The Disappearance of Informed Democracy

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Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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45 Responses

  1. Avatar RalfW
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    says:

    How dare you point out that the 3-ring circus of horse race, extramarital affairs, and debt ceiling kabuki is happening while all the real power and influence continues behind a curtain of ignorance not just abetted by, but often in cahoots with journalistic malpractice.Report

  2. Avatar Lyle
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    says:

    It seems to me that Ex parte Milligan applies in this case, a US citizen in rebellion against the federal government (at that point the civil war). It is clear that supporting Al Quadea is likley treason under the constitutional definition, of giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the US. However it does seem that the phrase of Milligan about when the courts are open applies, but being an old precident it obvously must be discarded.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Lyle
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      says:

      I think it’s a matter of whether or not treason must first be proved in, for instance, a public court.

      We don’t say, he’s a suspected terrorist, now where do we put him on trial.  Deciding if he’s a terrorist IS the point of the trial.Report

  3. Avatar Pierre Corneille
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    says:

    I’m a bit wary of attributing so much of this to “elites,” by which you appear to mean well-off, well-placed people who exercise an inordinate control over what the government does.  I think I see what you describe in the following paragraph differently from the way you do:

    What has happened is that elites, especially in the executive branches of both the federal government and private management, have shielded themselves and their decisions from view.  Either such decisions are off the record or highly secretive, like those of the Fed and the military.  Or they are hidden in plain view by virtue of the volume of other competing news and information.  How can one gauge support for a policy when it’s not in the public conciousness, or when its existence isn’t even known.

    I share your concern about how to gauge support for a policy when the “public” doesn’t know about it.  But it seems to me that we’d have to prepare for the possibility that “the public” might approve of these unconstitutional extensions of power, and then where would we be?  Of course, if we’re going to have an overreaching government, then I suppose it would be better that “the public”–instead of just a few members of the elite–approve, but it’s still an overreach.

    Also, are the actions of the Fed really done in secret?  I don’t know the answer to this, but I imagine that the problem is not wholly with secretive decisions, but with the opacity of those decisions.  Most people who, like me, lack even a rudimentary training in economics cannot understand much of what the Fed does even if we were privy to the Fed’s decision making process.  You touch on this idea indirectly when you  mention that a surfeit of information makes it difficult for the “public” to know about egregious things happening in plain view.  If so, then perhaps the “public” shares some of the blame.

    I should stress that I’m not disagreeing with your assertion that American democracy is largely uninformed, and I suppose the secretive or deliberately opaque actions of government, along with the nudging of “elites,” is responsible for much of the problem, but I would chock some of it up to the laziness and apathy of “the public.”

     

     

     

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    • Avatar Murali in reply to Pierre Corneille
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      says:

      But it seems to me that we’d have to prepare for the possibility that “the public” might approve of these unconstitutional extensions of power, and then where would we be

      This seems more than a possibility. As I’ve said before, discourse failure makes all kinds of questions vulnerable to discourse failure. Trying to justify why the rule of law must be kept to even in situations like this is going to require long, involved reasoning. People are going to prefer shorter and easier and more intuitive explanations like “he was a threat to our national security” or “the constitution is not a suicide pact”. Extensive public deliberation about these things is probably going to result in more drone strikes and assasinations.

      Of course, if we’re going to have an overreaching government, then I suppose it would be better that “the public”–instead of just a few members of the elite–approve, but it’s still an overreach.

      Why is it better that more of the public approve of a bad course of action?

      I should stress that I’m not disagreeing with your assertion that American democracy is largely uninformed

      Neither am I, I am just saying that the american public (at least since the end of the 19th century or even earlier) never was and never will be informed enough to make the correct decisions.

      The thing is that public deliberation cannot even be a regulative ideal because any steps we could take to bring us closer to that ideal would exacerbate mis-information and bad reasoning etc. This is what discourse failure is all about. The goal of a sufficiently informed electorate is therefore hopelessly utopian.

       Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Murali
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        says:

        Why is it better that more of the public approve of a bad course of action?

        Well, I’m not going to fall on my sword for this idea, but I suppose that it is slightly better, inasmuch as “the public,” supposedly might be said to suffer some of the consequences in a way that the “elites” do not.  However, I’m not sure how much I really believe this, especially if the victims of the overreaching government are “only” an unheard or unlistened to minority.  In other words, you have a point.

        Neither am I, I am just saying that the american public (at least since the end of the 19th century or even earlier) never was and never will be informed enough to make the correct decisions.

