There is something symmetrical about the fact that my first week in Jerusalem was taken up with the issues of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. And what could be more appropriate given that Israel was unhappy with Obama who was too slow and diplomatic along with overly careful about relationships with the Arab world, and Trump is about the opposite. Netanyahu has put together and drifted toward one of the most conservative governments in Israel’s history so it stands to reason that Trump should be more to his liking. But what could really happen? What are some of the issues in the new relationship between the U.S. and Israel?
First, there is little doubt that Netanyahu figures his path is going to be easier with respect to settlements. He has tried to walk the line between being supportive of settlements but still managing the international condemnation that comes with it. It was no accident that the announcement of thousands of new homes in the West Bank coincided with Trump’s ascendancy. And Netanyahu has stated rather boldly that he has no intention of giving the Palestinians a state. This is related to a point I’ve been making for some time. Does anyone really think that there’s going to be the creation of a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch? Does anyone really think that Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister who goes down in history as responsible for creating a Palestinian state? Even though Netanyahu is on record as supporting the two state solution, I figure you have to be pretty naïve to think that he actually meant it. Like Trump, Netanyahu will say pretty much anything he needs to say to satisfy the moment. The settlements remain perhaps the most significant obstacles to peace and they continue to be the major point of contention.
The US and Israel must put their heads together and work out a common platform designed to support the issues related to settlements. The fact that Netanyahu allows two minor political parties (Haredi and Bayit Yehudi), who are animated by settlement issues, to command so much attention is evidence of both his fragile coalition and the importance of the issue.
Both Trump and Netanyahu assume the relationship will be “bromantic.” That is, these two political and ideological brothers who share a common vision of the world – along with a common desire to change directions from Obama – will have a “bromance” hopefully followed by a complete union.
But in both love and politics things don’t work out the way you expect. I will just bet, for example, that Netanyahu is not happy about having to deal with Trump’s pesky son-in-law who may be bright and capable but seems woefully unprepared to be in a position to manage the most intractable international conflict in modern history. When I think of distinguished presidential advisers (e.g. Brzezinski, Kissinger) the name Jared Kushner doesn’t come to mind.
This is going to be a learning experience primarily for Trump who, as is quite evident, is a newcomer to politics with little knowledge or experience in international relations or policy. Trump’s rather careless statement, for example, about moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem is a good example of his naïveté. He started to back off from this demand as soon as he learned of its provocative nature and the damaging consequences. There is little doubt that Netanyahu will try to lecture Trump and “educate” him on the issues. This puts Netanyahu in a power position because he is more able to manage the information environment. But in the end I hope Netanyahu is careful because this is a president who will strike back viciously if he feels manipulated, disrespected, or challenged. Hopefully, Netanyahu will use his skills to do more than “bromance” his friend; rather, he will take this opportunity to direct Trump to that portion of reality that represents what is best for both countries.
Next week on February 7th I arrive in Israel for a five month stay as a Lady Davis Fellow associated with Hebrew University. The inaugural definition of this blog was devoted to the Middle East and Israel and even though it remains that way I do admit to adjusting course after Donald Trump floated to the top of the pool of presidential candidates. His candidacy and his victory as President is so unnerving and shocking that I could not help but devote more time to try and understand what happened. Trump has to be the crudest and least prepared president in history and I’ve been warning that this is going to be a wild ride. The first 10 days of his presidency certainly has lived up to my expectation.
But over the next few months I’ll post more about Israel – even though there are probably more readers interested in Trump – and I will try to provide some sort of real-time value-added insight as a result of my presence on the ground. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I simply will not be able to shake Trump from the tangle of international relations, identity politics, his oppressive populism, or my tolerances for outrage.
