In the 21st century, America is described by many as being in “late-stage democracy.” If so, it took us two centuries to get there. While many decry Constitutional checks and balances as being cumbersome and making changes to the Constitution even more so, our Founders were more wise than originally believed. They, in fact, feared too much democracy. They were well-aware and well-read in the political theories of Plato, and students of the Roman republic and it’s demise.
But, if it took two centuries by design to get to this stage of democracy, the process has been greatly accelerated by the media. The Internet in particular erased any filter of moderation of political discourse in this country. Everyone with a computer or access to the Internet now had a platform. Before the Internet, there were natural checks on entry into the world of political discourse. Newspapers and magazines cost money; readers had to buy them and publishers had to produce them. The demise of the print media is attributable to the rise of the Internet.
It’s called Godwin’s law- the inevitability that the dreaded word “Hitler” will eventually rear it’s head in a comment section of a political commentary. We have all likely been guilty of it at some point, despite consciously trying to defend against it. But it is no less a reality. And sadly it is a reflection of the breakdown in political discourse our Founders worried the most about.
There were many very good reasons they created the Constitution as they did when it came to choosing our leaders. It was born of the belief that for a republic to be established and to survive, proper political discourse and commentary were essential. Some have described their parameters for participation in the political process as “elitist,” but they were reflecting the sentiments of their times based on the historical facts as they knew them.
To them, before choices were made, reasoned deliberation was of paramount importance. Today, we have fewer and fewer independent arbiters of what is “fact,” or what is even “relevant.” Those checks on populism that our Founders established since they feared populist democracy have disappeared over the span of two decades. If there is no common empirical ground, emotion takes over.
As political discourse became more democratic where anyone and their uncle could lend their two cents at the tip of their finger on a computer, what our Founders feared would happen has happened. Reason has been replaced with feelings. Empiricism has been replaced by emotion. Public-spiritedness has been replaced by narcissism. Emotional responses have chased reasoned debate from the theater of political discourse.
The tipping point was the 2008 Presidential campaign. The advent of social media and Barack Obama’s strategic use of the Internet redefined American politics. What else explains the meteoric rise of an obscure former state senator from Illinois and two-year US Senator with no accomplishment of note on his resume to rise to the Democratic Party’s nominee for President? What else explains the meteoric rise of a partial-term, ignorant-of-the-world Governor of Alaska to rise to the level of a “heartbeat away from the Presidency” on the Republican side in 2008?
Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were the proverbial voices in the wilderness laying the groundwork for the rise of the television reality star populist to come along. Nobody read the tea leaves and saw it coming. When it came, nobody believed it had a chance. The joke is on the American voter come November.
Donald Trump thrives in this atmosphere of a social and political media-driven democratic free-for-all. It also illustrates the dangerous tendency to be politically obtuse and to seek your news exclusively from pundits like Rush Limbaugh on the Right, or Thom Hartmann on the Left. It illustrates how dangerous it can become to live in your own little bubble of an echo chamber where opposing views are drowned out amidst a chorus of emotional tirades.
This is not the democracy our Founders envisioned. Yet it is sadly what our democracy has become. A media motto like “Lean Forward” has become a de facto outlet for the Obama White House and all things Hillary. A media motto like “Fair and Balanced” has become a home for supporters of Donald Trump.
The solution is not to silence political media through nice sounding monikers like “net neutrality” or “the fairness doctrine” since neither are “neutral” nor “fair.” They are simplistic solutions devoid of commonsense. The solution is proper education in civics, something pretty much erased from classrooms today. The solution lies in driving emotional rhetoric into the grave of ignorance through turning the dial, flipping the station, or outright boycott. That would be true democracy in practice.