The Disappearance of Informed Democracy

The Disappearance of Informed Democracy

This week on the op-ed page of the Washington Post three senators debated the how best to detain “terrorists.”  The current annual defense authorization bill contains language introduced by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain that would codify the executive branch’s current practice of indefinitely detaining suspected terrorists.  It would also renew the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and permit the executive, though not require it, to indefinitely detain a U.S. citizen caught on U.S. soil who “substantially supports” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces.” 

An amendment to strip this language from the bill proposed by Senator Mark Udall was voted down 38-60.  Of course what’s really shameful is that even Udall’s amendment was proposed not on the grounds that the Levin/McCain section codifies and further legitimizes the federal government’s gross attack on civil liberties, but rather because,

“[T]hese provisions disrupt the executive branch’s capacity to enforce the law and impose unwise and unwarranted restrictions on our ability to aggressively combat international terrorism.”

Congress isn’t debating the actual merits of permitting the executive branch to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens accused of being, assisting, supporting, or associating with terrorists.  Instead, the Senate (with a few exceptions) are simply debating with which branch of government these unconstitutional powers should lie.  Congress declaring that only it has the authority to grant the President these powers is certainly better than bipartisan support of the unitary executive.  But even that still comes egregiously short of the more forceful prohibitions of these practices proscribed by the Constitution.

As Glen Greenwald notes, even without this Congressional codification, the executive branch already claims these powers and more, to the point of killing U.S. citizens abroad without due process and without a public scrutiny.  So while passage of this bill will certainly further validate the federal government’s near complete power to propagate “the war against terrorism,” both at home and abroad, simply defeating this bill in Congress would hardly change things, though it would be a first step.

Instead, what’s more alarming is how often the public is kept silent, ignorant, or perniciously disinterested in problems of the highest import and how they might be solved.  It’s not just war, where the argument that our civilian commander-in-chief should defer to his generals is constantly repeated but never defended.  It’s also banking, where rich, powerful, and most important of all, well connected people, get the help they need because, for reasons the average American is just to dumb to understand, bailing out the banks that created the bubble is more important than helping those people who are underwater on their mortgages, student loans, or medical expenses and who feel the effects of financial collapse most potently.

Elites in economics and finance decided behind closed doors what was best, and then assured the public that this was the only way to prevent further collapse.  Never mind that all these guys are their  friends and colleagues.  This isn’t personal, it’s not even business.  It’s to save the economy.  Not until later is it revealed just how much was given out and to whom, even while those in the unemployment line are long forgotten about.

Now Europe is facing a similar lending crisis, and elites on the continent are doing their best to shut the public out as much as possible.  It doesn’t matter that, as Shawn Gude writes, “The elites recognize their means are inimical to democracy. They simply don’t care.”

As usual, there’s no time for public deliberation, participation, or greater awareness.  Those in charge and in the know don’t have the patience or respect to explain to or negotiate with the people their policies will affect. 

Again and again, elites have written the rules, and then proceed to implement them, with little outside scrutiny.  In some cases this is because openness is literally a punishable sin.  Even Tony Blair has come out urging greater openness with regard to the Obama administration’s drone strike procedures, which are currently under the oversight of the CIA and still considered covert, despite the multitude of overt civilian deaths that result from them every year.

What all these things have in common, accusation, conviction and detention by military personnel, economic and financial elites making decisions with far reaching consequences in secret or without the time to debate with anyone else, and CIA operatives commanding death from the sky for hundreds of suspected terrorists and innocent men, women and children alike, is that in each case unaccountable people make decisions without public input and without oversight.

And that is precisely what it means to operate as an informed democracy.  It means not only to be adequately educated, but to also have access to the relevant information to be able to voice agreement or dissent on the relevant topics.  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. 

In both instances the MSM bears much of the responsibility.  Whether it’s the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, which on neither day ran a dissenting editorial that virulently disagreed with the Levin/McCain consensus, and which has its own history of authority smitten journalists.  Or the New York Times, the reporting for which is at times so hawkish, and at times so centrist, as to print such journalistic gems as this:

“The civilian toll of the C.I.A.’s drone campaign, which is widely credited with disrupting Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan’s tribal area, has been in bitter dispute since the strikes were accelerated in 2008. Accounts of strike after strike from official and unofficial sources are so at odds that they often seem to describe different events.”

The text of which sits right below an image of Pakistani villagers carrying a coffin of a person “who was said to have been killed by an American drone attack near the Afghan border.”  Because honestly, who knows whose drone it was. 

Of course, who has time to read about political cronyism, civilian deaths, or Congress’ move to further cement into law the executive’s attack on civil liberties, when the bulk of political journalistic output is focused on horserace politics and side show distractions.  And so while we’re all happily and uselessly pontificating about Newt Gingrich’s actual electoral viability, the Senate is scheduled to vote later today on the current defense authorization bill, which unlike the ridiculous gridlock over authorizing already-authorized-spending we saw earlier this summer, will likely pass Congress with uncanny bipartisan support.

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45 thoughts on “The Disappearance of Informed Democracy

  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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    • 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.

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  3. 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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    • 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.

       

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      • 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.

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        • 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 public

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    • 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.

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        • 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.

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          • 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.

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              • 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).

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  4. 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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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.

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        • 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.

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            • 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.

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    • 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.)

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      • 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.

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        • 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.

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        • 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.

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          • 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.

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            • 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.

               

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