Does hyper-individualism pose a threat to democracy?
Or to put it another way, is freedom now disappearing up its own contradictions?
Battle of Valmy 1792, which embedded the revolutionary idea of citizens' armies; painted by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, 1826
I took part a few days ago in the University of Birmingham’s Vice-Chancellor’s “Great Debate”, which asked the question: “Does the rise of individualism mean the end of democracy?”
The thinking behind the question was this. Democracy has been seen as the guarantor of individual liberty and expression. However, have these freedoms now undone democracy itself? Politics seems to be increasingly polarising and common ground is hard to find. How can we build a new consensus and avoid the damaging “culture wars” that have characterised politics in the US and in parts of Europe in recent years?
Public debate is increasingly mediated through fragmented fora and misinformation or disinformation; public policy and even political leadership increasingly focus on individual, emotional responses rather than objective, rational and truthful discourse. Is the collapse of faith in democratic institutions and the rise of “populism” the consequence of a deep hyper-individualism? Has the Covid-19 pandemic magnified these tendencies, or does it point to new forms of collective sentiment that might re-energise democracy?
In my own opening statement, I said broadly this. My experience in the eighties and nineties of reporting the great cultural changes occurring in family life, education and developments such as multiculturalism and trans-nationalism made me realise that British and western society was fragmenting into self-defined groups fighting for power over each other.
The very idea of the nation was being deliberately denigrated, and educationists were refusing to transmit it to the next generation. Groups demanded rights based on their subjective view of themselves in the world. The concepts of duty and obligation to others, which knit people into a culture that everyone feels they equally share and which defines their civic identity, was being eroded.
Governments tried to please all these groups. This was clearly impossible, but politicians lied about how everything was always getting better. So not surprisingly, between the groups wanting to destroy the nation and those who lost all trust that the political class would ever represent their interests, the very idea of representative democracy now finds itself in crisis.
My fellow debaters were Dominic Grieve QC, former Attorney-General; Lyndsey Stonebridge, professor of humanities and human rights, University of Birmingham; Peter Jukes, author and screenwriter; and Nick Timothy, former political advisor to Theresa May and now Daily Telegraph columnist. The debate was introduced by Professor Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Birmingham, and was moderated by Ritula Shah, presenter of BBC Radio’s The World Tonight.
You can watch the debate here:
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