“Here I would like to reflect on the optimal mechanisms to maintain the rational mindset that underpins liberal democracy.
s Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1, liberal democracy is the product of “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force”. The normal state of human governance consists of tribalism, oppression and violence, where “we” compete with “them”, sharing little mutual respect, rights and responsibilities.
Liberal democracy offers an alternative, in which we resist our natural and tribal impulses and instead reason towards concepts such as universal individual rights and the consequent desirability of democratic procedures, the rule of law and constitutionalism. According to Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University, such liberal practices amount to “an institutional solution to the problem of governance over diversity”. Concepts like tolerance, mutual tolerance and respect between political equals do not appear naturally. They are the product of certain Enlightenment thought trends, and we must continue to reason to accept and support them, day in and day out.
Here I would like to reflect on the optimal mechanisms to maintain the rational mindset that underpins liberal democracy. In other words, in what ways can citizens be dissuaded from their natural impulses from falling into tribalism, and instead be persuaded to continue reasoning in support of liberal democratic principles?
One of these mechanisms is the written word.
Leading a liberal democracy on a large scale presents some challenges, which I have discussed in detail in my Merion West review from Walter Lippmann’s classic book, Public opinion. In short, there is a small knowledge problem in mass liberal democracy, as Lippmann sees it. Citizens lack direct experience (and knowledge) of so many political consequences. When our political debates are conducted on a large scale, there is a greater likelihood that their connection to our real lives will fade. The substance of the local town hall meeting is concrete, tangible and familiar, which is not the case with most discussions in the halls of Congress in Washington, DC.
To bridge this gap, we rely on the news media. If we are to maintain our liberal, democratic, and rational mindset, we had better rely solely on word-based news media to bridge this gap – think newspapers and magazines like this – rather than to television media.
But the medium itself – the written word – nevertheless leans towards the communication of substance, content, information.
As media theorist Neil Postman said his 1985 book Fun to death: public discourse in the era of show business, “Television offers viewers a variety of subjects, requires minimal skills to understand it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification … American television, in other words, is entirely devoted to providing its audiences with entertainment.” Importantly, Postman argues that television is ultimately a medium of entertainment, regardless of the subject of the television program. Even by relaying “the news”, television traffics images, sights and sounds. It aims to hold the viewer’s attention by stimulating their senses.
The written word, of course, can entertain, but entertainment is not its very essence. Instead, its main function is to communicate ideas. The postman writes: “the written word, and an oratory based on it, has content: semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. Thus, “whenever language is the primary medium of communication – especially language controlled by the rigors of print – an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. ”
When the news media bridge the gap between our real lives and political events through the written word, they do so primarily by communicating facts, opinions, analysis, ideas, etc. similar; there may be deeply rooted prejudices; and there can sometimes be an excess of opinion and a dearth of cold and hard facts and reports. But the medium itself – the written word – nevertheless leans towards the communication of substance, content, information.
In addition, the written word demands something from us as readers. We are not called to just sit and watch, to be entertained. Rather, we have to take the time and spend our intelligence to read the newspaper or magazine and continually assess the content of the report or the author’s argument. We unconsciously ask ourselves, “Is this true? “” Do I agree with that? That is to say, we reason through our reading. We develop the habit of weighing evidence, evaluating claims, and forming opinions after considering relevant evidence and competing arguments.
This is not the case when we consume our news through television media. The screen bias leans towards entertainment, towards the fantastic, the absurd, the interesting, the stimulating, the catchy. This trend not only exacerbates the most unfortunate dynamic of American politics turning into a form of entertainment but also fails to instill certain reasoning habits on the part of us viewers. The act of looking simply pleases us; it does not cultivate the aforementioned habits of evaluating evidence, reflecting on arguments and examining disagreements.
And that is why television ultimately erodes liberal democracy rather than supporting it. I am not saying here that the television media will inevitably bring down liberal democracy (that would be silly) but simply that they do not help to maintain it. This is because liberal democracy – especially the liberal part (i.e. respect for individual rights, tolerance of difference, respect for constitutional procedures) – does not naturally come from our lizard brains. tribal. Little liberal practices like these are the consequences of human reason, rationality and logic exercised over political science. Reason gave birth to liberal democracy, and reason must support it. Writing helps to instill rational habits; television communication does not.
As great political thinkers as Abraham Lincoln understood it, reason alone is seldom sufficient to sustain our liberal democratic experiment; it must be tied to more visceral ties to our regime, such as the ties of symbols and historical narrative. But it’s necessary, that’s why in politics you have to read more and watch less.