January 20, 1989
Whose fault is George Bush? How did this intellectual and moral featherweight, an object of bipartisan ridicule during the first seven and one-half years of the Reagan administration, get elected? Why did his campaign, imbued as it was with demagogy and mendacity, gain him the presidency rather than resounding repudiation?
For once, agreement is fairly general: it’s the media’s fault. Pundits, public-interest groups, and even the president of CBS deplore “sound-bite democracy.” Most also agree that competitive pressures, perhaps the very nature of communications technology and mass society, forced the media into such relentless simplifications. Others, not content to blame these convenient abstractions, note that the new technology s well adapted to old purposes: the manipulation of popular opinion by moneyed elites. But from the ideological center on over to the left, most writers agree that the media failed democracy and frustrated the popular will.
As might be expected, the chief exception to this consensus is “The New Republic.” The magazine’s Dec. 12 editorial admonished the righteously indignant that the fault lay not in the star-making machinery but in ourselves (more precisely, “the people”). “The candidates were just giving the networks what they wanted, and the networks just wanted what the people wanted. Namely, melodrama: heavy-handed symbolism, junior-high humor, and lots of charges and countercharges.” Likewise, polling and opinion surveys only served to subject the candidates to “every primitive instinct and passing whim of the electorate.” The main political use of computers is to send out “mass-mailed lies to damage the candidacy of any legislator with the audacity to ignore a special-interest group in pursuing the public good.” Yet all this sordidness, the editorial contends, is true participator democracy: “The way various in technologies, including television, have damaged American democracy is by making it more democratic. The people’s will is being translated into electoral discourse and public policy with record efficiency — more efficiency than the Founding Fathers intended, and more efficiency than is good for us.”
Here we have “The New Republic’s” characteristic blend of penetration and superficiality. The superficiality results, as usual, from an unwillingness to broach questions of class, such as: Is media bias systematic? Are some “special interests” better organized and funded — and more prone to spreading crude or subtle “lies” — than others? Who benefits from the ideological infantilization of “the people”? Why should we defer to the Founding Fathers’ mistrust of “faction,” which amounted to a fear that the propertyless might someday combine against the propertied?
Still, the editorial’s cogency is undeniable. It raises, however briefly and provocatively, a question implicit in such important recent books as James Miller’s “Democracy Is in the Streets” and Mark Herstgaard’s “On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency”; a question that must have occurred to anyone who has bemoaned the public’s apparently limitless susceptibility to the Reagan/Bush dream machine: What are the practical limits of popular sovereignty? During the 1960s and ‘70s, the prospects for greater popular political participation, or at any rate, increased governmental accountability, seemed bright. But the Reagan years extinguished this hope, and the Bush years will not revive it.
In an advanced society, information is power. And in theory, information can be made equally and universally available. But in practice, information is a commodity, available in proportion to one’s ability to pay. Similarly, the dissemination of this information is a service, sold in the marketplace to the highest bidder. It is true that the total disposable income of the bottom four-fifths of American society probably approaches that of the top fifth. But this does not and cannot translate into a rough equality of resources for campaigning, lobbying, and research. The costs of entry into any concentrated industry, political no less than economic, are extremely high. In the absence of substantial credits from the government or private financial institutions — neither a likely sponsor of grassroots political mobilization — the start-up costs of a serious, effective popular movement will probably be prohibitive.
Then there is the American character. Our preference for self-reliance and competition over mutual dependence and collective action has persisted since the earliest days of industrialization, even its economic basis has eroded. Although few institutions are as dependent on the state as the modern corporation, our electorate public relations has found it convenient to nurture the myth of entrepreneurial individualism. And inasmuch as the return family-centered values in the ‘80s has supplanted the self-development ethic of the ‘70s, the result is only that the “Me Decade” has been succeeded by the “Me and Mine Decade.” Sixties nostalgia not withstanding, there has never been a full-blown “Us Decade,” and there’s no reason to expect the Bush era to inaugurate one.
Finally, television doth indeed make idiots of us all, except for those of us who are idiots to begin with. In the course of their perennial theoretical debate, the advocates of representative versus direct democracy have emphasized the sheer intellectual difficulty of making good public policy and the actual (whatever may be the potential) intellectual limits of ordinary people. This contention receives considerable, possibly decisive support from the current debasement of mass culture, for which the masses cannot be absolved of all responsibility. Somewhere between the explanatory extremes —‘‘false consciousness” versus “human nature,” Marx versus Plato, Charles Reich versus Allan Bloom — rests the truth about this vexed question. For democratic radicals, it need not be a depressing truth , but it will be a sobering one.
Authoritarian austerity is the most likely shape of the near future. Reaganism has undermined not only the economy but the American democratic tradition as well; and the Bush era will bring, at best, only a little less of the same. To hope for organized popular resistance is not unreasonable, and to work for it is honorable. But to expect it, in the face of all the forces arrayed against it, would be mere sentimentalism.