Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century

By Oates, Sarah | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, July 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century


Oates, Sarah, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-first Century. By Matthew Flinders. Oxford University Press. 224pp, Pounds 16.99. ISBN 9780199644421. Published 26 April 2012

How robust is democracy in the 21st century? Using the framework from Bernard Crick's classic In Defence of Politics published 50 years ago, Matthew Flinders argues that democratic politics are at risk from a range of threats, including the markets, democratic denial and, most particularly, the media. While Flinders makes a timely point about the need for academics to stand up and be counted in key societal debates, the book itself makes a somewhat unconvincing argument that politicians should be protected from public and media alike.

It is not that Flinders lacks verve and a sense of conviction. The book is propelled by the tone and energy of an academic who feels quite passionately that democracy is under attack and in need of protection. Disappointingly, although the accompanying promotional material says that the book is "based on exclusive interviews with key players" including Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, John Bercow, Michael Sandel and Ian Hislop, these are not much in evidence in the text. Rather, Flinders slightly adapts the framework of Crick's argument to look at what he considers to be key challenges to democracy.

A central point is that democracy is a victim of the expectations gap between what citizens want and what the modern state can deliver, particularly at a time of economic crisis. Flinders attributes much of the blame to the media, which he sees as both trivialising politics and indulging in sensationalist coverage that makes it near-impossible for politicians to do their jobs. He dismisses the internet as useful for building democracy as it further atomises the public and encourages sensationalism over an informed public sphere. He even doubts whether WikiLeaks is a good thing.

The central flaws in this argument are highlighted by Flinders' choice of the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit-seller, a key catalyst for the Arab Spring, as a poignant example of why democracy matters. …

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