In the US Republic determined anti constitutionalism (better here) has never been more popular. But one price of ignoring the rules that bind as Donald Trump did on 6th January last year, is a burgeoning ignorance of what those rules actually are.
A large chunk of the US Republican Party flipped in one day from being the traditional (at least in recent times) party of States rights to many of their senators demanding that the federal legislature quash the right of states to count and verify its own vote.
In The Irish Times Kathy Sheridan notes a similar wilful form of ignorance expanding to fill a more local vacuum in the Republic…
Many on this island seem to lack even a minimal understanding of the State’s electoral system if reaction to the 2020 election is any guide. This included the notion that if a party got a majority of first preferences its leader automatically became taoiseach.
Another reaction was that a candidate’s election on a later count meant they were less legitimate somehow than the poll-topper. The intricacies of our PR-STV system, the parties’ good or bad management of multi-seat constituencies, the pressure on the main vote-winners to cede territory to a party rival to maximise seat numbers; all seemed lost on them.
More directly however the responsibility for this skewed public understanding of how constitutional democracies work lies at the feet of a similar grievance culture that shot Donald Trump from reality TV personality to the highest office.
Ms Sheridan continues…
While we pride ourselves on the thrilling unpredictability of week-long counts and the impressive proportionality between votes cast and seats won, there were plenty who felt thwarted enough by the Coalition outcome to believe it was rigged in favour of the not-Sinn Féin parties. [Emphasis added]
This sort of stuff is becoming more commonplace because as traditional media gatekeepers are made redundant to be replaced with gamified platforms like Twitter and Facebook, it is much easier to pull off when there’s few checks and fewer filters about.
My new favourite professor C Thi Nguyen in this lecture explains how we’re being teased into outsourcing our complex value systems to gamified platforms and being offered simplified version of the world that undermine our trust in others:
Back to Kathy again:
On this island, where some are intent on importing the dregs of US and British culture for nefarious purposes, there is a real danger in ignoring the need for public education or at least correcting reality-defying statements when they occur.
SF’s youth wing and others in responsible positions continue to send out dangerous, provocative messages without censure. Ógra Shinn Féin marked the Anglo-Irish Treaty centenary with this tweet:
“Despite what the Free State establishment want you to believe, the Treaty did not give Ireland independence. Ireland is not independent. But together, we can change that.”
This is the youth wing of a party confidently gearing up to govern this State.
She highlights occasions when the private conviction that the Provisional movement remains the only source of state authority on the island, including how the name of a parent organisation, supposed have “gone away”, continues to extrude into real life.
Reporting on a rare IRA admission to a crucifixion-style torture perpetrated 27 years ago on a 16-year-old boy, the Sunday World recently published a letter from Belfast-based Community Restorative Justice Ireland quoting the “apology” to the victim’s mother.
It acknowledged – within quotes – that: “Some members of the IRA were involved in this, it was wrong, and it should never have happened.” The community group’s deputy director was able to assure the mother that the reply had been sent “with the full authority of the Irish Republican Army”.
What does that whole phrase actually mean in 2022?
There are in fact parallel realities (or narratives as they are referred to), one which lives in the echo chamber world in which participants are encouraged to distrust the realities of official US (or Ireland) and its institutions. This opens us up, but…
Nguyen argues most echo chambers are operated by epistemic manipulators (ie, dodgy story tellers) who offer simplified versions of reality that offer enough of an explanation of the world for bring about a pleasing clarity for those inside it.
This clarity becomes a thought ending heuristic which is common in cults and other fundamentalist communities who deny the possibilities of nuance discourse in a complex and increasingly perplexing world. He concludes that…
Sheridan’s conclusion nicely pins the outwards facing aspects of problem but, as Nguyen points out, the core issue with echo chambers is their determination to break trust with institutions. Something that cannot be fixed with correcting information.
Sinn Féin has moved into the political mainstream in that prospective voters expect it to deliver on big, key issues. One of its most enviable traits in other parties’ eyes is a near supernatural ability to keep members on message.
Yet its youth wing and others in responsible positions continue to send out dangerous, provocative messages without censure, questioning the legitimacy of the State and its institutions. Which is it to be?
Will the real Sinn Féin stand up?
I suspect no answer will be forthcoming. The US’s first answer to Trump was the election of Joe Biden the first pre baby boomer President since George Bush Snr. But it’s unlikely to be enough. Ireland will have to dig much deeper for its own response.
In an age of abundant information we too easily fall prey to the “seductions of clarity” problem. The root of most latter day whacky conspiracy theories grow through the darkness of these self isolating echo chambers.
If trust (or lack of it) is the problem, then part of the response ought to be adoption of more participatory practices, bringing citizens on board with the unholy series of trade offs necessary to make progress. But so too should a degree of playfulness.
That requires generative thinking, looking at ideas that may not at first glance make any sense. There are innumerable adjacent possibilities to the ones we are currently exploring, but they will only emerge if we actively look for them.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty