in anger by that handful surrounding my colleague - a working TV cameraman - outside the Four Courts last week. As if they invented it.
We live in bubbles where we decide what is and what is not news. There are many platforms to be found which fall well outside any journalistic credibility. They attract vulnerable and confused subscribers. The middle continues to narrow. The purveyors of political disruption source support from the channels of poverty and exclusion, on one side, and privilege and expectation on the other. This creates a foundation from where hard right and hard left political movements grow and thrive. ?
Even the middle ground is clinging to a groupthink life raft whereby, “If I don’t agree with your opinion then you are wrong,” and you are blocked and cancelled. Even science is questioned. If science doesn’t concur with ones ideological viewpoint, it’s binned as skewed and biased. And in politics, it’s not what the manifesto says, but rather whose manifesto it belongs to that forms our opinion of its contents.
Last week, for example, Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald tweeted following the death of Queen Elizabeth: “To the Royal Family and all who mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth, especially Irish Unionists, I extend sincere sympathy. She lived a long, full life. In her lifetime, relationships between our countries were changed and changing. I salute her contribution to this transformation.”
Now, you can be guaranteed had the Taoiseach Micheál Martin or Tánaiste Leo Varadkar tweeted those exact words first, they’d have been taken apart by the same people who are openly supportive of Mary Lou and her party leading the next Government.
Mary Lou McDonald, in a Sunday Business Post interview in December 2020, called on supporters to stop being “pig ignorant” online. Abuse comes from supporters of all parties, but governments will always be more of a target. Varadkar, in particular, is the target of savage personal abuse. Social media is the 21st century forum for political discourse which is the succour for people who feel they have no direction to turn, no voice. Then they slide to the margins peppered with anger.
The opposite of a functioning democracy is anarchy. And in a world where journalists and politicians are the enemy - egged on by growingly influential echo chambers on social media - we should be worried.
It was car-free day in Brussels last Sunday. Car-free Sunday should become EU-wide in capital cities from 2023. If Brussels can manage it then any city can. We need to reclaim the 21st century version of a down day and it should be car free and retail centre free day. Let’s try it.