Israel is not quite the same country or culture it once was. The Israeli founding narrative (an invincible democratic and moral Jewish state–holding a righteous sword– and mightily reasserting itself in the face of historic anti-Semitism to reclaim its ancient homeland) has broken up and does not echo the emotional and historical resonances it once did. The long and corrosive battle with the Arabs has depressed the nation and unleashed an unhealthy tribalism and nationalism. Much of the talk between Arabs and Jews is we-they talk that treats the other as a member of a binary opposite group along with attributions that explain deficiencies and problems in the culture by referring them to the particular “nature” of the culture. Still, Israel is a complex multicultural society full of the old and the new.
Listen to Bret Stephens explain the political and social conditions of the Arab world. I might not hold such analysis against lesser journalists but Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Stephens is familiar with Israel, bright and knowledgeable about the issues but he remains committed to various prejudices and distortions when it comes to Israel. In the video Stephens explains how it is anti-Semitism that prevents Arab economic and political progress. He has teamed up with one of the most agenda-driven conservatives (Dennis Prager) to produce this short video, which has some defensible claims, but is so overstated and exaggerated as to render it unusable. The video capitalizes on the racist assumption that Jews are intellectually superior because when they were driven from Spain, or Germany, or Czarist Russia there was a decline in these cultures. A simplistic analysis if there ever was one. It is of course beyond the confines of this posting to offer more comprehensive historical and economic analysis but the notion that the loss of Jews in these populations is responsible for their decline sounds like just the sort of thinking he claims characterize Arab countries. I certainly don’t deny that a preoccupation with anti-Semitism is real enough and an unproductive distraction but is only one affect among an entire nexus of effects that explain problems in the Arab world.
Moreover, most Arabs critical of Israel would tell you that is Zionism and not Judaism that they object to. This may be a modern form of anti-Semitism – and I believe that argument can be made – but it still challenges the centrality of anti-Semitism as Stephens explains it. Israel is changing because it lives in an environment of constant threat that it has been unable to untangle itself from. 70 years of violence and aggression hasn’t worked very well for either side. Maybe it’s time both sides extend their hands palm down. I will explore the various possibilities in the next few months.
Well, some patterns are pretty clear: there is an ever-growing collection of small time nationalists who are angry and threatening the quality of democracy around the world. Even though the 20th century is characterized as an era of expanding inclusiveness, and a century that witnessed more democratic change than any other, it all seems to be dissipating as citizens interestingly and strangely become more comfortable with authoritarian leadership.
And it gets worse! Foa and Mounk, writing in the Journal of Democracy in both 2016 and 2017, report that American citizens are not only unhappy with their governments but increasingly critical of liberal democracy. 24% of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy was either a “bad” or a “very bad” way to run a country. This is a sharp increase from previous measures and especially associated with the young. And consistent with these findings, there was an increase in the number of Americans expressing approval for “army rule.”
This is a shocking state of affairs and at first glance it seems impossible. But the data on Americans is consistent with the larger global patterns. Continuing to cite from Foa and Mounk in the Journal of Democracy (volume 28, 2017), 72% of those born before World War II thought that democracy was essential. Only 30% of Millennials said the same thing. And across long-standing democracies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand the proportion of young people who believe that democracy is essential has drifted away.
And, of course, the rise of people like Trump, Le Pen in France, Chávez in Venezuela, Brexit, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungry, and Putin are all consistent with the decline in democracy because they blame an allegedly politically corrupt establishment (note Trump’s inauguration speech and reference to a nefarious Washington elite) but still want to concentrate power in an executive.
A narrow vision of groups and polities is the essence of the populist appeal and fundamentally antidemocratic because populism foregrounds and privileges the perspective of a particular group. Democracy is pluralistically oriented and committed to solving problems through dialogue and discourse.
What Explains All This?
For starters, it is not explained by isolated geographic aberrations. The decline in the respect for democracy is apparent in Europe as well as South America. But what does seem to be a key issue is the strength or durability of democracy. I would underscore the observation that democracies are a continuum. The country and political system is not either democratic or not in a binary sense. Measurements of the extent to which elections are free and fair, and citizens have rights of speech, movement, and assembly etc. result in a democracy rating but less so the strength or commitment to democracy. When democracies are weak they are more easily overcome. Moreover, the rise of citizen skepticism and disenfranchisement promote populist and antisystem parties.
