Representative Democracy

Advocates for electoral reform often denounce systems wherein one party can win fifty-one percent of the popular vote (or less) and still win one hundred percent of the legislative seats.  Rather than award victory to the candidate who merely squeaks by her rivals after all the ballots are counted, the alternative of proportional representation would allocate places in Parliament or Congress according to entire election tallies, so that parties with modest but consistent support could at least take part in government, and the traditionally hold-your-nose-and-vote establishment candidates wouldn’t unduly dominate civic affairs.  Proportional representation has a range of nonpartisan backers – until 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even claimed to be among them.

But there is another arena where proportional representation might be welcomed, and that is the public conversation comprised of news, entertainment, education, and social media.  After all, citizens participate in that conversation all the time, whereas elections only happen every few years.  At the root of much of today’s political polarization is less a reality that laws and leaders are expressly excluding this or that aggrieved group – universal suffrage and basic legal protections don’t get repealed, no matter who’s running the country – than a perception that some issues or social categories receive more (or less) attention in print or online than their actual presence in the general population would seem to warrant.  When so much of our knowledge about the world is relayed via devices, rather than through in-person interaction with family, neighbors, and colleagues, the disconnect between what we experience in our daily lives and what we are told by our televisions and our phones can be dislocating.  At some point, nearly everyone has shouted back at a viral meme or a talking head:  Give me a break!  Why wouldn’t we want the electronic messages we receive to better correspond with our sense of what’s really out there?

Obviously, the dictates of free speech and common sense stand in the way of any kind of mandated media depictions, such that no one appears before a microphone or a camera more than they might be seen on the street.  Movies and novels, to cite familiar examples, have presented far more grisly murders, passionate romances, and thrilling adventures than anybody in their audiences has personally lived through, and a disproportionate amount of journalism has always attended to crimes or accidents which affect relatively few individuals (“If it bleeds, it leads”).  The standard rejoinder to those who gripe about what they see or read usually comes down to:  You can always change the channel / cancel your subscription / unfollow the page.  At its most philosophical the insoluble tension between image and actuality is explained through theories of structuralism, semiotics, Plato’s cave, and The Matrix.

On other levels, though, it’s possible to measure tangible mismatches between media coverage and underlying facts.  Canada’s CBC News website, for example, sorts its stories into Canada, World, Business, Politics, Entertainment, Science, Health, and Indigenous sections – thus one-eighth of the CBC’s reporting, as represented on its home page, is reserved for a demographic sliver about one-twentieth of the nation’s whole (the 2016 census shows Indigenous Canadians make up 4.9 percent of the population).  Or consider the investment made by businesses like Ikea, Starbucks, and Google to attract an LGBTQ customer base with rainbow-themed logos and pronoun-specifying employee email signatures – even though statistical surveys seldom show more than six percent of people in western societies claim an LGBTQ orientation.  On its face, the efforts to celebrate diversity would appear out of all proportion next to the hard numbers of the diversity market itself.  And in a notable combination illustrating the misalignment of both electoral rules and editorial judgement with mass opinion, the right-wing People’s Party of Canada’s Maxime Bernier was barred from televised leaders’ debates in the last Canadian federal election, while Annamie Paul of the Green Party was invited – although the PPC ended up with a higher share of votes (5 percent) than the Greens (2.3 percent), but Green candidates were elected in two ridings and PPC candidates in none.  

The creative sector offers similar disparities.  Granted, a single TV episode or children’s book emphasizing the evil of Islamophobia or the joy of drag performance will not upend civilization as we know it.  Producers and publishers are often chasing profitable trends more than they’re campaigning for social justice.  But the opportunistic, bandwagon-jumping bids to out-include and out-tolerate industry competitors further exacerbate the resentment of those left out of the competitions altogether – the average consumers who intuit a politicized thumb on the scale that weighs some kind of material, e.g. Islamophobia or drag performance, more heavily than would a neutral gauge of their overall public significance.  Hence the complaints that formerly marginal social phenomena are “normalized” by show business, whenever hype and commerce amplify them into a topicality they’d be unlikely to earn otherwise.

Broken down this way, as projected representations are compared with empirical data, it’s understandable how much of what we get from the media – news, ads, opinion, school curricula, Hollywood casting, magazine covers, and so on – can feel like a distortion of real-world popular dynamics.  If every assembly of sitcom actors, swimsuit models, or historical heroes must “look like” the society from which they come, then it will be impossible to include precisely the right number of any human type in the lineups; conversely, the regulated highlighting of favored identities as a supposed atonement for past invisibility can quickly start to look like overcompensation at best and social engineering at worst.  Again, in a culture where most time is screen time, the subjective impression that certain lobbies or certain lifestyles are being artificially foregrounded ahead of others may be more divisive than any objective policy debate.

Of course, “media bias” has long been a complaint across the media spectrum.  The suspicion that outlet X is overly emphasizing the interests of one cohort has usually been countered by the opposite emphasis of outlet Y; this is the origin of Fox News’s “Fair and Balanced” conceit, and that of countless books, podcasts and blogs proclaiming that they alone dare to Tell It Like It Really Is.  Perhaps more relevant here is Richard Nixon’s call for support from “the great, silent majority” in his speech from the Oval Office in 1969.  For all the implied threat subsequently read into Nixon’s rhetoric, he was basically raising a straightforward democratic principle in an increasingly post-democratic age – that an imbalanced presence in the media relative to on-the-ground metrics was liable to derail any workable consensus of what was important and how a plurality of citizens thought.  

An extraterrestrial receiving broadcast signals from Earth might be forgiven for thinking that today’s Canada is a land of Afro-Indigenous transgender climate activists.  The misconception is more serious when it takes hold among – or when it’s imparted to – viewers, readers, and voters in Canada itself.  Numerous commentators have warned of a looming epistemic crisis, in which every source of knowledge is discredited by another and no one is sure what to believe:  lopsided and easily disproved portraits of the national collective don’t help.  Though there is no way to enforce racial, sexual, or ideological quotas in the content of contemporary media (nor should there be), the consequences of exaggerated representations of fringe or minority communities, whether relayed out of irresponsible idealism or calculating cynicism, should be plain.  They are already manifest in our populism, our protests, and our fragmenting polity.