Too Broke to Fix

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big picture stuff

I started to skim the Salon article, “Straight-up propaganda”: Fox News, charlatans, conspiracy theorists and the religious fanatics endangering democracy, thinking it would be the usual rant against the right-wing crazies who keep us from having nice things, but it actually goes deeper than that and is worth reading.

The author, Joseph Heath, argues that the entire U.S. political system has built-in vulnerabilities, and mass media makes these vulnerabilities more easily exploitable by demagogues, and as a result democracy in the U.S. is more, shall we say, challenged than in many other democracies.

The author writes that democracies of any sort must strike a balance between being responsive to public concerns but not being so responsive that public policy is perpetually being jerked around by every passing whim. He points out, for example, that nearly always in functioning democracies the central banking system functions independently of government so that it can make necessary but unpopular decisions without interference.

Thus it is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded.

But this only works up to a point; ultimately politicians elected by the people have the last word on many things. Where issues are complex — and most of ’em are these days — one may either rely on experts or reach consensus through democratic deliberation. And there’s our problem — democratic deliberation itself is utterly degraded. We can’t even discuss anything anymore. And here is where the U.S. is uniquely vulnerable.

One of the glaring deficiencies of the American political system, for instance, is that the president is never forced to engage in debate with other legislators and is never forced to answer any question he doesn’t want to answer. In the British parliamentary system, the prime minister has to show up in the House of Commons when it is in session and defend the policies of the government. He or she is there treated like any other member of Parliament, and thus jeered, heckled, and challenged by members of the opposition. For this reason, and despite how degraded the spectacle has become over time, “question period and debate institutionalize doubt and scepticism in the political system.”

Weirdly, this fact can protect incompetent legislatures as much as Presidents.

In January 2010, House Republicans took the unusual step of inviting President Obama to address their caucus retreat in Baltimore, after which the president spent over an hour responding to questions directly  from legislators. Two things about this were noteworthy. First, Americans from one end of the country to the other were astonished by the lucidity of the exchanges. What they were used to seeing was the president and the members of Congress exchanging barbs through the media. Seeing the president able to respond to questions directly was a revelation. Second, there was the fact that President Obama completely eviscerated his opponents—to the point where Fox News cut off the live broadcast,  in order to save the Republican Party from further embarrassment. The major reason is that most of the Republican legislators did what they were accustomed to doing, which is use their questions as an opportunity to spout talking points. They didn’t realize that this only works as a media tactic; it doesn’t work in a face-to-face exchange with a political opponent, particularly one who can take as much time as he likes to respond.

Because it went so badly for them, Republicans never invited Obama back. Therein lies the central problem with the American presidential system: this kind of exchange is optional. In most other democracies, this kind of exchange is institutionalized as a requirement. As it stands, the American political system simply lacks any mechanism to force the president and legislators to explain themselves or their actions to one another. This makes the “norm of truth” very difficult to enforce, and in turn encourages the slow descent into truthiness. The point is that irrationalism is not an inevitable consequence of the modern condition; it is in many respects a consequence of the institutions we have chosen.

I confess I’d never thought of this before. The author also suspects that had Ronald Reagan “been forced to enter a ‘parliamentary bear pit’ every week the way the British prime minister is, he could not have survived his second term in office.” His dementia would have become obvious. And the Cult of Reagan that still dominates the Republican Party might never have taken hold.

But then there’s mass media. As much as we love transparency, there is evidence from other countries that just putting everything on television is not necessarily helpful. In many countries the introduction of television cameras to legislative debates has caused politicians to speak in sound bytes for public consumption rather than actually argue. The very fact of mass media technology seems to cause some degradation of deliberation. But mass media in the U.S. is worse than elsewhere.

American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts, making the entirely media universe something of closed loop. When discussing the federal budget, for instance, they will often put together panels consisting entirely of lobbyists and other journalists. It is relatively rare to see an actual economist (with the exception of Paul Krugman, who typically appears in his capacity as a New York Times columnist, not as an economist). This seems to be just a part of the culture of American journalism—public television is nearly as bad as private—and it’s difficult to see what could be done about it.

