A little over a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, chaos continues to swirl around even the most basic of the administration’s operations. High profile controversies – most notably, the emerging details about Trump surrogates’ contact with members of the Russian government during the campaign – continue to roil the nascent administration. From within, leaks to the press abound, painting a portrait of a chaotic White House even more defined by power struggles and botched policy rollouts than usual. And all the while, Trump continues to make inflammatory statements, most recently asserting without evidence that then-President Barack Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower during the 2016 election.
At 3:35am on March 4, President Donald Trump tweeted an accusation that former President Barack Obama wiretapped the phones in Trump Tower prior to the election. Trump compared it to Watergate and called Obama “sick.” A spokesperson for Obama quickly and strongly denied the allegations, stating that “neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.” FBI Director James Comey asked the Justice Department to immediately reject the president’s allegations on the grounds that it falsely implies that the FBI broke the law.
“The specter of Brexit is in all of our societies,” cautions Alexander Betts in a TED talk in July. What is “Brexit”? Brexit was a vote held on June 23rd by the peoples of the United Kingdom (UK) to decide whether their country was to stay or leave the European Union (EU): a political and economic union composed of 28 member states. Voters’ main motivation to leave the EU was due to concerns over immigration, more specifically, their concerns over an increasing amount of refugees entering the UK. In the aftermath of Brexit, the election been labeled as a “rejection of globalisation.” What does this mean?
Donald Trump. Not a day goes by when I don’t hear that name. It is constantly on the news and it is what everybody is talking about. So much so, it is almost inescapable. This man has killed it. Since the start of his campaign he has managed to grasp the attention of the media, the nation and the world by saying whatever he wants, especially if it causes controversy. This tactic—whether purposeful or a mere reflection of his values and beliefs—has worked: Donald Trump is essentially the de facto Republican nominee. So hats off to you Mr. Trump, you have shown us how anger (against “Washington” politicians) and fear (of economic instability, foreigners, etc.) can be preyed on to mobilize a campaign to win. In the meantime, the Republican Party is struggling and making a concentrated effort to unite the party behind their champion. This might prove to be a challenge because Trump has essentially vilified everyone: not only his former opponents running for the Republican nomination (and in one case their wife) but entire nationalities, ethnicities and religions.
The economy continues to struggle, the educational system underperforms and tensions exist at just about every point on the international landscape. And there is a national presidential selection process underway. It seems, in such an environment, that citizens would feel compelled to get themselves fully up to date on news that matters. It also would stand to reason that the nation’s news media would feel an obligation to focus on news of substance.
Instead, too many citizens are woefully uninformed of the day’s significant events. A pandering media, primarily television, is content to post a lowest-common-denominator news agenda, featuring Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” release and extensive tributes to Prince.
Constitutional framer James Madison once famously wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Citizens who are unable or unwilling to arm themselves with civic knowledge diminish the nation’s ability to self-govern.
Technological advances have made it easier than ever for citizens to stay informed. The days of waiting for the evening television news to come on or the newspaper to get tossed on your doorstep are long gone. News is available constantly and from multiple sources.
A growing number of citizens, particularly millennials, now rely on social media for “news.” While that might seem like a convenient and timely way to stay informed, those people aren’t necessarily aware of anything more than what their friends had for lunch. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that about two-thirds of Twitter and Facebook users say they get news from those social media sites. The two “news” categories of most interest among social media consumers, however, are sports and entertainment updates.
Sadly, only about a third of social media users follow an actual news organization or recognized journalist. Thus, the information these people get is likely to be only what friends have posted. Pew further reports that during this election season, only 18 percent of social media users have posted election information on a site. So, less than a fifth of the social media population is helping to determine the political agenda for the other 80 percent.
The lack of news literacy is consistent with an overall lack of civic literacy in our culture. A Newseum Institute survey last year found that a third of Americans failed to name a single right guaranteed in the First Amendment. Forty-three percent could not name freedom of speech as one of those rights.
A study released earlier this year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni had more frightening results. In a national survey of college graduates, with a multiple-choice format, just 28 percent of respondents could name James Madison as father of the Constitution. That’s barely better than random chance out of four choices on the survey. Almost half didn’t know the term lengths for U.S. senators and representatives. And almost 10 percent identified Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy) as being on the Supreme Court.
The blame for an under-informed citizenry can be shared widely. The curriculum creep into trendy subjects has infected too many high schools and colleges, diminishing the study of public affairs, civics, history and news literacy.
The television news industry has softened its news agenda to the point where serious news consumers find little substance. Television’s coverage of this presidential election cycle could prompt even the most determined news hounds to tune out. The Media Research Center tracked how the big three broadcast networks covered the Trump campaign in the early evening newscasts of March. The coverage overwhelmingly focused on protests at Trump campaign events, assault charges against a Trump campaign staffer and Trump’s attacks on Heidi Cruz. Missing from the coverage were Trump’s economic plans, national security vision or anything else with a policy dimension.
When the Constitutional Convention wrapped up in 1787, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the closed-door proceedings and was asked what kind of government had been formed. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Those citizens who, for whatever reasons, are determined to remain uninformed, make it harder to keep that republic intact. Our nation, suffering now from political confusion and ugly protests, sorely needs a renewed commitment to civic knowledge.
‘Tis the season for politics, once again, in the United States of America. And while some surprising new topics, like the size of candidates’ hands, have cropped up in this cycle, some of the mainstays of American political rhetoric are also at the rendez-vous.