        I think all of us, myself included, need to be more precise when we talk about “the public.”  I don’t really know what I, you, or Mr. Gach means by it, which is why I insist on using scare quotes.  With any complex system (here I’m using another word that I’m not sure the meaning of), any group of people not specially trained in the study or regulation of said system will in some respects not ever be informed enough to make correct, or at least serviceable decisions.

        I do have trouble seeing an alternative to at least nominal “public” control over decision making, even if that just means being able to vote the decision makers out after a term of years.  I also believe that people generally are very good at knowing how such and such a policy affects them, personally, when they run up against it, although I grant they might not know all the other reasons for the policy or how it works in other ways.  Therefore, I think such persons’ input is valuable.  Whether they are then to be classed as “the public,” however, I’m less certain.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Pierre Corneille
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          says:

          I also believe that people generally are very good at knowing how such and such a policy affects them, personally, when they run up against it, although I grant they might not know all the other reasons for the policy or how it works in other ways.

          I’m going to disagree with you on this. A lot of the time, a lot of people have the wrong idea about how a particular policy affects them. For example, a lot of people who are currently jobless probably think that foreigners take away their jobs either by outsourcing or immigration. They (i.e. foreigners) dont.

          A lot of low skilled working class people think that increasing the minimum wage would be a good thing. However, this can result in their retrenchment or prevent them from even taking the very first step out of poverty.

          To link it to OWS. A lot of people thought that student loans was a good policy. Yet a lot of people now think that they are worse off as a result of taking the loans. They were either right then or they are now, not both. i.e. they, either way are still poor judges of how their own well being is affected by the policies which do ineed affect their well being.

          Similarly, a lot of people would benefit by pro-globalisation policies, but they persistently think that they are being harmed by trade.

          A lot of people think that economic inequality itself harms them to a greater extent than it actually does.

          i.e. people are terrible at gauging how a policy affects them especially if the causal chain of the policy is relatively long and indirect.

          By public, I refer to the people in general, the constitutents, citizens,subjects (whatever). I’m not sure in this context we could refer to anything else as the publicReport

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Pierre Corneille
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      says:

      I would not shirk from blaming “the public” day and night.  Whether it’s a sign of meaness or simply my genuine worry, I feel fine telling someone “it’s wrong!” not to care about the basics of what is going on politically around them.

      I didn’t get around to more diligently going through the public’s role in their own uninformedness.  But I think it has a lot to do with the explosion in entertainment and its accessibility.  Between all of the television, movies, and books, I could fill up my free hours easily and with no room left over for maintaining my civic awareness.

      And in fact, the only reason I continue to read and follow events as much as I do is out of a kind of psychological illness that I haven’t yet been able to diagnose but which I’m sure I have. 

      But certainly there’s a middle ground between blogging/commenting profusely on blogs, and just staying up on events.

      Which events is an important problem though.  As of yet, I don’t think there’s any media outlet, whether physical or digital, that quite gets at delivering the important news on what large institutions are up in a brief and accessible (and credible) format.

      Probably because there’s no money in doing so.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to E.C. Gach
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        says:

        What’s your opinion of the PBS Newshour?  I know it’s not perfect, but it strikes me as quite informative.Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Pierre Corneille
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          says:

          The News Hour is great, but I think one thing that all news agencies/departments get wrong is the make-up of their content. 

          Most news should only be delivered in proportion to how much it will either affect the audience’s actions, or in relation to how much they have/or could have the capacity to affect those events.

          A lot of events are considered “news,” and “important,” despite the fact that the people these things are being told to have near zero capacity to affect them, and the knowledge of them will have near zero affect on what they decide to do that day, the next, or the one after that.

          Or maybe some formula that takes into account the capacity for one to affect the events they are hearing about, or be affected by them, and the impact those events could have.

          So perhaps I can’t do much on an individual basis to affect events in Washinton D.C., but whatever D.C. decides will have a large aggregate affect, even beyond the impact on myself.

          Of course at bottom I’m still advocating more localist bias.Report

          • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to E.C. Gach
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            says:

            In my market–the Chicago area–there is a local, News Hour-esque news show, “Chicago Tonight,” that comes on right after the News Hour, and usually covers local news, with a smattering of local commentary on national/international events and with more than a smattering of human interest stories.  Would that help alleviate some of the problems you see?

            I imagine your answer would be “maybe, but not completely,” especially because the local politics “Chicago Tonight” covers is usually the relatively inaccessible (to the average citizen) politics of the statehouse, the county board, and the city council / mayor.

