Adding to the noise
Demagoguery in modern politics
In reaction to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, Jake offered a nice analysis of the role of the 30-second ad in politics and mass decision-making.
I’d like to add to his excellent analysis a few reflections of my own, which I hope will complement his approach.
Jake’s concern is whether protecting television and radio ads as political speech will vitiate what it means to engage in democratic deliberation. Telling someone that X candidate is a danger to America’s prosperity through a rapid-fire advertisement likely to pelt the viewer with negative images seems more like manipulation that discussion.
But is the problem incendiary political speech or the avenues of dissemination? Demogoguery is as old as political society. The word comes from the Demagogues, who led the Athenian democracy. Taught by the Sophists, who charged fees to teach rhetoric, law, and philosophy, the Demagogues helped bring the Athenian democracy about. As more and more learned how to engage in persuasive speech, the Athenian government was forced to become open to increasingly numerous voices.
Plato hated the Sophists. He believed that they used rhetoric in place of reason, and their contribution to democracy (a system of government that aroused Plato’s suspicions) likely contributed to his disapproval. He famously accused them of teaching the Demagogues little more than “making the weaker argument the stronger,” which is essentially the definition we’ve inherited of sophistry.
Opponents of democracy have always worried about the role of demagogues and it is only recently that their anxieties have given way to the rise of democracy as the dominant form of government.
Why, then, do we seem to worry now more than ever about the caliber of our democratic discussion? I can think of a few reasons:
1. Proliferation of outlets: it used to be that only a few newspapers and broadcast networks reached a large number of Americans. Now hundreds of cable and radio channels can reach millions instantly. Almost anyone of note can find airtime during the cable news day to air his or her view.
2. Wider audience: along with the proliferation of outlets comes an expansion in the number of Americans connected to political speech in all its forms.
3. Growth in special interests: America’s many corporations and industries understand the stakes inherent in lawmaking. Advocacy groups now represent thousands more individual causes and issues. For each entity, the need to communicate loudly and publicly is extreme.
What do these three trends mean? They suggest, paradoxically, that the very tools that can help citizens become more engaged in democracy also add to the noisy competition for political space. And while most of the participants in the public sphere represent individuals, they are also dependent for their existence on convincing many more people to adhere to their causes.
The 30-second ad may not contribute to democratic deliberation, but the decline of democracy predates its creation. Still, “decline” is a misnomer. There was never any democratic golden age, just a different set of vices.
200 years ago, relatively few Americans could actively participate in national politics. Now, literally hundreds of millions can make their voices heard. But they must also be subjected to thousands more voices–few especially reasonable.