I’ve been writing a version of this column in just about every other issue of The Nation for nearly 25 years. This will be my last. Obviously, much has changed since I began. There was no Fox News or MSNBC, and the “news” on the Internet barely justified the trouble it took to dial it up. But a few things have remained relatively constant, and so, too, have my attempts to explain them. The one thought I’d like to leave readers with is this: Remember the fundamentals—the things that inevitably get lost in the never-ending frenzy that defines our current media ecosystem.
Many in the media have recently awoken to the myriad ways in which the Trump presidency has sought to murder our democracy. In truth, it was barely breathing when the orange monster stepped into the Oval Office. Here again, thanks to the obedience of so many Republicans to Donald Trump’s nonsensical whims, journalists have also discovered the desiccated state of the GOP’s commitment to the traditional norms of democratic politics, to say nothing of common sense. Even so, this welcome new focus fails to capture the structural failings that underlie our politics and therefore continue to escape the attention of even the most attentive citizens. Here are a few of my concerns:
§ Voters rarely matter much. In a study back in 2014, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page demonstrated that “economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”
§ Voters rarely matter much (II). In their 2018 study, political scientists Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Matto Mildenberger, and Leah C. Stokes found that congressional staffers—and by extension, the people who cover them in the media—believe that their constituents are far more conservative than they really are and act accordingly. That’s because the people they hear from, and respond to, are the people identified in the Gilens-Page report mentioned above.
§ Voters rarely matter much (III). Thanks largely to Citizens United, according to the research conducted by political scientist Stan Oklobdzija, dark money groups have grown far more influential in shaping the ideological agenda of the political parties. Given the fact that the vast majority of this funding is directed by extremely conservative sources—most famously, but hardly exclusively, the Koch network—this phenomenon, rather than the preferences of GOP members, is responsible for the takeover of the Republican Party by the lunatic fringe.
§ When voters do matter, they are often motivated by media misinformation. I’ve written two books about presidential lies. (The most recent one, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump Is Worse, was published this past August.) What has always been hard to measure, however, is the degree to which any given politician’s lies are acted upon by voters. I still can’t fully answer that question, but thanks to a 2018 examination of the political “knowledge” of more than 3,000 Fox News viewers by political scientists Sanford Schram and Richard Fording, we know that “relying on Fox News as a major news source significantly decreased a person’s score more than relying on any other news source.” Not surprisingly, people also vote on the basis of these lies. A 2017 study by political scientist Gregory Martin and economist Ali Yurukoglu found that the effect of watching Fox News was powerful enough to change the results of almost any close election and even some that would never have been close without it.
As Fox News became a veritable moneyprinting machine for the Murdoch family, it effected a gravitational pull on the other news networks, which sought to attract viewers with similar bullshit. Fox News also spawned an army of imitators peddling even more outlandish lies and conspiracy theories, multiplied by the millions thanks to the conscienceless algorithms that power Facebook, YouTube, and the like. These forces continue to exploit marketplaces in which truth has no particular instrumental value. What the columnist and political philosopher Walter Lippmann defined in 1922 as the conflict between “the world outside” and “the pictures in our heads” has now grown so vast as to overwhelm what remains of the journalistic commitment to logic, fairness, and the hope that so many once held of “speaking truth to power.”
It is often said that liberals tend to come to a gunfight with butter knives. But what I have been attempting to show in this media column is that if we look beneath the surface of our elections, we see a culture of plutocracy that has enabled the creation of an autocracy based on a foundation of purposeful dishonesty. Rupert Murdoch’s minions aside, most of our mainstream institutions have implicated themselves in this transformation thanks to a collective commitment to treating political conflict as mere theater—a “he said/she said” battle in which “both sides do it.” Truth in these reports is an afterthought, if it is thought of at all. The quote I have found most apt for the Trump era comes from an interview the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt gave during what, in retrospect, now appear as the relatively halcyon days of Watergate. She noted back in 1974 that “if everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer…. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge.”
This is exactly the point to which the conservative conquest of our media culture has brought us. While we were watching them work the refs, they were actually purchasing the entire playing field. Before we liberals can fairly contest in politics, we must first reclaim our culture.
Good night and good luck.