Further Resources

The Democratic Imagination

Short Essay: Who Can Speak About Politics?

By Alan Sears, October 2013

On the BBC show Newsnight, presenter Jeremy Paxman interviewed actor and comedian Russell Brand about his decision to become an editor of the venerable political magazine New Statesman:



Fairly early on, Paxman asked Brand, “but is it true you don’t even vote?” Brand replied, “yeah, no, I don’t vote.” Paxman pressed, “Well how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?”

Jeremy Paxman provides a textbook example of the “official democracy” view, as it is described in The Democratic Imagination. In this perspective, participation in elections is seen as the basic unit of political participation. The failure to vote thus reflects a kind of political disengagement. Certainly, it would be consistent with this view to find a rather odd contradiction between personal disengagement and taking on a new role as the editor of a political magazine.

But Brand is not silenced by Paxman: “Well I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people.” Indeed, Brand offers up another kind of politics: “I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity.” Brand’s responses reflect important elements of the “democracy from below” perspective discussed in the book.

The question of who has the authority to speak about politics raised by Jeremy Paxman is an important one. On the mainstream media, it is almost always people who operate within the “official politics” frame who are invited to talk. We see a stream of professionals and business people, mostly male and white, discussing politics in parliamentary debates or media commentary.

Those from outside the “official politics” frame are often dealt with in ways that undercut the legitimacy of what they say. “How do you have any authority to talk about politics?” That question directs the flow of the interview away from what Brand is saying towards whether he has any real basis for speaking.

We can push this further. There are thousands of activists who have been saying more or less the same thing as Russell Brand about politics for a very long time. Yet they are never invited by the media to talk about politics. The only reason Russell Brand is allowed to talk about revolution on prime time television is because he is already famous as an actor and comedian.

Yes, he is also a guy and men still have a disproportionate voice in political matters. Further, he is a guy who is rather dismissive of women. When asked what he was doing editing a political magazine, he replied: “Let’s just suppose like a person who’s been politely asked by an attractive woman.” This remark is not out of keeping with other statements and actions of his. So should someone who is clearly sexist be taken seriously when he speaks about politics and social justice?

In the end, we need to ask ourselves if genuine democracy should mean that everyone has the authority to talk about politics. This is something that is bound to create debates. Does it matter how much you actually know? Should democratic participation have prerequisites?

The Democratic Imagination does not offer a simple solution to this dilemma, but suggests that it is worth serious consideration. Some people argue that the boundaries between entertainment and news are getting ever more porous, so we have comedians doing political analysis and journalists doing celebrity spotting. Russell Brand’s interview could be regarded in this light.

It is certainly interesting that some of the most critical perspectives available on mainstream US television networks are on the satirical Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. Meanwhile, on the traditional news and commentary shows the political commentary is limited to very restricted grounds that very much take for granted the existing parliamentary or congressional system and the rules of an economy revolving around corporate profits.

At some level, social media seem to be opening up the conversation about politics to include new voices. Certainly now even mainstream news sites have spaces for responses from readers and viewers. But does this simply create a hierarchy between those who define the conversation (the original reporters and commentators, for example) and those who are allowed marginal roles in response areas? Further, the array of voices in social media is often separated from the accountability of face-to-face interactions and even association with participants’ actual names.

The question of who can speak about politics is central to any understanding of democracy. The way we answer this question tends to be integrally related to the shape of our own democratic imagination.


Now is an important
time for people
to be talking
about democracy.