            However, I do think at a basic level I simply see differently, from you, the role of what a news show should cover, or how it should choose what it should cover.  It seems to me limiting for a news organization to feel constrained to cover only that which its viewers might plausibly be able to have an effect on .  At the same time, perhaps I am misinterpreting what you said?  Maybe there’s room for both.Report

            • Avatar dhex in reply to Pierre Corneille
              Ignored
              says:

              I didn’t get around to more diligently going through the public’s role in their own uninformedness.  But I think it has a lot to do with the explosion in entertainment and its accessibility.

              do you honestly believe people were better informed 100 years ago?Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to dhex
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                says:

                The gap between lay person information and expert information was may have been smaller.Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to dhex
                Ignored
                says:

                There may just simply have been less to keep secret, or the capacity for those secrets to affect others may have been much less.

                It may be a small ratio, but my instinct is that as the complexity and absolute size of the state grows, it’s secrets grow as well.

                15% secrets of a large government is much worse than 15% secretes of a small one (assuming by big/small we are talking about the power and authority of those institutions).Report

  4. Avatar James K
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    says:

    I have to take issue with the notion that informed democracy has disappeared.  Is there any evidence that there was ever informed democracy?  Has the proliferation of blogging just made long-standing ignorance more visible?

    And I don’t think I can support the idea that the public is being kept ignorant either.  For-profit media outlets make money by giving people the content the viewer / reader demands.  If the public wanted to know about this stuff the MSM would be falling all over themselves to supply it.  The simplest explanation as to why the MSM reports on the partisan horse-race is that’s what people want.

    The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to James K
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      says:

      Ah James, I’ve been missing your comments here. Welcome back my friend.

      As for your MSM point above, I’ve been working on a sub text theory I’d like to pass by you as an economist. The MSM stands to gain tremendously from a vigorously fought extremely tight contest for power, because the contestants will spend $Billions on airtime for their attack and counter-attack advertisements. The closer the race the higher the revenues ceteris paribus. Given that dichotomy, it is definitely in the MSM’s self-interest to back the candidates who will polarize the respective bases the most and diminish any candidate who would act as a moderating influence.

      Anywho, that’s just a thought I’ve been kicking around and I can’t seem to find a contra to it. The market /seems/ to want more, hence the proliferation of blogs and alternate media sources, but the MSM still has a quasi-monopoly in reach that the outliers can’t eliminate, nor can they acquire the revenues to compete since they are not going to receive the campaigner’s paid commercials, they’re carrying their water for free.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to wardsmith
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        says:

        What’s more, a close race keeps people interested, and therefore watching. A close race is a win on multiple levels for the media.

        Plus, the idea that the people are getting what they want only goes so far. What they want is often determined by what they expect, and what they expect is what the media gives them. It’s also something that is easily manipulated by the media as a result.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to wardsmith
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        says:

        I’ve still been here Wardsmith, it’s just that I often find myself without anything to say, and so I read a lot more on the internet than I write.

        As to the substance of your comment, I can see that the MSM would have an incentive for the race to be close, but that could just as easily lead to them supporting strong centrists, who because of their similarity result in a close race.

        If I were to finger a culprit for the polarisation of your politics I would finger the primary system.  Each candidate has to run to their base, instead of the centre.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to James K
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          says:

          It’s not like private companies don’t have their own agendas. In the case of media companies, it would be getting advertisers, keeping costs down, getting access (to government, e.g.), and getting customers, among other things. What customers would want, in a vacuum, is only potentially relevant to the last of these, and since the media companies create the context, what customers want is not necessarily what they would want in a vacuum. Again, their expectations matter, and it’s pretty easy to shape those in a way that serves the other motives, with the primary one being getting advertisers.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Chris
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            says:

            It seems to me that if you sell advertising it doesn’t matter what consumers want, provided they want something.

            Of everyone in the society they probably have the least reason to distort consumer preferences.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K
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              says:

              Propaganda can be used to shape consumer preferences: that’s what about 95% of all advertising is, the use of modern propaganda techniques to generate sales. But you’re correct that media isn’t strictly interested in the shaping of consumer preferences in the direction of one particular brand against another. The propaganda the media disseminates is on another level, more ideological and geared more around shaping the public’s views on specific economic sectors, certain institutional practices, specific types of behaviors and types of arrangements, most often revolving around class issues and nationalism. I mean, all the social arrangements that are imbued with ideological content are the creation of human activity. There’s nothing immutable about them. And some people, who prefer to see certain arrangements persist, have the power and money to disseminate a message that those arrangements are good, correct, American, necessary, etc etc.and ought to persist.

              The early advocates of modern propaganda thought it was a necessary part of living in a capitalistic democracy comprised of people with radically divergent views. The idea was that if you can, and they showed back in the day (1910’s) that they could, shape people’s views into a broad agreement on a preferred issues, then there was some hope for democracy in a capitalistic society. And the hope resided in persuading people to not want to change the capitalism part of the equation.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K
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      says:

      If the public wanted to know about this stuff the MSM would be falling all over themselves to supply it.

