It seems appropriate to write about the role media play in the political system and civil society of Georgia given that the media themselves have been such a hot topic of discussion recently.
The general thesis is that mass media, in the hands of political elite, have always been a tool for controlling the masses in Georgia. To be more precise, the elite have always used media to stay in power while the counter-elite have used media to come to power (including through revolution).
The situation in Western democracies is assumed to be quite the opposite, at least for the past forty years. There, mass media are considered as a tool that masses use to control elites. Moreover, a society that can control its elite does not deserve to be called “masses.”
Of course, Georgia has media outlets whose representatives proudly proclaim that they have no party affiliation whatsoever. The quality of such media has traditionally been much poorer than the quality of those media immersed in the political fray. Such a state of affairs still does not support the argument that people in Georgia do not want quality mass media and, consequently, are not quite ready for democracy.
By saying that, I am not trying to aver that people actually want quality media and are ready for democracy. I am merely saying that people have nothing to do with the process.
We like to think of democracy as government of the people. But what does that really mean? It is physically impossible for several million people to govern themselves directly. That is why Western political scientists often refer to the advanced political systems of Europe and the United States as polyarchies rather than democracies. A polyarchy is a pluralistic system in which power is not concentrated in the hands of a single person and it is possible to replace one person in power with another. In such a system, a realistic theory of democracy embraces leftist philosophy, which also does not view existing Western political regimes are paragons of democracy. For example, Jacques Derrida, in his later years, talked about the “democracy to come,” thus acknowledging the inadequacy of existing democracies. But the majority of Georgian citizens have no ambition to invent – here and now – some unknown form of democracy. So far the main task of our institutions and ideas has basically been to grasp and then to replicate already existing models. Our primary goal, when changing the political system, should be to establish a polyarchal democracy.
If we take the interconnected concepts of pluralism and polyarchy as a single reference point, then we see clearly that certain continuing processes are not at all helpful in achieving a democratic regime. Success in bringing hordes of people out into the streets – whether by the authority or the political opposition – does not in itself project the image of a great democracy. Of course, rallies and demonstrations are an integral part of the democratic process. But, in the absence of democratic institutions, they are more likely to contribute to the spread of populism than to the establishment of democracy.
What institutions am I talking about? I am referring, first and foremost, to political parties. I am also addressing the key characteristic of the democratic political system – the division between the authority and the political opposition in such a way that it does not preclude inter-replacement. If the top echelon of the political system of a country is divided so that the authority and the opposition each has roughly equal access to necessary resources (finances, media, etc.), then there is a democracy – perhaps not in its ideal form, but a real democracy nonetheless. This system allows active citizens to support one or another party or to abandon politics altogether and tend strictly to their own private affairs. As renowned American political scientists agree, a democratic political system is not one which actively engages all citizens, but rather one in which passivity also plays a significant role in maintaining stability.
This begs the question of who is to blame for Georgia’s failure to install that type of democratic order. Are the Georgian people to blame? I personally do not think so. The real problem lies with the political class which has failed to attain a modus of coexistence and cooperation that would enable the establishment of such a political system. The result is a hybrid regime with features characteristic of a democracy as well as an autocracy. This hybrid regime has existed in Georgia for the past two decades; its lack of any mechanism to balance powers within the system is the principal cause of political revolutions and attempts at revolution. In lieu of a balancing mechanism, political forces resort to mobilizing the masses. In the process, they stir up a wave of populism.
Some people pin their hopes on civil society to improve the situation. Given the current state of civil society in Georgia, those hopes seem hopelessly misplaced. Civil society, unlike the political system, is generally not the business of the elite. Quite the contrary, it is the role of civil society to exert pressure on the political elite. In Georgia, however, civil society has followed a different path of development. Our indigenous nongovernmental organizations and associations do not represent a point of interest for anyone save international donors. Georgian NGOs neither mobilize masses nor articulate societal interests. With few exceptions, they do not even feel any need to do so. It may sound paradoxical but even NGOs have evolved into a somewhat elite class with one segment supporting the authority, another segment supporting opposition and the third segment interested in nothing else but their own specific activities. In reality, Georgian “civil society” does not represent a broad stratum of society at all and is therefore not able to speak for or act on behalf of the society.
So what positive steps can be taken to change direction? With regard to civil society, it is first necessary to create a public domain. A public domain is the foundational basis for any civil activity because it provides a forum in which to exchange views and to identify those issues around which society should mobilize.
Traditionally, the institutionalization of a public domain has occurred within media outlets. But, as already noted, most electronic media are the tool of the political elite, not an arena for political dialogue. Most print media are also completely incapable of any substantial or sustained discourse.
Still, there have been some encouraging changes in recent times. First, social media are already altering the Georgian media landscape. Social media obviously are not the result of Georgia’s own internal development, but they are institutionalizing the Georgian public domain and facilitating quality debates on important public issues. In addition to the burgeoning social media, certain domestic processes have also been conducive to institutionalization of the public domain - first, the Liberali magazine appeared, then Tabula magazine. The launch of these two magazines has encouraged, for the first time in the past twenty years, relevant ideological debates between rightist and leftist groups. More to the point, these media have made formation of ideologically distinct groups possible. What these rightist and leftist debates lack, in my opinion, is a political center, without which no stable political system can truly exist. One can only hope that such ideological radicalism is just a “youthful illness” which is characteristic for the process in its nascent phase and will eventually be outgrown.
I must confess I do not cherish much hope that our political system will be transformed from a hybrid regime into a democracy anytime in the foreseeable future. If we agree that the decisive factor in this process is a political class, we also have to understand that this political class – represented both by the government and the opposition – will not be replaced in one fell swoop. After 2003, we witnessed an unprecedented reshuffling of the political class which was largely generational in nature. We cannot reasonably expect a similar process to unfold today. It is instead the development of a public domain that provides the opportunity for new people, new ideas, new organizations and new movements to emerge. It is the public domain that will result in a pluralistic Georgian political system and polyarchy.