There are some other more obvious problems. The creation of straight-up propaganda networks like Fox News in America has done enormous damage to the quality of democratic discourse in that country.

Heath goes on to say that the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine did make things worse, but even more than the Fairness Doctrine we need laws that penalize outright lying and misrepresentation. Other countries have such laws.

The European Parliament, for instance, has passed a resolution specifying that “news broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration.” In the United Kingdom, the Broadcasting Code requires that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” Canada has a rule (enforced by the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission) that simply prohibits the intentional, repeated broadcast of “false or misleading news.” This type of constraint is more easily defended than the Fairness Doctrine, since it is closer in spirit to the laws governing  false advertising. And yet the Canadian rule is strong enough to have so far prevented Fox News from expanding into that market.

Here, even a state law that prohibited outright lying in campaign commercials was struck down as being a violation of free speech rights. This is insane. Commercials can’t make false claims about toothpaste, but they can about candidates for office, because freedom?

Heath also thinks that a fairly simple way to stop the voter suppression games is to make voting mandatory. That had never occurred to me, but maybe it’s worth considering. Unfortunately …

Criticizing the American political system has, unfortunately, become something of a mug’s  game, simply because the deficiencies are all mutually reinforcing, and so no matter how much sense it would make to change one thing or another, nothing is going to get fixed.

The status quo depends on nothing getting fixed, actually. So the status quo will see to it nothing gets fixed. Krugman’s column today says, “Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.” And the system is rigged so they can’t find out.

I very reluctantly have come around to thinking that the system is so broken it cannot be returned to anything resembling functionality. The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will continue to decline economically and politically over the next several years until quality of life is so eroded for enough people that something big and nasty and possibly violent will happen to change everything. We may actually have to become a failed state first, though.

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23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Racer_X  •  Sep 29, 2014 @11:22 am

    “I very reluctantly have come around to thinking that the system is so broken it cannot be returned to anything resembling functionality. The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will continue to decline economically and politically over the next several years until quality of life is so eroded for enough people that something big and nasty and possibly violent will happen to change everything. We may actually have to become a failed state first, though.”

    Welcome to the club – glad you made it. Given that conclusion, are you ready to take the next logical step? We must vote republican to hasten our demise so we can start rebuilding in our lifetime. (see: Kansas)

  2. maha  •  Sep 29, 2014 @11:54 am

    are you ready to take the next logical step? We must vote republican to hasten our demise so we can start rebuilding in our lifetime. (see: Kansas)

    Chaos theory, is it? Break everything down so that something different has to happen? The neocons like that theory, as I remember. The problem is that there’s no guarantee the new order won’t be even worse. If there is a slim hope that change can be achieved through more controlled and gradual means, that’s the responsible way to go.

  3. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 29, 2014 @11:31 am

    I remember an article from the NY Times right after C-SPAN I went on the air in 1979 – the article was about how the TV camera’s changed the House of Representatives: The members all stopped showing up disheveled, and started getting expensive haircuts and suits.
    The House was still a mess – but it was a better coifed and dressed mess!

  4. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 29, 2014 @11:33 am

    I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating:
    Going to FOX for news, is like going to a shipyard to catch your flight.

  5. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 29, 2014 @11:35 am

    I’m waiting for Walmart to have a sale on pitchforks, tumbrels, guillotines, and pikes!

    I can’t afford retail at the mom & pop’s.

  6. Fang  •  Sep 29, 2014 @11:42 am

    I’ve thought about this as well. Essentially we’re in a state where nothing does get done, and complaining is built INTO the system (so nothing has to change). At some point there will be a shock to the system just by sheer chance – another economic collapse, environmental disaster, etc.

    These will happen as no one is working to prevent them or fix the system so it doesn’t happen.

    The question then becomes can we prepare to deal with upcoming bumps in a productive manner, or head them off so the alarm raised has the same effect as the actual problem happening.