      Not necessarily. First, this discounts the very real effects of propaganda (euphemistically called ‘public relations’) in shaping what people think of as newsworthy, and even whether news-outlets could objectively inform them in any event. Second, even if people did want to hear The Truth, for-profit media, based on advertising, would still feel a downward pressure from advertisers on what content is permissible. Not that they’d have decisive control, but sufficient power to force significant deviations from the truth, as well deviations in the direction of preferred ideological lines. (Of course, no one in the MSM would admit this, which is part of why they’re all so easy to poke at.)Report

      • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Stillwater
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        says:

        Wow is it opposite day already? First Chris and now Stillwater? That does it, I’m just going to have to rip up my cheatnotes! 🙂Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Stillwater
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        says:

        But that still leaves the question of why?  Media organisations are businesses, they exist to make money, not advance an ideological agenda.  Historically propaganda has been the tool of choice for governments precisely because governments have a reason to give a damn about what people believe.Report

        • Avatar wardsmith in reply to James K
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          says:

          Now look who owns the media. Do any of them have anything to gain from propaganda (other than the obvious GE)? I guess to figure that out we’d also have to look at who owns those companies as major shareholders.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K
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          says:

          The first big successful attempts at shaping public opinion by using ‘modern’ propaganda techniques in the US were private uses for private purposes. The US Government adopted and implemented those techniques to garner support for entering WWI. Each of these early attempts was incredibly successful, so successful that propganda quickly became a staple of the private sector. Germany was so impressed with the successes of US propaganda that they adopted them wholesale and subsequently improved on them.

          A nearby mate of yours (now deceased) has written a great book on the origins and evolution of modern propaganda (what was called Manufacturing Consent by Lasswell? Bernays?): Alex Carey – Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K
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          says:

          Media organisations are businesses, they exist to make money, not advance an ideological agenda.

          Unless the ideological agenda is ‘making money’. Look, it’s not something I could convince you of in only a few online scribblings, but consider this (to take just one example relevant to your comment): if (as was the case) US elites were once upon a time terrified of emergent Bolshevism, and the battle was a fight over ‘hearts and minds’, then countering those radical anti-capitalist ideas – and other prevailing ideas of how social arrangements ought be constructed – requires persuading those hearts and minds. In 30 second sound bites, jingoism, content free essays, demonization of the enemy, etc etc.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Stillwater
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            says:

            GE runs a few media outlets, I do believe. They don’t print damaging things about GE killing people with toxic waste. And yet people die — funny isn’t it?Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Stillwater
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            says:

            This still leaves us with a question of what changes to preferences would make media companies sell more advertising than others.  It seems to me that their potential to make money is pretty much the same no matter what people want to buy.

            Furthermore, the for the proposition that the media is dumbing down the public would require some evidence that the public has been getting dumber, which I’m not seeing.  it seems to me politics has never been that intelligent when it’s being driven by popular pressure.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K
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              says:

              This still leaves us with a question of what changes to preferences would make media companies sell more advertising than others.  It seems to me that their potential to make money is pretty much the same no matter what people want to buy.

              The changes that make media outlets sell more advertising all other things being equal are those that create a more favorable investment culture for advertisers: ie., a culture where ideological issues that advertisers favor are reinforced, and where ideological issues advertisers oppose are suppressed. Consistently with that, more money is derived by increasing viewership in the right demographics.There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s a start.

              Furthermore, the for the proposition that the media is dumbing down the public would require some evidence that the public has been getting dumber, which I’m not seeing.  it seems to me politics has never been that intelligent when it’s being driven by popular pressure.

              Propaganda isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about persuasion. Independently of how much someone knows or doesn’t know, propaganda works by associating the preferred view (the one the disseminator wants you to accept) with other things already viewed as favorable, likable, correct; unfavorable, unlikable, incorrect, etc. I mean, just look at the size of the public relations industry for an indicator of how amenable US citizens are to having their views shaped irrationally by messaging. Why think the media wouldn’t be an outlet for disseminating propaganda? It’s owned by private corporations; it serves private corporations indirectly through advertising, and private corporations have a vested interest in seeing certain evidential and ideological positions advanced or suppressed.

               Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to James K
          Ignored
          says:

          … The arkansas group doens’t ring a bell?

          How about the Tribune Review?

          It AINT making money, and the only purpose its owner has for running it, is to shill republican ideas.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K
      Ignored
      says:

      If the public wanted to know about this stuff the MSM would be falling all over themselves to supply it.

      Prior to the existence of Fox News, would this sentence have made sense?

      God knows what other niches aren’t being filled…Report

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