Prompted by a question posed by Martin Krøger on Twitter: Has the quality of political debate in Denmark increased or declined over the years?
Good question – and one which is very hard to answer in a single word. But I’ll give it a try.
My qualifications for discussing this is that I over the last thirty years have followed and analysed selected political debates in the media, other publications and in the Danish parliament in a period covering the 1890s until today. My studies are by no means exhaustive and this discussion is not in any way systematic but rather reflects my impressions of developments.
First, I should say that I have practically given up following TV news and televised debates these days.
The problem with TV news is that reports almost exclusively focus on statements or sound-bites. What we get are claims without arguments and this is deeply frustrating when you have any interest in the subject being covered. Contemporary TV is very good at manipulating our emotions but it comes at the price of information. The same goes for televised debates – the dramaturgy is pretty obvious: Have somebody with extreme viewpoints shout at each other for 45 minutes. The issue is less important. Again, TV has specialised in dramaturgy and emotional manipulation but at the price of delivering any substantial coverage of issues. This isn’t a particularly Danish phenomenon – for what it is worth, I see British and Swedish contacts complain about the quality of political coverage in UK and Swedish with similar arguments. It is harder to tell how much the dramaturgy has changed but my impression is that news coverage and debates are less interesting than they were 30 years ago.
On the other hand, I am a policy nerd and we should accept that many people watch TV news and debates to have their own opinions confirmed or simply for kicks. I am in fact not so sure that TV damages politics directly – this problem is more likely that there can be a disconnect between the ways voters and supporters are mobilised and the way policies are decided.
When we look at print media and the internet (excluding social media platforms), the image is less clear but I would argue that as an ordinary citizen you have access to better information today than previous generations. Take a look at a newspaper from the 1960s and today’s “quality” newspapers are of a different world. The internet and digitization has been a major challenge to print media since the turn of the century but our access to relevant information and analysis is still much better than it was thirty or forty years ago. This also includes access to primary data. Obviously all of this costs money and takes time, but as citizens in a country like Denmark most of us do not really have a valid excuse for not being at least generally oriented about political and policy issues.
In my view, Denmark suffers from never really having developed a mainstream blogging community like those you would find in the US or Sweden. It is very well possible that blogging in the traditional sense is past its prime but during the 00s, blogs filled an important space in the supply of political and economic analysis. Still, it would be nice if academics and public intellectuals made better use of the internet as a channel for information.
Social media platforms can be a different story. I occasionally come across comment threads on the accounts of well-known politicians and debaters and that is an insight into a pretty dim part of the public discourse. There is a lot of hate about and in the Good Old Days, most letters to the editor would be thrown out immediately. The question is if people are more hateful today or if the gatekeeping mechanisms are less effective. On the other hand, the people I follow and interact with on Twitter or Facebook tend to keep their debates on a reasonably civil level. I’d say it is a draw: Social media have definitively made the gutter more visible but I doubt if people’s attitudes are more extreme now than they were in the 1980s or 1990s.
Finally, the politicians. Due to work, I missed the final PMQs in the Folketing and … well, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything. This isn’t really surprising: These kinds of debates are mostly, if not exclusively, aimed at mobilising the various parties’ activists so they are all about exposing the ridiculousness of the opponent, “gotchas” and so on. The same goes for many posts by politicians – and party activists – on social media. At the same time we should remember that this parliamentary debates have always been about posturing – it’s just that the forms of posturing have changed.
From a historian’s point of view, though, I would lament the introduction of time limits in parliamentary debates. That, combined with an accelerating law-making process, means that the content value of individual speeches has declined significantly if we compare the 2010s with the 1960s.
On the other hand, a focus on debates obscures that politicians do lots of other stuff, especially negotiating in parliament and maintaining contacts to other parts of the society. Here, I would argue that most contemporary MPs have a far better grip of policy and political issues than politicians of earlier generations. We may question the social uniformity of today’s political elite but it is much more well-educated and trained than those of an earlier age.
All in all, I think the picture is mixed. On the one hand the levels of competence of both citizens and politicians have increased massively over the past generations and our access to substantive information has increased similarly.
On the other hand, the accelerating speed of the political process and the rise of 24-hour-media combined with an increased professionalism in communication, means that politicians and media focus on talking points and emotional manipulation as the means to generate interest. And this makes politics a very tedious phenomenon to follow.