American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.Yeah, that's a pretty massive quotation. It's a book, there's lots where that came from. There's also a reason I did it.
It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong. In 2001, I had hoped it was an aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on Sept. 11. More than five years later, however, nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack.
At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess—an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time: the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole.
While American television watchers were collectively devoting 100 million hours of their lives each week to these and other similar stories, our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions on issues of war and peace, the global climate and human survival, freedom and barbarity, justice and fairness. For example, hardly anyone now disagrees that the choice to invade Iraq was a grievous mistake. Yet, incredibly, all of the evidence and arguments necessary to have made the right decision were available at the time and in hindsight are glaringly obvious.
Those of us who have served in the U.S. Senate and watched it change over time could volunteer a response to Senator Byrd's incisive description of the Senate prior to the invasion: The chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else. Many of them were at fund-raising events they now feel compelled to attend almost constantly in order to collect money—much of it from special interests—to buy 30-second TV commercials for their next re-election campaign. The Senate was silent because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much anymore—not to the other Senators, who are almost never present when their colleagues speak, and certainly not to the voters, because the news media seldom report on Senate speeches anymore.
Our Founders' faith in the viability of representative democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry, their ingenious design for checks and balances, and their belief that the rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people. The Founders took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas so that knowledge could flow freely. Thus they not only protected freedom of assembly, they made a special point—in the First Amendment—of protecting the freedom of the printing press. And yet today, almost 45 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.
Radio, the Internet, movies, cell phones, iPods, computers, instant messaging, video games and personal digital assistants all now vie for our attention—but it is television that still dominates the flow of information. According to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes every day—90 minutes more than the world average. When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time the average American has.
In the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction, which makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation. Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They hear, but they do not speak. The "well-informed citizenry" is in danger of becoming the "well-amused audience." Moreover, the high capital investment required for the ownership and operation of a television station and the centralized nature of broadcast, cable and satellite networks have led to the increasing concentration of ownership by an ever smaller number of larger corporations that now effectively control the majority of television programming in America.
In practice, what television's dominance has come to mean is that the inherent value of political propositions put forward by candidates is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based ad campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters. The high cost of these commercials has radically increased the role of money in politics—and the influence of those who contribute it. That is why campaign finance reform, however well drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the dominant means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue in one way or another to dominate American politics. And as a result, ideas will continue to play a diminished role. That is also why the House and Senate campaign committees in both parties now search for candidates who are multimillionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources.
I'm not really sympathetic to "OH EM GEE television"; to be blunt, that's a complaint that might have suited the boomers, but has little relevance in this age of declining television viewership and exploding internet usage. The rest, though, speaks to a single, basic problem: that image trumps substance far too often in modern politics, and that the decline of long-form debate in favor of the "snappy" in whichever medium you care to name is a big problem. This medium itself is, unfortunately, a good example; most of those incessant "blogging tips" articles feature advice to keep it short, pithy, and disposable, rather than trying to write something longer and more meaningful. Most of the really good blog entries I've ever read, and most of the entries on Shadow of the Hegemon that I've been particularly proud of, have been relatively lengthy ones that would serve as a fair-sized opinion column, if not an essay.
Way back when I was debating that Den Beste guy, one of the reasons why I focused on him was because that as wrongheaded as he was, at least he wrote in depth and at length, trying to get out everything he could on the subjects he was interested in. Often he went off the rails, but I'll give the guy one thing: he didn't try to dismiss legitimate points with a snappy comeback and a single link. That was always Instapundit's bit, and that's why I could never be bothered with Instapundit.
To be fair, this is also what the audience expects, and it's understandable that you'd want to cater to the audience. I, for one, am curious about how many readers even got to this point in the entry before surfing off somewhere else. Television, too, gives people "what they expect"; you can't blame this all on television, or blogging, or the Internet, or whatever.
Gore finished off this excerpt by saying that "the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework". Yes, yes it does. I wouldn't even say "potential"; I think it's really already doing that. The problem, though, is that it's only going to revitalize things if it goes beyond a snarky sentence or two and a response thread filled with attaboys.
And since that seems to be what's rewarded a lot of the time...