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Review of  Discourse and Democracy


Reviewer: Sibo Chen
Book Title: Discourse and Democracy
Book Author: Michael Farrelly
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 26.3193

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

Presenting research on selected political texts in the British context, “Discourse and democracy” offers a critical examination of democracy as it is presented and practiced in Britain and, to a lesser extent, other advanced liberal states. The central theme of this book is the critique of the “paradox of contemporary democracy”. As the author argues in the beginning of the book, contemporary democratic practices in liberal states exist in a paradoxical form:

“A great paradox of contemporary democracy in the English-speaking world is this: the very language of ‘democracy’, as employed by some in positions of influence, insulates governments from the effects of democracy. Statesmen and stateswomen of our time brandish the words of democracy with alacrity; yet their actions steadily close-off issues of collective concern from public policy, close-off public policy from political responsibility, and close-off both, therefore, from democratic influence.” (p.1)

In this regard, the pervasive reference to democracy by people in powerful positions is contradicted by a sense that little of social life is within democratic control. Thus, in our daily lives, the prevailing discourse of democracy is used mainly in an ideological sense: it acknowledges existing power relations by manufacturing consent and acquiescence, which then sustain the embittering social inequalities of wealth, health, and well-being. As a result, a critical examination of contemporary discursive practices of democracy becomes necessary in both theoretical and practical senses.

The book develops its overall argument in six chapters. Chapter One “The Paradox of Contemporary Democracy” describes the puzzles of contemporary democratic practices and problematizes the pervasive discourses of democracy. The chapter begins with the British government’s responses to the 2008 financial crisis. Despite the collective call for tougher regulations on the banking sector, the British government absorbed the liabilities of the private banking sector at the cost of public spending cuts. According to the author, the fact that issues such as bank bail-out are deemed by the British government to be beyond public discussion suggests the weakening of actual democratic practices in the liberal world. Yet, the concept of “democracy” has been overwhelmingly addressed in public speeches by key political figures in advanced liberal nations (e.g. George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, ). Close examination of these public discourses indicates that the language of “democracy” is pervasive in the public realm of liberal states. The championing of democracy and its promise of prosperity, however, are contradicted by how unevenly the wealth is distributed within societies. The chapter then problematizes conventional government discourse of democracy, which according to the author demonstrates “the doctrine of representative democracy”: it presents existing institutions of representative government as the only legitimate form of democracy, thereby rendering the perception of the need for reforms (Hirst, 1990). The chapter ends by highlighting the central questions of the book: how is the concept of “democracy” presented by those in government and what are the problems behind these representations?

Chapter Two “Representing Which Democracy” is perhaps the most impressive section of the book; it extends the problematization of mainstream government discourse of democracy through a theoretical review of different representations of democracy and their associated theoretical models. There are three key arguments of the chapter. First, the chapter argues that representations of democracy are always partial since they tend to favor certain perspectives on democracy over others and offer simplified narratives of it. Representations of democracy fall into “patterns” (i.e. discourses) that frame democracy from particular perspectives in terms of social practices. When certain representations become stabilized within the social practices of political governments, they inevitably condition the relation between governors and non-governors. Meanwhile, representations of democracy in public texts are often simplifications and these simplifications tend to act against the interests of democracy and the public. Second, the version of democracy depicted in public texts by people in government is also limited, often reducing democracy to elections and subsequent actions by elected governments. As political theories such as Hirst (1990), Held (1996), and Dryzek (2000) suggest, it is necessary to recognize the variant forms of democracy: competitive elite democracy, classic pluralist democracy, legal democracy, participatory democracy, and democratic autonomy. The author gives particular attention to the deliberative aspect of democracy, since it reflects the communication of collective self-determination in non-coercive fashions (Dryzek, 2000). Third, democracy is a model of social actions and it emerges from pre-existing circumstances of social relations. Thus, it should be primarily viewed as a type of social practice instead of an objectified state of affairs.

Chapter Three “Analyzing Democracy in Texts” outlines the analytical framework for the empirical research that will be presented in the following two chapters. In line with Fairclough (cf. 2003), the author views discourse as referring to the linguistic aspect of “semiosis” as part of a semiotic system. In other words, a specific discursive construction shows how part of the world is represented and constructed in a semiotic representation. In addition to presenting the key theoretical assumptions of critical discourse analysis (CDA), the chapter focuses on the process and practice of democracy via discussing three discursive categories (social actors, social actions, and social circumstances) and their different representation forms across the five democratic models outlined in the previous chapter.