  7. buddhasteps  •  Sep 29, 2014 @12:00 pm

    Humans have a strong tendency to react to disaster AFTER the disaster has happened. That is where I see this country headed. I’d go somewhere else if I could, but where? It’s very depressing to watch a disaster forming and KNOW nothing will be done to avert it.

  8. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 29, 2014 @12:30 pm

    Me?
    I’d rather die slowly hoping for the best, rather than get caught in a violent revolution – which I’m too handicapped to join, and too handicapped to run away from.

  9. Dolorous Stroke  •  Sep 29, 2014 @12:34 pm

    The whole system is broken, but the cutting edge of the dysfunction is the Republican Party. The good news is that the GOP is itself dysfunctional and should find it increasingly difficult to continue as a national party in its present form. Someone (Booman?) recently suggested the end could be sooner than we think.

    Assuming we are stuck with a two-party system, and that the parties will continue be distinguished by a right/left divide, the emerging conservative party would necessarily be more moderate than the current Republican Party. They would have to poach moderate Democrats, which would push the emerging liberal party to the left of the current Democratic Party. The result should be improved governance.

    That’s my hope anyway, though I’ve long had the feeling that we are in an inexorable decline as a nation.

  10. grannyeagle  •  Sep 29, 2014 @1:12 pm

    Maha: Your last paragraph accurately describes my conclusion about the state of this country. It makes me depressed but I’m at a loss to see if there is anything I or anyone can do about it. It seems to be nature’s way. The seeding, flowering, full bloom or maximum growth, then the gradual dying. Sometimes dying is violent if it is resisted.

    But, hey, the USA is exceptional so maybe we can avoid the inevitable. Voting for the republicans to hasten the process seems to me like doing the things the religious fundies suggest to hasten the return of jesus.

  11. Stephen Stralka  •  Sep 29, 2014 @1:21 pm

    It still comes back to elections, though. I agree that compulsory voting is a good idea, for instance, but how are we going to get anything passed at the federal level as long as the Republicans have enough influence to block it? The first step would have to be voting them out under the existing system. And if we could do that, would these kinds of institutional changes be necessary?

    I mean, before you can figure how bad the damage really is, you have to get the saboteurs out of the engine room. In California we got rid of the Republicans, and suddenly things started happening. Not to say that everything is perfect, but for instance we’re getting real (if still inadequate) action on climate change. The most important question in the California election this year may be whether the Democrats hold their supermajority.

    If the Republicans can get to 34% in the legislature, they can and will block everything. That’s the advantage of being the party that doesn’t want the government to work. You don’t have to have a majority to get your way, just a large enough minority. So I don’t think we need to change our system, we just need to get to where we can use the one we have.

  12. uncledad  •  Sep 29, 2014 @1:42 pm

    “American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts”

    To me it seems our media is nothing but a series of talk shows, the purpose of which is to invite guests so they can “market” either the news outlet they work for, the book they just wrote, the ‘think” tank they pimp for, etc. There really is very little journalism on the TeeVee anymore, FAUX we all know is 100% bullshit but the other cables and the networks aint too far behind?

  13. jgaNV  •  Sep 29, 2014 @2:20 pm

    I’ve been following this for a long time and, unfortunately, have come to the same conclusion as you. Here is the sequence of events that have led to our current situation: 1. The “fairness doctrine” gets dropped during the Reagan administration. 2. Rush Limbaugh et al turn AM talk radio into hate radio (hate=>higher ratings). 3. Murdoch hires Roger Ailes to create FOX News – an Orwellian propaganda machine. About the same time, the web starts to provide “walled gardens”. Thus people sucked into this propaganda feed can live their lives in epistemic closure. Wait a few years and then we get the “crazy Republican” politicians. 4. The Roberts supreme court makes it easier for the super-rich to control the media and the vote. 5. Regulatory capture of the Fed, SEC, and other regulators further allows the super-rich to escape the consequences of their actions.

    The key thing that tends to get overlooked by the media is the power of radio, TV and the web as propaganda outlets. Voters don’t just start voting for the crazies or spout tea-party talking points for no reason – they have been told to by their propaganda feed.

