How can we reconstruct democracy at a time when nothing is promised?

It was a pertinent question before Coronavirus hit, and it seems all the more relevant now. In this latest episode of the Practical Democracy Podcast, Ben Fowkes spoke to the endlessly impressive Dr. Nicole Curato about her new book, Democracy in a Time of Misery: from Spectacular Tragedy to Deliberative Action.

Nicole is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance. She describes herself as an ’embedded sociologist’, meaning she does a lot of research in the field. For the purposes of this book, she spent time on the ground speaking to and learning from survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – one of the most destructive tropical cyclones ever recorded.

She and Ben spoke from opposite sides of the world (isn’t technology great?) for an hour about her book and the wider lessons we can draw from her research. Listen to the episode on Spotify/Buzzsprout, or via the embed at the bottom of this post.

Here’s a rough breakdown of timings:

0:00: Introduction

Nicole describes her job, her personal history with regards to field in which she operates (which includes an activist friend being kidnapped by the military in her teens) and her academic history.

10:25: Summary of the book

Here she summarises her research, and explains how it can resonate with people who’ve been part of political and democratic turmoil, like in the UK and the US.

20:00: The ‘ideal victim’

When we talk about disaster survivors, especially in the West, the image that might come to mind is of a plaintive child – like we see in charity appeals. The image of the ideal victim is of someone that is grateful and deserving of our aid. In this section Nicole talks about how digital technology can perpetuate this image, which ignores the wider context of the disaster and can drown out critical voices.

30:00: Publics

The concept of a public is something Nicole discusses in her book at length. Broadly, her definition of a public is a group of people that takes part in a particular narrative or discourse, political or not. Some examples of this are a contestatory public (listen at 37:24), which is a group of people that apply pressure to ask for government accountability, e.g. through activism and protest; and a collaborative public (39:38) which seeks to work with governments and officials to get homes rebuilt and aid delivered.

47:22: What change was effected?

In the aftermath of the typhoon, President Duterte, a man who vowed to ‘kill all drug addicts’ and ‘shoot female activists in the vagina’, was elected. The reason? He was there, in disaster-affected areas, helping survivors. Nicole discusses the deeper reasoning behind his election.

57:19: So…what can we learn?

What are the takeaways of this research, and how can they be applied to the strange times we live in today? Nicole calls for deeper listening to actual survivors and the recognition that for that to take place, we need to find more effective listening mechanisms.

You can get a copy of Nicole’s book on Amazon or via Oxford University Press.

Practical Democracy Podcast: Episode 1 with Dr Rebecca Rumbul from mySociety

Practical Democracy Podcast: Episode 2 – #NotWestminster Special (part 1)

Practical Democracy Podcast: Episode 3 – #NotWestminster Special (part 2)