Between Scylla and Charybdis: How trivialization and complexity are “compressing” representative democracy

Between Scylla and Charybdis: How trivialization and complexity are “compressing” representative democracy

In 1958 Hannah Arendt published her philosophical masterpiece, The Human Condition. In it, she posits that the “Vita Activa,” a life actively engaged in public political debate and political action, offers the remedy against totalitarianism and fosters individual freedom. Today, as during the first half of the 20th century, the erosion of  public and private liberties is a reality once again and is evidenced by the current weakness of Western democracies and a “crisis” of representative liberal democracy. On the outside, representative democracy’s institutions look healthy. This may be true only in appearance, however, as they increasingly lack any substantive political content. Two opposing elements, trivialization and complexity, are compressing contemporary democracies—narrowing the possibilities for meaningful civic engagement—thus restricting the Vita Activa.  On one hand, the hyper-simplification of complex political issues to false black-and-white dichotomies produces slogans better fit for football supporters than active and committed citizens; on the other hand, complexity substantially handicaps democratic public debate and popular legitimacy in order to supposedly produce policy outcomes with a higher degree of efficiency.

Trivialization is responsible for the erosion of the public sphere through over-simplified, and often polarizing, accounts of reality and political choice. For instance, populist and nationalist movements downgrade the quality of public political debate via trivial messages, appealing directly to citizens and omitting the intermediation provided by democratic institutions, which is crucial to the preservation of both constitutional rights against abuses of political power and the rule of law. Leaders of these political movements consider themselves entitled to speak on behalf of all citizens, thus eroding the opportunity for constructive, active political discussion. Trivialization, together with hyper-simplified forms of communication, may also rely on the use of powerful ideological taboos in supporting specific political agendas. This can be seen in the case of economic austerity measures in the EU—which have proven inadequate responses to public debt crises, as evidenced in the recent procrastination of Greek debt payments—or in relation to Brexit negotiations. In other words, anti-democratic sentiments and harmful psychological aims are being masked as objective and neutral analyses.

The idea that certain political decisions require high levels of knowledge and technical competency—and thus cannot be left simply to public democratic debate—is problematic for democracies, as it implies delegating public policy framing and decision making to top-down technocratic governance. This issue is fiercely debated when political referenda are proposed to citizens on complex matters, or during debates surrounding the adoption of institutional elements of direct democracy. A number of scholars and intellectuals, such as eminent political scientist Giovanni Sartori, have pointed out the risks inherent to direct democracy, while other scholars, such as Marc Chesney, highlight the necessity of allowing citizens to directly and actively participate in complex political decisions. If direct democracy is controversial, representative democracy is as well: American scholar Jason Brennan is one of representative democracy’s most vocal critics. Brennan advocates for the adoption of institutional changes that privilege competence and thus narrow political rights.

The increasingly global nature of politics can help explain the limitations of public political debate within contemporary democratic societies. International institutions and organizations have a comparative advantage in confronting global trends, such as climate change or large-scale migration. Similarly, regionalization processes, such as the development of the European Union (EU) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), can be seen as functional responses to issues that allegedly cannot be tackled at the national level. What is won via regional or global governance in terms of efficiency, based on a top-down approach, is lost in terms of democratic legitimacy. The product is a conflictual tension between supranational governance and national sovereignty, as Sheri Berman has brilliantly showed.

The constriction of public debate and of political prerogatives within representative democracy—due to trivialization and complexity—is forcing citizens of democratic societies into political passivity and polarization. Simplicity and complexity are equally guilty of the erosion of healthy public debate by engaged citizens. In this regard, the recent works of Yanis Varoufakis and Vittorio E. Parsi, among others, have interestingly brought attention to the current European Union stall: a historical political project caught between Scylla and Charybdis, monstrous creatures of Ancient Greek mythology. Much as navigating the perilous straight between the two monsters instilled fear in the hearts of ancient sailors, trivialization and hyper-complexity have made the sea of representative democracy feel like an increasingly narrow strait as well. The result is a constrained political environment representing the complete opposite of the “Vita Activa” conceived by Arendt.  


Valerio Alfonso Bruno holds a Ph.D. in “Institutions and Policies” from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (2017) and was doctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (2015). He was trained at the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tel Aviv, the European Commission in Brussels and the ITU of the United Nations in Geneva. Dr. Bruno also worked in the sector of EU Affairs in Brussels for a short period.