Chapter Four “Representing Democracy in National Practices of Government Politics” analyzes key political texts of British politics between 1997 and 2005 when the British Labor Party formed the UK government. The chapter consists of two sections. The first section takes a critical look at New Labor’s election manifestos during 1997 to 2005, and the analysis suggests that the representations of democracy in these documents were congruent with liberal discourse of democracy: democracy is conflated with government activities and the public, to a large extent, is excluded from the presentation of democracy. Specifically, these manifestos limited the scope of democracy by mystifying it, avoiding the discussions of accountability, and addressing it only in terms of election and partisan rivalry. The second section addresses how New Labor, once elected, transferred its problematic version of democracy into its policy documents. The section addresses how local democracy was addressed in government “White Papers”, and the analysis indicates that, despite the claim of improving democratic practices at the local level, there was no overt explanation of what is “democracy” in the examined documents. More importantly, these documents tended to abstract and objectify democracy, which then excluded various actors, actions, and circumstances from the discourse of democracy. In sum, the chapter comes to the conclusion that the underlying assumption of democracy, in both New Labor Manifestos and government White Papers, is that democracy is based on the state, instead of on the public and the state-public relation; this is highly problematic since it suppresses the agency of democratic practices.

Chapter Five “Representing Democracy and Enacting Forums in City Practices of Government” continues the empirical analysis of discursive practices of democracy in Britain by taking a close look at how Area Forums (a local form of democratic practices promoted by the New Labor government) were operated in the city of Preston, Lancashire. The results presented in this chapter are mainly based on discourse analysis of official documents, interview transcripts, and participatory observations. The chapter suggests that despite the apparent dissatisfaction among the interviewees in terms of the political outcomes and processes of Area Forums, the existing discourses failed to critique the practice of democracy in Britain and in Preston. The above result not only calls the Area Forums into question, but also highlights the lack of attention to participatory democracy in the contemporary political life of Britain. Overall, the ethnographic research on the Area Forums in Preston re-emphasizes the “paradox of contemporary democracy”: “the state was seen as an intransigent circumstance of political life, rather than as an institution to be influenced and held to account by the public” (p. 124).

Finally, Chapter Six “Ideology and Democracy” summarizes the whole book and offers a series of critiques on the ideological effects of contemporary discourses on democracy. The author conceptualizes the ideological manipulation of democratic expressions as “democratism”, which refers to “the ideological appropriation of discourses of democracy and their use in ironing-out the contradictions, dilemmas, and antagonism of government practices in ways which accord with the interests and projects of the already powerful” (p. 130). In other words, democratism describes the objectification and emptying of democracy, which maintains the existing power structure of our societies and prevents further discussions on change in democratic practices. Along with discussion of the persistent linkage between democratism and the prevailing neoliberalization in Western countries, the chapter ends by re-emphasizing the significance of rejecting the temptation of discursively reducing democracy to elections and governments.

EVALUATION

Despite its relatively short length (137 pages in total), this book makes an important theoretical contribution to the fields of CDA and critical theories. Although discussions on democratic expressions can be widely found in previous CDA studies, this book presents a more systematic overview and a stronger theoretical orientation. For interested readers, Chapters Two and Six are highly recommended since both go beyond empirical observations and engage with the concept of democracy in synthesized and theoretical manners, shining a spotlight on topics that have so far received less attention and adding valuable elements to the existing literature. Another noticeable feature of the book are the rich descriptions and empirical materials presented in Chapter Five. The combination of ethnography and CDA indicates the flexibility of CDA and the possibility of developing the discipline beyond its current overt focus on media texts.

Meanwhile, the current edition of the book has some minor limitations that require further attention. With its (almost) exclusive focus on political life in the British context, the book falls short of providing a broader, comparative discussion on contemporary democratic practices across the world. As a result, the validity of the key findings argued in the book is somewhat constrained; they require further empirical analyses in the contexts of other liberal states, especially those in the Global South. Furthermore, given mass media’s key role in communicating the main ideas of political texts to the general public, the book could have benefited from an additional chapter focusing on how the concept of democracy is presented in various media platforms. Finally, the current edition lists references at the end of each chapter, which is a little unusual for a monograph. Many readers may prefer a unified reference list since it offers a more comprehensive view of the book’s theoretical framework and adds convenience for using the book for research purposes.

That being said, this book’s overall purpose is still well achieved, and it would be a valuable reference for academics in the fields of political science, discourse analysis, and communication studies.

REFERENCES

Dryzek, J. (2000). Deliberative democracy and beyond: Liberals, critics, contestations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Held, D. (1996). Models of democracy (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity.

Hirst, P. Q. (1990). Representative democracy and its limits. Oxford: Polity.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Sibo Chen is a PHD student in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He received his MA in Applied Linguistics from the Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria, Canada. His major research interests are language and communication, discourse analysis, and genre theories.

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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415872355
Pages: 138
Prices: U.K. £ 85.00