Democracy in the Age of Television

Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason” and the Fate of the Liberal Tradition in America

by Patrick Baker

One of the greatest testaments to the character of modern democracy is Alexis de Tocqueville’s mammoth rumination on the great American experiment. Yet if the author of Democracy in America were to return to the same country today, he would clearly recognize neither the landscape nor the cities, neither the language nor the customs. Least of all, however, would he recognize the people and its particular kind of democracy. At least, such is the impression given by Al Gore’s most recent book, The Assault on Reason (Penguin, 2007). On the one hand, this work has a place among the litany of attacks on the current Bush regime that have issued from all sides of the political spectrum since his disputed presidential victory in the year 2000. On the other hand, it is a thoughtful assessment of the current state of American democracy. According to Gore, the situation is critical: “democracy [is] in the balance” (215).

    The former American vice president never mentions the French aristocratic witness to his country’s democratic system and soul. Nor need he do so, for his object is not necessarily to compare the democracy of today to its form in the 1830s but rather to assess it in the light of the general framework that any democracy must always have in order to be both genuine and successful. To this purpose he makes pointed and continual reference to the classical liberal thinkers of the Anglo-American tradition, especially the authors of the Federalist, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke, and John Stuart Mill. Through this comparison, Gore finds that the American people of the twenty-first century does not participate meaningfully in politics and is thus enervated. In its stead a disproportionately small, wealthy, and influential set of corporate interests has risen to direct the affairs of the republic, using massive wealth to corrupt the proper mechanisms of government. Worst of all, the American constitution is on the verge of losing its basic sense of separation of powers and checks and balances: a predatory executive is busy usurping the power of the legislature and the judiciary.

    But all this is secondary to, or resultant of, a fundamental failure of American democracy: the disappearance of the public sphere and its replacement by the unidirectional, closed medium of television. For Gore, the essence and simultaneously the safeguard of democracy is a relatively open public sphere in which citizens use reason to deliberate upon and decide political issues. The vast restriction, if not the destruction, both of the public sphere and of the place of reason in our time therefore threatens the proper functioning of democracy as a liberal regime.

    Gore puts great emphasis on the public sphere, which he alternatively calls the “public forum” and, quoting Mill, the “marketplace of ideas.” He constantly elaborates the concept throughout his book, but the sketch he gives of it in his introduction will suffice for a basic understanding of its contours. Specifically, the public sphere has three defining qualities. (1) It must be open to all literate citizens. Participants must be literate in order to ensure that they can both receive and contribute information. For its part, two-way communication is equally necessary for the governed to converse amongst themselves and for them to maintain dialogue with their governors. (2) Ideas contributed to the public sphere must be judged on their merit, “regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for them” (13). (3) The object of discourse in the public sphere is to reach agreement on political problems.

    According to Gore, the lifeblood of the (functioning) public sphere had traditionally been the medium of print. In the form of newspapers, journals, letters, broadsides, and handbills, print allowed ideas to circulate freely to a wide audience. Newspapers were of especial importance, as they hosted a forum for public debate in the form of editorials and letters to the editor. The education necessary for reading guaranteed a minimum standard of intelligence, and even the very act of reading promoted brain activities conducive to critical thought (through the necessary mental reconstruction of concepts out of abstract symbols).

    All this changed decisively in America in 1963, when the majority of citizens started getting their news from television instead of newspapers. Television, as we shall see later in greater detail, offers none of the advantages of print. On the contrary, it is restrictive, mind-numbing, and mind-altering. Even worse for democracy, it is geared to the selling of products as opposed to the diffusion of information. Deliberation upon political issues has accordingly declined. The trend has been for authentic discourse to disappear and for prepared “sound bites” – short, formal, meaningless platitudes – to take its place. Any statement longer than thirty seconds is deemed too long for the attention span of a television audience and is thus excluded. Since nothing meaningful can be said in thirty seconds, nothing meaningful can be said on television. True political debate has disappeared from the public sphere.

    The culture of the sound bite is only one side of the coin. The other is that politicians now rely on advertising campaigns to “communicate” with their constituents. They still appear in public, of course, but the main channel for contact with voters has become thirty-second television commercials. As with sound bites, these advertisements are devoid of meaningful content. On the contrary – and just like every other kind of advertising – they rely on appeals to emotion and suppress rational discourse. Moreover, and also in the best tradition of mass advertising, campaign commercials are based not on addressing valid needs but on creating superfluous desires or unfounded fears. In the same way that Americans are induced to buy material products that they do not need (and which might even be contrary to their true needs), they are manipulated into supporting candidates and policies that do not represent their true interests (and which might even be harmful to those interests). Finally, television is an expensive medium, and we will have to wonder who pays for these ads. Those with the requisite money, of course: wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Through this mechanism, the “buying of votes through advertising” is possible, and “money will continue in one way or another to dominate American politics…. At least to some degree, the ‘consent of the governed’ [becomes] a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder” (8-9). Unbiased elections, which are essential to an authentic democracy, are impossible under such conditions. Elections end up instead resembling staged performances whose outcomes have been scripted by shades hiding behind a screen.

