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A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. -James Madison
The ongoing American experiment in democracy is failing. And it is failing because we have allowed our public sphere to be dominated by the interest Madison called merchants.
The ideals of political equality and a government that operates in response to the informed consent of the governed are for most Americans only romantic notions. Our republic, the unique American mechanism for realizing the will of the people, is something warm and fuzzy to salute or sing about at best. At worst it is viewed as a dysfunctional and unreliable interference. But, in the main, it is regarded as merely another service provider, an odd cousin to the market.
A variety of modern lamentations seem to focus not on the hard disappointing facts of civic ignorance and political inequality, but on whether the left or the right of the governingclass can ever just get along and steer the ship of state consistently. This focus does not look quite deep enough.
The small portion of the U.S. academy concerned about communications and governance seems to have developed a preoccupation with the German political theorist Jürgen Habermas and his disagreements with Kant and Marx. There is also a lingering enchantment in the academy with Michel Foucault's relativism and his focus on the power of discourse. These examinations are largely too academic and tend toward abstraction. Furthermore, I remain unconvinced that the Europeans Foucault and Habermas are preferable to William James or Walter Lippmann. I refer in these pages, however, to a certain key concept associated with Habermas: the public sphere. So let me explain what I mean by that.
A public sphere is the place or places where people are engaged in creating, sharing, and gathering information they use to make decisions about the public good. The key point I am drawing attention to is not only the place (a town hall or in front of a computer screen) but whether the discussion is generally more about a public decision rather than a private one. People sitting in a bar reacting to each other while they watch the president's State of the Union address are within the public sphere I have in mind. People sitting in a bar ordering drinks for themselves are not.
My focus here is on information created to inform public deliberation rather than entertainment. This is not to say that entertainment does not often have a profound impact on our culture, including our politics. Indeed, entertainment from minstrel shows to pornography has resonated strongly in the political arena, and oftentimes the more subtle and less deliberate the intent, the more dangerous the impact on society. James Carey has written with great insight about these effects. But this is not my focus here, so the circus and movies and video games will not play a part in this discussion.
My focus on information about the action of elected representatives, indeed the definition of the public sphere I offer, borrow strongly from Cass Sunstein's Madisonian goals of "government by discussion." Sunstein argues that Madison understood the American republic to put a premium on broad, reasoned discussion among political equals, and he relies largely upon Madison's arguments against the Sedition Act to support this conception.
"The right of electing the members of the Government constitutes ... the essence of a free and responsible government," and "the value and efficiency of this right depends on the knowledge of the comparative merits and demerits of the candidates for the public trust." Indeed, the power represented by a Sedition Act ought, "more than any other, to produce universal alarm; because it is leveled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right." Unlike Sunstein, however, my focus is not on the First Amendment prohibition of federal abridgement of citizen speech, but on the role Madison would advance for federal promotion of citizen speech.
I would also like to distinguish here between citizen speech and what we think of now as the media. After I had completed the first draft of this book, Paul Starr's book, The Creation of the Media, was published. Starr's book is a very good study of a wide variety of media and how they developed through World War II. While he takes some note of politics, his focus is, as his title suggests, on the beginnings of modern media. This emphasis is very different than mine. I place communications policy at the center of the structure of the U.S. republic. My focus is less on the development of media than on the relationship between our unique republic and how the abandonment of the founders' citizen-focused communications policy has hurt the operation of that republic.
I do owe a large debt to Michael Sandel, who argues in his book Democracy's Discontent that our common, our public, discontent is the triumph of our lived philosophy of amoral individual rights (which he calls liberalism or procedural democracy) over community. Despite my appreciation for his analysis, it is still difficult to see that a battle waged and won by intellectuals, whether they are Lippmann and Dewey or Foucault and Habermas, would solve the American problems with communications and democracy. With all due respect to Sandel, our lived democracy is not the result of philosophical triumphs. Our lived democracy, our discontent results from the misoperation of governing structures, structures we the living create and tolerate.
Nor do I find any hope in the fading fad of the "civility" crusaders, or the dubious calls to morality by public bullies such as William Bennett. Even accepting the claims that we are less civil and less moral than those at some other time, this does not lead to an improvement of our access to the information necessary to govern our community.
Putting aside the relatively recent decline in more strenuous local political activity documented by Robert Putnam, the citizens of the United States barely turn out to vote. In his book, The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson rightly warns us against romanticizing either the 1950s, Putnam's age of bowling leagues and civic associations, or any other supposedly golden age of civic engagement. The ideals embodied in our republic have too often been little more than ideals. But as Schudson suggests, "Progress or decline is not the real question." The real question is: What is the governing structure that will allow us to address the serious public injustices in our present?
But are we equipped to answer that question? Forty years of studies confirm that the average U.S. citizen remains stubbornly, shockingly ignorant about our republic. And, as William Greider asked, Who will tell the people?
