Sunday, January 15, 2017

Mourning in America – Part VIII: Why Democracy Probably Can’t Work Anymore

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." – Presidential chief of staff Karl Rove as reported by Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine (Oct. 17, 2004)

If Americans are largely illiterate about how their government operates, their level of informedness about the actual operations of that government is even more abysmal. The spell cast by mass media has long been capable of shaping American understandings of their candidates during elections and of their officials once elected. But the devolution of any semblance of an informed public into a number of poorly informed competing tribes holed up within hermetically sealed echo chambers of the like-minded has been accomplished by three major turning points in the past three decades. 

Corporate Pinocchios: Legal Fictions Come Alive

The first occurred in the 2010 landmark case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. There the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause protected campaign propaganda produced by independent organizations not officially affiliated with campaigns. Such spending was ruled to be outside federal law limiting and accounting for campaign spending. 
Striking down any spending restrictions on independent organizations engaging in advertising, the vast majority of it taking the form of attack ads, the Court  insured that campaigns would thereafter be negative. The decision opened the floodgates to a tsunami of negativity with no checks for truthfulness or accuracy and no requirement to identify the sources of funding for the same. 

While liberal groups have been able to fill at least a part of the airwaves and internet bandwidth with negative propaganda of their own, it has been disproportionately conservative moneyed and corporate interests which have proven to be the beneficiaries of this rule. According to the League of Women Voters, 

Independent expenditures are made by a very small group of people. Since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United in 2010, $1 billion has been spent through super PACs, and 60 percent of that was given by only 195 individuals and their spouses…In 2014, in contested US Senate races, 8 of the 10 races saw outside groups outspend candidates and political parties. 

Indeed, the appellants in Citizens United would make a claim previously seen as outrageous that corporations were actually people entitled to First Amendment rights to free expression like flesh and blood human beings. Outrageous, but the corporate Court’s justices would buy it. And four years later, the Court would rule that corporations had First Amendment rights to freedom of religion as well in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. 

Ironically, corporations are defined in most jurisdictions as “legal fictions.” That’s a long way from personhood. Indeed, the very purpose of laws classifying corporations as legal fictions was specifically to limit the liability of real persons. 

But such stretches have not stopped this Court previously which insured the accession of George W. Bush to the White House by stopping the recounts in Florida in 2000 in a case so blatantly political that the Court said its own decision could never be used as a precedent in other cases. The same court would later create an individual right to carry firearms out of whole cloth in the face of two centuries of jurisprudence to the contrary.

Such conservative judicial activism is hardly surprising given the stacking of the Supreme Court with pro-business conservatives over the past three decades. In many ways, it is the best Court corporate moneys could buy – Lewis Powell’s dream come true. And it is the ongoing stacking of the Court with Trump nominees - who will no doubt make even the late irascible demagogue Antonin Scalia look tame – that insures corporate domination of this land and its people and the end of anything resembling a democratic republic. 

It is important to note that the inordinate sums of money now being spent in these elections is what Jane Mayer calls dark money. In addition to the fact that Citizens United opened the floodgates for unlimited spending by legal fictions now seen as persons for purposes of the First Amendment, the largely secret organizations inevitably bearing noble names (like Citizens United, a PAC funded by the Koch Brothers to represent corporate interests) do not have to disclose the sources of their money. In the 2016 election, dark money increased 10 fold over expenditures in 2012 to nearly a half billion.  

What this means is that elections will increasingly be dominated by negative advertising paid for by unidentified moneyed sources whose interests are furthered by that advertising. Not only does such negativity tend to dampen electoral engagement of the populace, it essentially insures that those who do engage the process will likely do so poorly informed at best, disinformed at worst. 

As such, a major prerequisite of the functioning of a healthy democracy – an informed electorate - cannot be met.

We Disinform, You Imbibe….

"And that brings us to tonight's word: Truthiness. Now I'm sure some of the word-police, the "wordanistas" over at Websters, are gonna say, "Hey, that's not a word!" Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, what did or didn't happen..."I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today.
Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart..."The 'truthiness' is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the you." --Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (Oct. 17, 2005)

A second turning point in the past three decades that has impacted the ability of Americans to inform themselves is the shift in the news media from information to entertainment. With the rise of cable television, viewers now had up to 1000 cable channels from which to choose as well as a host of internet streamed sources. 

The fierce competition for viewership has increasingly impacted the willingness of news media to broadcast reporting which critically assesses the world it brings into American homes. Gone are the days of daring Watergate reporting that would eventually bring down a corrupt Nixon administration or reporting on-site in Vietnam which would generate an anti-war movement forcing an end to the war. In its place came talking heads across a spectrum of ideological perspectives beginning with the rise of the Rupert Murdoch empire and its ideologically conservative Fox “News. “

Under the rubric of “We inform, you decide,” Fox would quickly become the least factual reporting outlet on the cable. About 60% of Fox’s reporting would be rated by Politifact as “mostly false” or worse, the least reliably truthful reporting of any of the news media. At the same time, Fox viewership leads all other contenders, a fact which is hardly surprising given the findings by the Pew Research group that Fox viewers are the most ideologically monolithic with 60% self-identifying as conservative. 

Increasingly viewers have come to see themselves as consumers of ideological programming that largely confirms the biases they bring to the viewing. In trading in their duties to be educated, informed citizens for perceived entitlements to passive entertainment and confirmation bias, Americans have increasingly made democratic self-governance impossible. 

Other developments in the news media itself have expedited the slide from news reporting into infotainment. With the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, one of democracy’s major casualties from the Reagan Revolution, broadcasters were no longer required to make available airtime to public affairs programming and to insure that opposing views were presented. 