    As long as the institutions described above are in place, we will continue the downward trend towards more inequality (described well in Picketty’s Capital). What remains of the left are neutered by the right’s propaganda or are already bought-off by corporate interests. They provide no counter-balance to the right. As long as there is no push-back to the right, we will continue on this downward path. What is the end-point? Serfdom? Slavery? Unfortunately, either civil unrest or severe authoritarianism usually occurs before we get to serfdom. I just hope we can get some push-back before we get this far.

  14. joanr16  •  Sep 29, 2014 @3:36 pm

    Now I am really depressed and need to lie down for a while. Does anyone have a kitten I could borrow?

  15. Doug  •  Sep 29, 2014 @9:57 pm

    Quite a gloomy bunch today.While I don’t see on the horizon a new FDR and an agenda of progressive legislation which an eager Congress will pass, I think it’s early to be writing any obituary for the USA. In fact, I’m upbeat about the prospects of reviving a lively and responsive democracy in the next few years.

    A bunch of you are Star Trek TNG fans. if you remember the episde where there was an observer in the Enterprise, a arrogant SOB who was master at a game called ‘Strategema’. He beat Reiker first and Data second – but at the end of the episode, he conceded the game in great frustration to Data. When asked how he beat the guy, Data said he didn’t beat him – he simply played not to lose. The point being, don’t ‘play’ for a new ‘New Deal’ – play for an honest Congress, which will include honest conservatives.

    I believe we will pass a Constitutional Amendment to reverse Citizens United. I think we will ban big donations from individuals and ban union contributions to candidates. I even expect to see publicly funded elections – every voter will be able to fund the candidate of their choice from an ‘allowance’ they have. I think we will prohibit retired congress-critters from working as lobbyists – which is a poorly disguised and legal form of bribery.

    The changes won’t advance a liberal agenda or a conservative agenda – they will only save democracy. IMO, the changes will devastate the Norquist method to ‘primary’ any republican who won’t give in to his demands. The Koch brothers will be completely frustrated if they can’t bankroll elections. The political parties would have their teeth pulled – they won’t be able to pull the financial strings that has fueled some of the polarization. Publicly funded elections will make for a more cooperative Congress, committed to solving problems rather than perpetuating gridlock.

    Right now, Congress is required to spend incredible amounts of time fund-raising on the phones virtually every day and pass a $$$ cut to the party. Congress needs to be in Committee meetings – and with experts and talking to staffers who have done the research so they can make intelligent decisions – not on the phone begging money from fat cats. As things stand now, the party is dictating to the Congress of their party – the lobbyists are dictating to the Congress – the big donors who the Congress is soliciting campaign funds from are dictating to the Congress. The public can’t get sloppy seconds.. we are so far down on the list of suitors we feel like the ultimate cuckold. Ergo the gloom I read in the previous comments.

    Many ultra-conservatives are truly convinced president Obama is trying to force the country into failure. I’m just as convinced that some ultra-rich cats think they can form a new government and Constitution straight out of Atlas Shrugged. I agree with Barbara, “The problem is that there’s no guarantee the new order won’t be even worse. If there is a slim hope that change can be achieved through more controlled and gradual means, that’s the responsible way to go.” History says that it’s VERY likely that the new order will be worse – Stalin and Napoleon come to mind as the products of revolutions.

    We need to play not to lose the game – if we want to win.

  16. Bonnie  •  Sep 30, 2014 @12:27 am

    I’m with you joanr16! 😀

    Regarding: “That’s the advantage of being the party that doesn’t want the government to work.” Americans should never support any party that works as hard as Republicans do to keep government from working. I have said before that I believe these actions by the Republicans are acts of treason. I still think that. They want to destroy the country if they don’t get their way. This is un-American. Someone needs to push back harder. However, I just had my 69th birthday and I am too tired. The young people need to step up; but, I don’t think they understand or sense that the end may be near–let alone know what to do. Sigh.