It’s fair to say that Trump is like no candidate in American history. His victory caused so much pain and angst for large portions of the electorate because he fit no model of presidential preparation or decorum. His blatant political disrespect and sexism were like nothing the American public has seen in a presidential aspirant. Trump’s victory could have only taken place in the context of declining faith in democracy as well as a persistent history of delegitimizing the press, political parties, and the system they represent. It’s no accident that someone like Trump was elected during a historical period where the two political parties are so polarized, and so incapable of engaging each other to solve problems, that citizens look for alternatives, presumably “correct” alternatives, that don’t require them to consider the diversity of opinions democracies are so good at managing.
You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.
And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.
The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.
There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.
This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.
Sorry my friends who are blindly supportive of Israel but the US failure to veto UN Resolution 2335 was correct and justified. In December the United Nations passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies including the construction of new housing. The vote was 14-0 in favor of the resolution and the United States abstained.
This caused an outpouring of anger and accusation claiming that the Obama administration initiated the failure to veto, and the whole thing was “shameful,” and “hostile to Israel.” The vote was nonbinding so various sanctions are not on the table. But it does have the possibility of internationalizing the conflict even more than it already is, and simply adding to the list of criticisms Israel must suffer.
Yet the fact remains that no solution, no progress toward end of conflict, is going to include half a million settlers in the West Bank. The key issue, the fundamental principle, is for Israel to remain and continue to be Jewish and Democratic. It simply cannot do this in some sort of binational state or in circumstances in which Israel must oversee a hostile minority. The two state solution is the only answer that safeguards both Israel and begins the process of developing a Palestinian national and political identity along with institutions that protect and bolster Palestinian life.
Obama should have made this point and been more critical of the settlements even earlier in his presidency. In fact, he has talked plenty about Israeli-Palestinian peace along with lofty generalities about our interests, but has really done very little to bring a two state solution into effect. This last minute abstention just before he scoots out of office was actually gutless on Obama’s part and helped the resolution lose some of its impact. So Kerry, in an effort to chastise and influence Israel, delivered a speech trying to appeal to moderate Israelis.
Kerry’s speech was a cogent analysis of the current situation including admissions of deep despair between the two sides accompanied by anger, frustration, and unproductive indifference. More than a few specialists who weighed in on the issue wished the speech had been delivered a few years earlier.
The basic principles of a future solution – there are six of them – are easily agreed upon and they include the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with the right to exist. Israel also seeks a declaration of the “end of conflict” which provides a foundation for discussion and negotiation.
True enough, the resolution is a rebuff to Israel but if the United States is going to be taken seriously as a negotiation partner, a fair and genuinely engaged partner, then it must be possible to point out disagreements and differences of opinion between the US and Israel. The settlements are described in the resolution as a major obstacle to the two state solution, and primarily responsible for the stagnation and lack of progress toward peace. It is true that the United Nations seems woefully biased and unbalanced when it easily finds ways to criticize Israel while the violence in Syria rages on and they do little or nothing about human rights violations around the world. Still, that should not stop the UN from doing what it must.
But all of this commotion notwithstanding, the world is going to change on January 20 and highly symbolic United Nations votes (in the most vacuous sense of the term) will seem pretty insignificant.
Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.
Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.
The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.
Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.
There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category
Enemies versus Adversaries
|To be destroyed.||To be defeated.|
|Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust.||The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.|
|No trust.||Trust is possible.|
|Zero-sum game.||Non-zero-sum game.|
|Warfare metaphors.||Possibilities for cooperation.|
|Differences between the two sides are maximized.||Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.|
|Unwavering commitment to a perspective.||Opportunity for change and altering perspectives|
|The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it.||Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.|
|Statements are predictable and offer little new information.||New information surfaces and can be addressed.|
|Success requires simple impassioned statements.||Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.|
Sung to the theme of M*A*S*H
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
What madman or anguished society would give the keys to the candy store we call the United States to Donald Trump? No candidate in history has been less prepared and, moreover, does not seem to be bothered by it. His cabinet and advisor appointees make for a ghoulish monster’s ball of Wall Street billionaires who have no experience in government, business executives who think running the government is the same thing as running a business, and ideologues with an agenda that is ironically counter to the mission of the office they are running.