    The pernicious effects of television, however, are not the lone threat to the public sphere. They are joined, says Gore, by a concerted assault on reason at the hands of the current administration. How can reason itself be attacked? One of Bush’s strategies is to use the politics of fear and the rhetoric of religion to serve the interests of a coalition of “economic royalists” (63), “foreign policy hawks” (64), and “extreme religious conservatives and fundamentalists” (68). Violent television imagery and the elaboration of illusory threats of terrorism helped push the country into an unjustified war in Iraq. Claims of divine guidance and a holy mission, in Bush’s words, to “rid the world of evil,” then shaped prosecution of the war – which Bush called an “epic struggle between good and evil” – and post-war policy (54). They were also used to justify atrocities like those at Abu Ghraib and the torturing of captured combatants. Gore notes that humans have evolved to respond immediately to fear, with the brain bypassing reason and executing a knee-jerk reaction. Once a lasting fear has set in, then the mind is more apt to heed appeals to religion; its authority carries greater weight than that of reason in a situation that is perceived to be an emergency.

    Another strategy in Bush’s assault on reason has been simply to withhold information from the public sphere, thus crippling it. One aspect of this is a constant policy of lying and deception in official statements made to the American people. Another, and perhaps more sinister, is the intimidation of journalists and the production of fake journalism for the purpose of avoiding revelations of the truth. The former is attested to by CBS’s Dan Rather, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and Paul Krugman of the New York Times (125-126). The latter includes the use of actors posing as journalists to deflect attention away from serious questions at press conferences and to fabricate press releases; it amounts to nothing short of a full-time propaganda machine. But journalists have not been the only ones muzzled. Members of Bush’s own cabinet and staff have been prevented from publicizing inconvenient truths, and sometimes even from reporting them to the president himself.

    This brings us to the last front of Bush’s assault on reason, what we might even call the home front. According to Gore, throughout his presidency Bush has consistently eschewed the advice of experts in favor of the flattery of cronies and the opinion of unqualified partisans of special interests. Whether it has been the war in Iraq, economic and health care policy in America, foreign and domestic terrorism, or the dangers of climate change, he has pursued the interests of his ultra-conservative, super-minority coalition as opposed to those of the American people.

    This manipulation of emotion and hijacking of information is not only harmful to the immediate interests of most Americans. More importantly, it erodes their ability – in terms of both innate capacity and bare opportunity – to reason in the public forum about issues of the greatest political importance. Thus Americans have been deaf, dumb, and blind to the very thing that earns Gore’s most severe criticism of Bush: the president’s assault on the very structures safeguarding republican democracy. If Gore is right, this presidency might have lasting consequences both for the constitution of American democracy and for America’s democratic Constitution.

    Gore argues that from the very beginning Bush’s only consistent policy was to widen the powers of the executive at the expense of the judiciary and the legislature – all in the interest of his faction of greedy corporations, war hawks, and religious conservatives. The judicial branch has been reshaped by bench and prosecutorial appointments based solely on ideological, and not professional, criteria. Even worse, the federal judiciary has been intimidated by attacks and even threats from a cabal of reactionary television and radio pundits and Republicans in Congress, what Gore calls the “Limbaugh-Hannity-Drudge Axis” (66). Gore also specifically mentions rabble-rousing by Ann Coulter and Edwin Vieira, and he even quotes former House Republican leader Tom DeLay – in connection with the Terry Schiavo affair – as saying that “judges need to be intimidated. . . . We’re going to go after them in a big way” (67).

    The legislature is in worse shape, as it seems to have lost its independence entirely. Gore describes two disturbing trends. One is for Democrats, during the six years of Republican hegemony, to have been excluded from the process of writing laws. Their place was then taken by lobbyists and other representatives of special interests, sent by the president, who even took over the very function of drafting legislation for the Republican congressmen; the latter sat in committee like dummies and waited for the president’s men to finish doing their job for them. Another trend is the drastic increase in executive signing statements. This is a mechanism that allows the president to sidestep his traditional role of mere ratifier or vetoer of laws. Instead of making a clear, absolute decision, he signs the law and then appends a statement, in which he describes which parts of the law he will follow or not. Thus Bush has managed to obviate the check on his power through the people’s elected representatives in Congress. If he doesn’t like a law – like those limiting his abilities to spy on citizens, torture enemy combatants, or suspend habeas corpus – he simply disobeys it with impunity.