Take Donald Trump, for instance.
In January, one of his campaign rallies featured the following performance:
While it features somewhat dated nationalist lyrics (including verses like “Come on boys, take them down!”), slightly updated for promoting Mr. Trump’s bid in the 2016 presidential contest, it also highlights a theme that is about as central to American political rhetoric as apple pie is to American cooking: freedom.
Whether freedom has been invoked as an empty rhetorical trope, as in this case, or whether it has been used more substantitvely, it has so completely permeated electoral discourse as to become inescapable.
Whether they have talked about government regulation, trade, national security, tax reform, education, abortion, or immigration, freedom has been Republican candidates’ preferred frame of reference.
Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been quite as single-minded. While Clinton has spent a great deal of her time trying to square away her commitments to free trade and to an equalitarian progressive politics, Sanders has explained his commitment to democratic socialism as meaning “that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” “True freedom” according to Sanders, “does not occur without economic security. People are not free, they are not truly free, when they are unable to feed their family.”
And yet, these invocations are largely based on outdated conceptions of what freedom is. The idea at the back of Sanders’ viewpoint, that economic independence is the necessary precondition for democratic citizenship harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the yeoman farmer, as historian Eric Foner was already noting in his book, The History of American Freedom. And as sociologists have been observing since the 1950s, such an ideal of economic independence is woefully inadequate to the corporate economy in which we live.
But it is just as true that the thesis that deregulation of international trade or of the labor market will result in greater individual freedom is based on the idea, first defended by classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, that government power threatens individual liberty. Mill’s disciples in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that the crux of liberal freedom consists in the absence of coercion of the individual, either by private monopolies or by government power, so that the smaller the size of the government is and the less active it is in citizens’ lives, the greater will their freedom be.
But as early as the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram actually found, in a series of now famous experiments, that most people do not need to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do, including engaging in actions which they are convinced will most likely result in the death of an innocent person: they will do these things of their own free will – a situation that suggests that “free will” and freedom may not be the same things after all.
In fact, a growing body of evidence has been produced in the human sciences over the past 40 years that suggests that the notion of a free-willing individual, who can make decisions independently of social and cultural contexts is a figment of our imagination. What this research reveals is that it is not the absence of context that enables individuals to act freely (whether it be the absence of a monopoly or the absence of a state bureaucracy), but on the contrary the presence of one.
This scientific research reveals several very surprising things about human nature that directly contradict the vision of human beings as rational, egoistic individuals, driven by an unquenchable lust for pleasure, money, or power, which we inherited from classical liberalism. The most recent of the great apes, it turns out, is a hypersocial being, whose subjective experience of the world is profoundly shaped by its empathetic openness to others, an openness that is not premised on any sort of fundamental or primitive goodness, but rather on the evolutionary mechanics of communication. Social psychologists, for instance, have discovered that in order to understand what someone else is saying we have to imitate the motion of their vocal chords (though in a much reduced fashion). We have to, in other words, become them. Neuroscientists have also found a specific type of neuron which corresponds to this process in the brain itself, the so-called “mirror neuron.”
Our identities, and therefore our desires, are profoundly affected by our cultural, social, and political contexts. To be free thus necessitates participating in the formation of the communicational contexts that affects and form us all. Freedom requires not only the freedom of expression cherished by classical liberals, but a certain freedom of connection – the power to shape the contexts in which this free expression happens. The freedom of choice advocated by classical liberals and their twentieth century followers confuses the fruit of freedom, the will, with its root. Likewise, those social liberals and socialists who emphasize economic independence while ignoring the other complex dimensions and processes involved in the creation of a free personality seem to be missing a significant component of the reality of the process of freedom.
This conception of freedom, if we examine it closely, suggests that democracy is not just a matter of elections or of constitutional rights (though it undoubtedly includes those concerns). Nor is the issue that of how “big” government bureaucracy will be. More fundamentally, political freedom consists in individuals and communities having the power to mutually affect each other and form each other. Democracy, understood from this perspective becomes a way of life rather than a formal mode of government, one that has consequences not only for the way in which ownership of the media of mass communication is organized for instance (a frequent complaint of the Sanders campaign is that this ownership structure is creating a bias in its coverage of politics), but also for every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the bedroom, its fundamental principle being “equality of participation.” The aim of a “politics of freedom” in this context would be neither decreased regulation of the economy or increased government intervention but the creation of increased opportunities for participation by all members of society in both economic and political decision-making, regardless of their wealth or income level. Beyond the public funding of elections, one might imagine this agenda including decreased mediation of the mechanisms of political representation. Currently, for instance, the average ratio of representatives to represented in the US House of Representatives is something like 1: 290,000, making it extremely difficult for any but the most powerful interests to gain a hearing, regardless of the way elections are funded. And yet, there seem to be few technical impediments to cutting that ratio in half for instance. Any number of other reforms could be proposed that would enable greater citizen participation in the polity, from making congressional office-holders into recallable delegates in order to increase accountability, to instituting worker and consumer co-management councils in private corporations, legally entitled to raise concerns about the social and environmental consequences of business policies (corporations being legal entities to begin with, there seems to be little weight in the argument that this would be “undue government interference”).
Now, wouldn’t the transformation of everyday life from the standpoint of such a principle of “equality of participation” be the basis for a genuine “political revolution”?