Trump’s election has been regularly compared to populist movements in history and currently around the world. It is in line with populist and nationalistic parliaments in Hungry, Poland, Greece, and the rise of the right in France. And the rhetoric of populism is consistent across cultures. Such rhetoric is often an early indicator of unstable and vulnerable democracies. Truly consolidated democracies are the most resistant and stable forms of government and most likely to be immune to the siren call of nationalism and populism. But less established democratic political cultures, especially those with charismatic strongmen as leaders, are more susceptible to the political discourse that constitutes populism.
That is, the modern populist praises tough and decisive leadership, belittles and distrusts elites and specialists in an effort to alienate the average person from the truly competent, and is critical of institutions. Trump, interestingly, has some new wrinkles for this pattern because although his rhetoric strikes a chord with the struggling and downscale demographics, he has successfully convinced them that he will improve their lives. Curiously, Trump traffics in elitism. And he will soon go about the business of using his own appointees as loyalists who will compromise the media, silence the opposition, and create a threatening discursive environment. He has already begun to undermine trusted institutions such as the CIA (taking the unprecedented position that the CIA is wrong about Russian cyberhacking), the media (a regular flow of criticism and delegitimization that cast even more doubt on quality sources of information), the legislative history of conflict of interest policy (refusal to release tax forms, challenges to his own business interests), and foreign policy traditions (a more volatile and aggressive foreign policy such as breaking the nuclear treaty with Iran, harsh challenges to China, and name-calling).
The United States’ record of promoting liberalism and generally making the right decisions is strong enough. We commit our military when necessary; typically pass legislation that protects the rights of individuals (whether it be guns or abortions); we continue to make progress on due process and equal protection under the law; and we have a decent history of widening the circle of citizen inclusion with respect to rights and opportunities.
But we momentarily lost our minds when we voted for Trump. It was a reckless mistake that requires a “do over.” Clinical research explains that for successful suicide victims there is only a few seconds in which they will actually pull the trigger or jump. The rest of the time they are holding back but there remains some moment – some brief period when the window is open – in which all of their stress, pressures, and cognitive distortions conflate and they actually step off the ledge or pull the trigger.
So we have the United States and Trump. The American citizenry momentarily lost its mind and pulled the trigger. It’s going to be a crazy few years riddled with mistakes resulting from Trump’s lack of preparation, his long and embarrassing record of bad behavior and misogyny, his refusal to listen to security briefings because he can lone wolf-it, his knee-jerk congenital lying (his loss of the popular vote by almost 3 million was from people casting illegal votes; Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the American election), and his naïveté about world leaders.
I fully expect Trump to expand his control and throw the population a bone or two on occasion, all the while converting the presidency into a postmodern spectacle designed to continue Trump brand recognition.
It is quite interesting how just a few short months ago we were burying the Republican Party. They were in a state of disarray with a crowd of presidential contenders each of which seem to be more flawed than the next. And Trump was the worst of the bunch. As his momentum grew there were more and more articles and analyses decrying the state of the Republican Party explaining how Trump was going to destroy it. The reliable sensible old guard (Romney, McCain, Bush) were not only abandoning candidates but actively working against them. Romney’s pointed and vitriolic attacks on Trump were shocking coming from the cool businessmen Republican. So what happened? How did one of the worst candidates who is the least prepared and lacks the basic manners for the job get elected?
It turns out that the Republicans can’t take credit for getting Trump elected, but the Democrats can take some blame. And it wasn’t Hillary’s fault either. Her campaign made mistakes but it was not the technical and strategic components of the campaign that made the difference; it was the smug identity politics of the left; it was that sense that if you disagree with me (a good liberal) you must be some simplistic uneducated fool who is racist and sexist. And I am equally guilty.