The news media in America most people rely upon, whether newspaper or television, is first and foremost a space for advertisements. After every war and every election the barons of mass media express a befuddled guilt about the superficiality of their reporting and they promise to do better. But they fail to tell the public about their increased profits. The fire of cannon in the night sky, the loss of human lives, the campaign rally, and the final vote count are simply spectacles to bring audiences in the tent to hear the latest pitch for a rejuvenating shampoo.
Some suggest that the problem is not that we have too little popular information but that we have too much. We are bombarded with more data than we can process, with twenty-four-hour news shows blasting at us in our homes, in our cars, on street corners and electronic billboards, even in some elevators. But, surely, the latest car chase or celebrity marriage cannot be what Madison meant by the popular information needed to arm ourselves for self-governance. Despite the expansion of the news wherever we look, there is little if any reporting or discussion about the legislation being drawn up at City Hall, the State House, or Capitol Hill.
In his description of how the American public was kept in the dark about the multibillion-dollar savings and loan disaster, William Greider describes a problem that extends beyond an obsession with trivia. The so-called media watchdogs simply fail to report adequately on what the people's representatives are doing. One reason for this, according to Greider, is that "to cover the full range of complex regulatory battles with any depth would require a substantial number of reasonably sophisticated reporters and lots of patience-an investment of resources that very few news organizations are able or willing to make."
In other words, private corporations determine whether the people acquire information needed to govern themselves based in large part on whether the investment in resources is profitable. We are provided information about pop stars or car crashes because corporations deem that information less costly (financially and politically) to produce than a report on what our representatives are doing at the local, state, or federal levels. Thus, the claim of news corporations that they only give the public what it is interested in rings hollow. How can the public become bored and apathetic about events we do not even know are happening?
Some argue that "the government" is the problem with our nation and so the less of it we have the better off we will be. Garry Wills devoted a book, A Necessary Evil, to countering Thomas Jefferson's outdated canard that that government is best which governs least. I will not repeat his answer to this ahistorical proposition. I would simply counter that even in wanting different things, Americans clearly want many things that only government can provide: a clean environment, affordable health care, safe streets, and so on. The answer to the problems of achieving our ideals of political equality and democratic deliberation is not to be found in limiting the only mechanism that can help us improve our society.
Despite the ahistorical contempt expressed toward government, in the end, we the people are responsible for the state of our democracy. No alien power imposed our government upon us. Whether through action or inaction we determine what we govern and whether our government is bad. If Lincoln was right, we are the government.
Governing structures are not limited to voting districts. Governance is not simply eliminating butterfly ballots or properly counting dimpled chads. Governance in a democracy involves the operation of mechanisms to encourage informing citizens of their interests and creating the means for them to both effectively express their interests and see that these interests are manifest. The challenge we face in our republic is maintaining a structure of governance that is able to advance our goals of political equality and the finding of consensus about the public good. More than markets, more than a system of education, or health care, or transportation, the ability of a government to facilitate political communication among its citizens determines the success of the democratic experiment.
What follows is not an argument about campaign finance reform; our democracy's problems are deeper and more intrinsic than the current popular debate over soft money and issue ads would suggest. Nor is this an argument about standards in journalism; our communication problems will not be corrected by a return of Edward R. Murrow. While the challenge of democratic statecraft and the problem of communications are universal, what I wrestle with here is particular to America. It is unique to our mechanism of governance, the republic in other words, constructed by the founders and modified in the give and take of politics over the course of two centuries. Consequently, very little of this book will take up the very different course of communications policy traveled by other nations.
The founder most recognized as the father of our Constitution, James Madison, thought that political communication was such an essential instrument of our unique republican democracy that more than merely allowing freedom of speech was required to protect it. Madison helped to enable all Americans to communicate. He did this by supporting legislation that simultaneously subsidized the spread of popular information and advanced what would become the largest part of our early federal government-the Post Office.
Of all the founders, Benjamin Franklin is most often associated with the post. But, as with so many other aspects of our unique state, the founder who seemed to most appreciate the role of the post within the mechanism of our republic was James Madison. Madison's advocacy of the Postal Act of 1792 put communication service and a subsidy for political discourse at the center of our republic. A fortified postal service provided the equal ability of a diverse group of Americans, even noncitizens, to receive and express the popular information Madison deemed a necessary condition for public consent of government action.
The equal ability of Americans to communicate has been undermined not by the advance of technology or some alien power. Citizen access to popular information has been undermined by bad political decisions. These decisions date back to the Jacksonian Democrats' refusal to allow the Post Office Department to continue to operate telegraph service. The most powerful communications tool was deliberately placed in the hands of one faction in our republic: commercial industry. This faction has had many names over the course of our history. Madison called them the mercantile faction; Lincoln called them capital; Theodore Roosevelt called them Trusts; today we call them Corporate America. Neither Progressive era reforms nor new communications technologies have been able to correct the problems resulting from government abdication of a responsibility to advance the equal capability of citizen discourse. The failure of market-driven journalism and the failure of democratic politics are both related to the structural fault created by this and subsequent political decisions-decisions buried deep in the American system, asleep under the rubble of history.
Excerpted from Prologue to a Farce by MARK LLOYD Copyright © 2006 by Mark Lloyd. Excerpted by permission.
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