Another factor in this development has been the increasing monopolization of corporate ownership of mass media. In 1983, 90% of all American media was owned by 50 different competing companies. By 2012, that number had shrunk to six corporate entities. The big six had come to control local media outlets including printed media and 70% of all cable outlets. With the acquisition of NBC by Comcast, the newly merged corporate entity would control one out of every five hours of television broadcasts.

This corporate hegemony would also result in the reduction of local radio stations which increasingly have little local reporting as syndicated “news-talk” shows dominate the air waves. Similarly, local newspapers, facing loss of readership in a culture where online sources increasingly dominate the interests of Americans who actually continue to read (one of four Americans report not reading a book within the past year) have cut back reporting staffs, turned increasingly to syndicated wire copy and entertainment “news.” In many cases, reporting cut-backs were engaged as a means of avoiding the shuttering of the newspaper entirely. 

The shift to online sources for informing oneself presents its own problems. Studies of the human brain show that online readers tend to skim and jump all over the screen. Non-linear approaches avoid a concentrated approach to reading for understanding. In particular, dense texts which require concerted reading and reflection tend to be avoided. 

Non-linear approaches to online reading readily serve the pursuit of infotainment high on imagery and low on text which frequently contains little depth and demands little sustained attention. But when electoral issues become reduced to sound bites and candidates become reduced to caricatures, the requirement of an educated, informed electorate simply cannot be met.

Your Own Personal, Unique Universe of Information

No longer are we holding opinions different from one another; we’re also holding different facts….the creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t. Indeed, you can go so far as to say we are now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts. – Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (2008), p. 2. 

The third development which played an enormous role in the 2016 election was the rise to dominance of social media in informing voters. Through the use of algorithmic filters, social media has the potential to personally tailor any individual’s search results. Google has 57 signals it looks for. The result, according to media scholar Eli Pariser, is a “filter bubble”

…your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what's in your filter bubble depends on who you are and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don't decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don't actually see what gets edited out. So Facebook isn't the only place that's doing this kind of invisible algorithmic editing of the web. Google's doing it, too….Think about it for a second. There is no standard Google anymore. And where this - this moves us very quickly toward a world in which the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see. 

The creation of filter bubbles for individuals serves to steer us into social media echo chambers with a cast of thousands of our like-minded friends. Echo chambers serve to confirm the biases with which we arrived while suppressing the presence of any disaffirming others. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein warns that it is almost always within the circled wagons of the like-minded that the natural tendencies of polarization readily become radicalized. 

It is precisely in this context that the appearance of false news sources have come to play a dominant role. The rapid and repeated circulation of false news within the echo chambers of the like-minded and their routine presence within individual filter bubbles can lend the appearance of authenticity to outrageous stories made up of whole cloth. 

In the 2016 election, fake news stories drew more viewers on online sites than authentic news. Within days of the election, a Stanford University study reported that most high school and college students are unable to distinguish fake news sites from authentic news. While young people are skilled in finding data, they are virtually handicapped in critically assessing what they have located. The study reported "Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information."

An uneducated, poorly informed public who derive the majority of their information through filter bubbles and demonstrate little propensity for critically assessing the same are a very poor bet for democratic self-governance. 

The Rejection of Reason

The rise of Trumpland came in a post-fact society. In such a world, truth is seen as endlessly malleable. The decline of critical news reporting, the rise of infotainment cable, the retreat of filter-bubble Americans into echo chambers all pointed toward a failure of the American experiment in democratic self-governance. And the domination of electoral cycles by the negative advertising of dark money organizations and the rise of fake news sites to prominence all suggest that elections in the former United States of America may increasingly become little more than attempts to legitimate foregone conclusions. 

It is the rejection of reason as the basis for voting that drives the final nail into the coffin of democratic self-governance. Critical reason and reasoned arguments were the staples of the Enlightenment thinking that informed the Framers of our republic who presumed them to be conditions precedent for the ongoing experiment in democratic self-governance. 

But reason was in scarce supply in the last election.

If there should have been a warning sign to the American republic that its days were numbered, it came on January 23, 2016. Candidate Donald Trump told a campaign rally that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."  The CNN story reporting the comment continued with the statement “After the event, Trump declined to answer when asked by CNN to clarify his comments.” 

That such an outrageous comment could be made by a presidential candidate reflected the devolution of American politics to a long running reality television program. That it would go uncontested by a news media more intent on entertaining their viewers than critically informing them was even more egregious. But it was the fact that the statement ended up being true - Trump didn’t lose many voters despite this kind of repeated irrationality - that reveals that whatever other basis voters might be using to elect their presidents, critical reason is not among them.
That a democratic republic could not survive among a populace which sees itself as consumers, not citizens, whose residents crave entertainment rather than critically informing themselves and who have little regard for fact, truth or reason is not surprising. That corporate interests which currently dominate the electoral process to their own benefit at the expense of that populace have every interest in maintaining that status quo is also hardly surprising.

The question that those who would give birth to a New America from the ruins of Trumpland's inevitable crash and burn must answer is whether they care enough to make the fundamental changes necessary for a new experiment in democratic self-governance to be undertaken. Such changes will not only require a ruthlessly critical assessment of the attitudes and behaviors that have given rise to Trumpland, it will also require an enormous amount of unflinchingly critical self-scrutiny and a willingness to make changes in our own daily behaviors that we currently accept as a given.

Truth be told, it doesn't look very promising on this eve of Trumpland's accession to power.

[Continued with Part IX]
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston, 2016

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thought provoking .......