Liberalism is a political ideology fundamentally concerned with inclusion, rights, and individual freedom. In recent years it has become associated with sharp group identities demanding recognition and a tension between “celebrating differences” and seeking the commonalities that bind us together as a nation. Our history of privatizing ethnicity and religion, and using the overarching American national ideals (democracy, individual rights, etc.) as common factors has served us well. It has meant over the years that our personal identities are not wrapped up in religion and ethnicity but in political philosophy designed to treat each other equally. But as those “rights” became increasingly group identification rights such that groups were clamoring for distinction and difference rather than commonality the differences and cleavages amongst us became the focal point. Consequently, as the title of this essay indicates, public argument and deliberation to solve problems receded into the background as individuals foregrounded their personal identities and private pain.
Liberal activism in the service of identity politics – to the exclusion of other issues – has been making progress along with a smoldering grassroots reaction and intensifying disdain for the other side. Finally, we ran into Trump who was equally as skilled at a self-righteous and aggressive style of discourse and thereby became the voice of the disenchanted. It’s important to underscore that the liberal group agenda is responsible for improving group political rights and battling the racism and discrimination it is so recognized for. The “group rights” agenda is responsible for reshaping civic life and addressing inequities burdening minorities as well as other segments of society. But the evolution of those rights into an arrogant identity politics rather than a unifying political agenda has left us with the contentious group distinctions we are experiencing and its accompanying polarization.
The recent presidential campaign was a despicable display of politics that was almost free of discussion of issues, uncivil, tacky, shallow, and polarizing. It failed its responsibility to our foremost political requirement, which is to use democratic means to shape a society into a fair and governable unit. This of course includes respect for individual group identities but in the future might require more emphasis on those things we need to do together rather than separately.
There is a correlation between the American media landscape and the change in public discourse, especially presidential discourse. Trump represents a different type of person to occupy the office and that is especially true of his language, digital media use, and discursive practices. As more than a few people have noted, we are in a historical period were authority is disrespected and challenged on all sides. Facts just don’t seem to matter. And when we become disconnected from facts it is possible to believe anything. So science is rejected and challenged on the basis of arguments and reasons outside the boundaries of science. Global warming, climate change, the value of vaccinations, etc. are all subjected to a set of criteria and justifications incompatible with proper scientific standards of reasoning.
Trump is a frightening extreme when it comes to ignoring facts and simply making it up or saying whatever he pleases. And the situation is even more egregious when you combine his temperament with a personality disorder. That is, he is so incapable of accepting criticism or recognizing defeat that he digs in his heels and lashes back even more aggressively. The truth be damned. When you combine this disposition with the fact that he actually knows very little and is unschooled in diplomatic, political, and intellectual conversations you have a problem. The mix can be combustible. Remember he said most of his knowledge is based on the Sunday news shows so his political knowledge is about equivalent to whatever information comes in a headline service.
The Media and the Formation of Trump’s Consciousness
What kind of mediascape does Trump live in? His vocabulary, short assertions, egocentrism, and incomplete grasp of the issues have been fashioned as a result of his emergence from a network of communication patterns and exposure to issues situated within the particular media environment. In a word, Trump talks like and processes information like those in his dominant mediascape. Let me be more precise.
Rodney Benson in a paper for Goldsmiths describes “The New American Media Landscape.” Benson essentially posits three segments of the US journalism field. The first is a vast infotainment field that is populated by well-maintained websites such as Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Local commercial television and the innovative websites Vice and Vox are included in this category. These sites produce news in an appealing fashion intended to attract audiences; they do some interesting things but are designed more to attract attention then quality information. A second segment of the mediascape is the partisan media represented by Fox (conservative) and MSNBC (liberal). The political blogosphere is also pertinent here. This is the terrain of biases and shouting matches where slavishly clinging to a political perspective, even if it’s an indefensible perspective, in order to bring down the other side is the primary motivation. And the third territory is the mainstream quality media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Specialty magazines and academic papers are also part of the quality media landscape.