    That the executive is the branch of government most prone and most able to usurp power was recognized in classical liberal theory from the outset. It should thus come as no surprise that a significant portion of American history records such attempts. Gore himself mentions Franklin Roosevelt’s scheme to pack the Supreme Court, Harry Truman’s nationalization of steel mills during the Korean War, and Nixon’s nefarious wiretapping. In this sense, Bush is no aberration. And yet there is a difference. Previous attempts at grabbing tyrannical power, dissolving the separation of powers, or hijacking the checks and balances that ensure that separation were foiled by Congress or the courts, which blocked or revoked the president’s actions. During Bush’s administration, however, the other branches have lost so much of their independence that they seem to be rather arms of the executive’s will.

    There seems to be no limit to the power of the executive desired by the current president. Bush has claimed the right to bring his war powers as commander in chief home with him to his own people. Thus he claims the right to torture enemy soldiers, to deprive anyone of due process whom he personally deems an enemy combatant (foreigner or citizen), to prosecute a mass program of spying on his own countrymen by means of illegal wiretaps, the reading of personal mail and email, and the unwarranted seizure of the personal information of the clients of both public and private institutions. The modern American executive threatens to devolve into a classic tyrant.

    Bush’s grab for power is not for the sake of power alone. According to Gore, its aim is to line the pockets of the super wealthy and corporations, to let the hawks prosecute an unjustified and unnecessary war, and to carve out a disproportionate place in politics and culture for a retrograde religious sect. This conflation of wealth, factional interests, religious sects, and power, was one of the greatest fears of both the American Founders and the creators of the liberal tradition. Its effects are exactly what they predicted: the interests of the nation are not served, and therefore the people that make up that nation feel disenfranchised and participate less in the political process. When the people’s participation decreases, that of the special interests increases. It is a vicious circle that ultimately destroys the soul of any democracy: the participation of the governed to ensure that the governors operate by their consent.

    For all of the responsibility that Gore puts on Bush’s shoulders for the decline of American democracy – and it is a great deal of responsibility – he ultimately portrays the president as a symptom of a much deeper problem, one that precedes his term in office and is endemic to modern society itself. The real problem is the communications media made available by modern technology; in a word, television. All by itself, the medium of television has the ability to destroy the public sphere necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic government and society. It wages the greatest assault on reason.

    Gore explains many ways that television is lethal for the pubic sphere. (1) It requires a massive amount of capital to operate a television station, an amount now available only to the richest of the rich or to corporations. Participation in and access to the medium thus require either one’s own money or the consent of those who have it. As a result, (2) opinions contrary to these moneyed interests will simply not be aired. Television is restricted not only to the money but also to the ideas of the super wealthy. (3) Communication on television, as with its predecessor, radio, is only one-way. Thus it is not actually communication but, as it is called, “programming.” Viewers receive but cannot send. They are programmed and cannot participate. (4) News has become a source of profit instead of a public service. Like all entertainment, it tends to the lowest level of discourse and mass simplification of complex issues; otherwise, it risks losing the audience that pays for television’s raison d’etre: the advertising of products. Finally, (5) as an electronic medium dealing in moving pictures, television shuts down the reasoning function of the brain and activates instinctive responses. It is simply too “real” a medium and thus appeals to emotion, which is the way humans generally respond to real situations.

    All these aspects of television make it the perfect vehicle for manufacturing the consent of the governed, which in its pure state is the lifeblood of democracy. Gore notes that “the manufacture of consent” is a phrase coined by Walter Lippmann. Realizing early the possibilities of radio for propaganda, the journalist and political advisor decided that the future of liberalism lay in using that medium to brainwash an otherwise boorish and disinterested American people to accept the policies decided upon by an enlightened governing class. Radio was then used to manufacture Americans’ consent for all sorts of government policies, from entering World War I to embracing the New Deal.

    Since the 1960s, television has overtaken both radio and print as the main source of Americans’ news and entertainment. And it has far greater power than both, for while radio and print rely on rhetoric, the former uses images, which have an infinitely greater effect on the brain. Combined with the equally great restriction in access, television ends up being a tool for the wealthy to “dominate the semblance of public discourse” by which voters make decisions (76). They do so by financing the television advertising campaigns of politicians, who, once they are elected, are expected to give – and do give – quid pro quo. As Gore describes it, the open debate hosted by newspapers has been replaced by the thirty-second television commercial. Ultimately, the true interests of voters can be ignored because they can be manipulated by mass advertising campaigns. This is a sham democracy.

    Such a damning critique of contemporary democracy can come as nothing but a shock from the scion of one of America’s oldest and most entrenched political clans, not to mention someone who has himself enjoyed a great deal of success in politics. And although it will be tempting to disregard Gore’s analysis as the biased complaint of a sore loser, it is clear that his central task is not to scourge his former rival, but to provide a reasoned and sincere meditation on the contemporary state and future of American democracy.

