The openDemocracy journalist delves into the web of power, money and data manipulation that is bringing our electoral system to its knees
By John Naughton
As we try to face the future, we are usually fighting the last war, not the one that’s coming next. One of the most striking points the political philosopher David Runciman made in his seminal book How Democracy Ends was that democracies don’t fail backwards: they fail forward. That’s why those who see in the current difficulties of liberal democracies the stirrings of past monsters – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, to name just three – are always looking in the wrong place. And if that’s true, the key question for us at this moment in history is: how might our current system fail? What will bring it down?
The answer, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight for years. It has three components. The first is the massive concentration of corporate power and private wealth that’s been under way since the 1970s, together with a corresponding increase in inequality, social exclusion and polarisation in most western societies; the second is the astonishing penetration of “dark money” into democratic politics; and the third is the revolutionary transformation of the information ecosystem in which democratic politics is conducted – a transformation that has rendered the laws that supposedly regulated elections entirely irrelevant to modern conditions.
These threats to democracy have long been visible to anyone disposed to look for them. For example, Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money explained how a clique of billionaires has shaped and perverted American politics. And in the UK, Martin Moore’s landmark study Democracy Hacked showed how, in the space of just one election cycle, authoritarian governments, wealthy elites and fringe hackers figured out how to game elections, bypass democratic processes and turn social networks into battlefields.
All of this is by way of sketching the background to Peter Geoghegan’s fine book. It’s a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of rightwing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum – with laws, penalties and overseeing authorities that are no longer fit for purpose.
His account is structured both chronologically and thematically. He starts with the Brexit referendum and the various kinds of unsavoury practices that took place during that doomed plebiscite – from the various illegalities of Vote Leave, through Arron Banks’s lavish expenditure to the astonishing tale of the dark money funnelled through the Ulster DUP and a loophole in Northern Ireland’s electoral law. One of the most depressing parts of this narrative is the bland indifference of most mainstream UK media to these scandalous events. If it had not been for the openDemocracy website (for which Geoghegan works), much of this would never have seen the light of day.
Geoghegan’s account of the genesis and growth of the European Research Group is absolutely riveting
The middle section of the book explores how dark money has amplified the growing influence of the American right on British politics. This is a story of ideology and finance – of how the long-term Hayekian, neoliberal project has played out on these shores. It’s a great case study in how ruling elites can be infected with policy ideas and programmes via those “second-hand traders in ideas” of whom Hayek spoke so eloquently: academics, thinktanks and media commentators. In that context, Geoghegan’s account of the genesis and growth of the European Research Group – the party within a party that did for Theresa May – is absolutely riveting. And again it leaves one wondering why there was so little media exploration of the origins and financing of that particular little cabal.
The final part of the book deals with the transformation of our information ecosystem: the ways in which the automated targeted-advertising machines of social media platforms have been weaponised by rightwing actors to deliver precisely calibrated messages to voters, in ways that are completely opaque to the general public, as well as to regulators.
Remainers will probably read Geoghegan’s account of this manoeuvring by Brexiters as further evidence that the Brexit vote was invalid. This seems to me implausible or at any rate undecidable. Geoghegan agrees. “Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not. Instead, the referendum and its aftermath have revealed something far more fundamental and systemic. Namely, a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.”
And therein lies the significance of this remarkable book. The integrity and trustworthiness of elections is a fundamental requirement for a functioning democracy. The combination of unaccountable, unreported dark money and its use to create targeted (and contradictory) political messages for individuals and groups means that we have no way of knowing how free and fair our elections have become. Many of the abuses exposed by Geoghegan and other researchers are fixable with new laws and better-resourced regulators. The existential threat to liberal democracy comes from the fact that those who have successfully exploited some inadequacies of the current regulatory system – who include Boris Johnson and his current wingman, Cummings – have absolutely no incentive to fix the system from which they have benefited. And they won’t. Which could be how our particular version of democracy ends.
Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan is published by Head of Zeus (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15 (The Guardian).