Too Broke to Fix

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.