    When evaluating that meditation we must remember that The Assault on Reason is not a work of dispassionate political science written in the language of experts. It is a popular book – albeit one written at a surprisingly high level and discussing several ideas of extreme complexity – and one meant primarily not to analyze problems but to urge solutions to them. Its historical scope and range of argument are thus partially limited by the audience it is trying to reach; accordingly, the former can sometimes seem naive, the latter a tad too facile.

    Let us begin with Gore’s proposed solution. According to him, only the new medium of the Internet might be able offer a remedy to this ill of the body politic. It at least has the potential to combine the best of both print and television: it reaches the maximum number of people; it is a forum for both the reception and contribution of ideas; it is open to anyone capable of reading and writing; and, at least for the time being, it is not dominated by wealthy elites. As such, it is perhaps the best setting ever for the marketplace of ideas, in which the best rise and the worst fall based on merit alone.

    Gore’s vision of the Internet is, however, too rosy. Although there is little doubt that the Internet provides a freer forum for a more interactive exchange of ideas than television, its disadvantages are not highlighted: that it is filled with nearly unverifiable mistakes and misinformation posing as truth; that it requires a certain amount of wealth (to gain access to a computer) and expertise (to use a computer) that makes it far more restrictive than the cheap and user-friendly media of print, radio, and television; that most users treat it like television, in that they almost always receive rather than contribute information; that looking at a computer screen for hours can be just as mind-numbing and hypnotizing as television. But the greatest disadvantage of the internet, as a solution to the shrinking public sphere and the assault on reason, is that it has no unified audience. Unlike newspapers and most television networks, which at least try to appeal to a broad spectrum, Internet blogs and websites are usually directed to a partisan audience. Moreover, it is impossible to have an overview of the Internet’s offerings. Therefore, it presents too much choice with too little information about that choice. So there is doubtlessly more independent news, for example, to be found on the Internet, but a restricted number of people will find it. Furthermore, different people will use different websites for that news, so it will be difficult if not impossible to sponsor debate among a truly broad audience. Can we be so confident that the Internet can restore America’s public sphere?

    Gore seems to approach print journalism and the history of American democracy with a similarly careless naiveté. Although he alludes to the era of yellow journalism, he never underscores William Randolph Hearst’s hijacking of the public sphere, or the deplorably low quality of nearly every single newspaper or magazine printed in America today. Nor does he mention the machine politics of Tammany Hall, the cronyism of the Grant administration and the entire post-Reconstruction period, the spoils-system of Andrew Jackson, or any other of the myriad episodes of American history that might undermine the myth of a smoothly-functioning participatory democracy. In fact, Gore radically overstates the extent to which Americans have historically participated in their own government, at the federal level anyway. He neglects to mention the constitutional changes and political reforms that allowed for the direct election of senators and the system of primaries to determine presidential candidates. Perhaps the greatest historical failing of Gore’s book is his apparent ignorance of the exceedingly local nature of politics until quite recently. At the inception of American democracy, voters took interest mostly in issues of concern to their locality, town, city, or maybe state. This is partly because many of the duties of the Federal government today – taxation, infrastructure, welfare programs, the administration of a standing army, currency, public debt – either did not exist at all or were in the purview of state and local governments. It is also because American democracy was designed to distance voters from decision-making; such is the whole point of the republican form of representative, as opposed to direct, democracy. In a nutshell, it is the very technology that Gore decries that made a more participatory democracy possible.

    The weakest part of Gore’s analysis, however, is what we will have to call his faith in the power of reason. He talks about reason as if he were himself a luminary of the Enlightenment, as if the last several hundred years of history and the most recent developments of science and philosophy had not made us keenly aware of its limitations. We are no longer living in the Age of Kant. That having been said, however, one cannot take issue – within the liberal tradition, at any rate – with Gore’s insistence on reasoned debate, on the communication among citizens and between the governed and their governors, as the cornerstone to an authentic, functioning democracy. In this respect, we must heed his warning about the public sphere.

    In many ways, The Assault on Reason highlights problems inherent in democracy, threats to its well-being that were identified by the very thinkers who first shaped its structures: the greater likelihood of the executive than the other two branches of government to usurp power; the executive’s tendency towards militarism and despotism; the corruption of government through the conflation of wealth and power; the danger of economic and political factions, and of religious sects; the apathy or enervation of the citizenry. And yet, Gore identifies two related threats to democracy that could not have been foreseen by its first theorizers: the medium of television, and the manipulative, mass advertising campaigns enabled by that medium. It remains to be seen whether new technological developments – like the Internet – will manage to save democracy, or whether they will continue to debilitate it. And it remains to be seen whether Gore’s book, or any other, can do anything to stop the assault on reason.

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