  17. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Sep 30, 2014 @2:01 am

    I saw an interesting argument that mandatory voting also makes “red meat for the base” less beneficial since you can’t count on your base winning the election for you. You have to make sure that you don’t turn off the swing voters who have to show up anyway.

    I’m not 100% convinced, but I kinda like the idea.

  18. Racer_X  •  Sep 30, 2014 @8:21 am

    A lot of great comments. I like the pre-funded election idea. Give each candidate the same amount (a budget) and see what each can do with it.

  19. Mike G  •  Sep 30, 2014 @3:28 pm

    The author also suspects that had Ronald Reagan “been forced to enter a ‘parliamentary bear pit’ every week the way the British prime minister is, he could not have survived his second term in office.”

    Reagan and GW Bush would never have made it to the presidency if we had a political culture where candidates were required to actually debate rather than the lame charade of tightly-controlled joint speechmaking that is presidential “debates”. And we would be better off for weeding out shallow, scriptreading morons from the White House.

  20. buckyblue  •  Sep 30, 2014 @9:41 pm

    The Constitution is simply an 18th Century document that is showing its age. It was written at a time to make government action, the new centralized gov’t, difficult to achieve. They succeeded in spades. We now can’t get any action, especially with one party hell bent on stopping any of it. As long as they continue winning elections, they will continue doing the same. I, for one, am not as confident as some that we can muster a solution to our problems. It’s like the perfect storm. If we had one, maybe two major issues to tackle, then I would feel more confident. But we have many, many major issues to try and change, and I just don’t believe we have the political or national will to do so. Even if such a change were possible. I won’t miss it, honestly. I long for the European socialist model that puts a primacy on reasoned discourse and social responsibility. I don’t hope for the good old days because I don’t believe we had them, maybe if only for a shinning few decades after WWII. But the majority of our history has been one of the wealthy exploiting the masses, violence and misogyny. I’m tired, ready for the revolution. Hope if turns out how I want it to.

  21. Monty  •  Sep 30, 2014 @11:34 pm

    I’m not sure why so many lefties are so anti-violence: historically, given the extant facts of the matter (as delineated by Maha) our liberal/democratic system has become irretrievably broken.

    I very reluctantly have come around to thinking that the system is so broken it cannot be returned to anything resembling functionality. The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will continue to decline economically and politically over the next several years until quality of life is so eroded for enough people that something big and nasty and possibly violent will happen to change everything. We may actually have to become a failed state first, though.

    I have long thought the US is on the road to becoming 1920s Germany. That obviously isn’t a perfect metaphor, but as it happens I agree with buckyblue:

    “I long for the European socialist model that puts a primacy on reasoned discourse and social responsibility. I don’t hope for the good old days because I don’t believe we had them, maybe if only for a shinning few decades after WWII. But the majority of our history has been one of the wealthy exploiting the masses, violence and misogyny. I’m tired, ready for the revolution. Hope if turns out how I want it to.”

    The Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war. The US of A wasn’t founded on peace, but rather on conquest and genocide. And no, today’s neoConfederates aren’t completely wrong in calling the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression.

    I truly do believe that violence and war are part and parcel of the human condition. Although we are homo sapiens, and obviously social creatures, our deeper instincts as hunter-gatherers remain. Perhaps that itself is the conundrum we face: human civilization reaches back 12,000 years, but the human mind itself is 10 times older.

  22. maha  •  Oct 1, 2014 @2:13 pm

    //I have long thought the US is on the road to becoming 1920s Germany.//

    violence had a lot to do with how 1920s Germany turned into 1930s Germany, especially when you consider that much of the unrest in Germany was a result of World War I. The collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Reich was marked by enough violence that a number of people were killed at the polls in the 1932 elections. Violence and war are chaos. They cannot be controlled. Sometimes they lead to better outcomes, but just as often they lead to worse outcomes.

  23. uncledad  •  Oct 1, 2014 @9:04 pm

    “I truly do believe that violence and war are part and parcel of the human condition”

    Violence and war are no different than other undesirable behavior: bigotry, racism, greed they are born from ignorance. To accept it as part and parcel seems like despair?



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