Trump is always critical of the mainstream quality media because they are issue and data based in an effort to treat issues according to their quality and allowing good solutions to emerge rather than insisting on a political perspective that is forced on everyone else. The mainstream quality media is more critical and analytical and seeks to attract an audience on that basis. Trump’s discourse and primary influences clearly match the second level partisan terrain of the media characterized by distortions and misinformation. His name calling and bombastic style are contrary to what a functioning democracy requires which is a public narrative that recognizes differences.
The image of Trump as a populist nationalist (I will reserve judgment on using the word fascist for now) is increasingly defensible as he continues to appeal to an angry population by stoking the fires of their resentment. His 3 o’clock in the morning tweets make him an active participant in the partisan landscape. Apparently, a couple of nights ago Trump was watching a program on flag burning as symbolic speech. Consistent with his unreflective style he tweeted his immediate emotions which were to assert that burning the American flag should result in either jail time or loss of citizenship. He used new social media (Twitter) to blurt out an unconstitutional and indefensible gut reaction exerting a sense of power. His behavior from the partisan landscape was responded to by the quality media with a lecture for Mr. Trump on the Constitution and the extent to which it protects symbolic speech, of which the Supreme Court has established. This is one thing – maybe even to be expected – from a private citizen but a little scary and disappointing from the President of the United States. I suspect we will see more media territorial framework tensions as Trump’s partisan media style clashes with other segments of the media landscape.
This video makes some very strong points and is worth watching. I suggest you click on it now and watch. The video is sponsored by “Media Matters” which is a liberal organization but one that has the interests of our democracy in mind. It is possible to make the case that systematic and consciously perpetrated bias by Fox News governs their organizational identity and has quantifiable effects on voting patterns and political knowledge. The claims of news bias are so pervasive and so self-contradictory that it’s damaging any remnants of news credibility. Everybody believes the news is biased right up until the point the news says something they agree with. And, moreover, people are absolutely convinced that their perceptions are correct and their understanding of the issues and whatever source they came from is accurate. The public is shockingly naive about the frequency and forms of information processing distortions.
Let’s pay attention for a moment to this issue of news bias and try for some rigor and conclusions that result from data and controlled studies. I’ve grown weary of everyone complaining about the news and biases especially when all the complaints are simply self-serving. It borders on fascinating how few people see their own distortions and biases. Every Trump supporter is convinced the New York Times and the television media – minus Fox News – favored the other side and was critical of Trump while being charitable toward Hillary. And Hillary supporters (although in much smaller numbers) lamented the fascination with Trump that brought him so much free media time.
I would call your attention to a study directly confronting this issue of Fox News and its impact in the news sphere. The authors examine the impact of media bias, the persuasiveness of a particular media, the likelihood of voting, and mobility rates. Moreover, and something most citizens don’t think about, the review of the studies includes conditions of the receivers. In other words, the same news programming does not have the same effect on everyone. So, on the basis of survey research the authors found that 22% of the population believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but 33% of Fox News viewers believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The findings hold even after controlling for party identification.
Additionally, exposure to conservative media has an effect on voter choice including being responsible for switching some Republicans to Democratic voters. The results are slightly conditioned by the psychological state of receivers. Those watching Fox news for the first time were more persuadable than viewers who watched consistently. This particular study focused on Fox News and conservative media but I would presume that the pattern of results apply to liberal media as well even if the effects are stronger or weaker.
My concern here is not to repeat the pernicious effects of Fox News or biased media but to sound the alarm for increasing pressure to both find quality outlets of information, as well as “educate” the public a little more about the nature and exposure to bias and what to do with it. Fox News is responsible for taking partisan positions and making some extreme even outrageous claims; these then get repeated and spread throughout the population thus multiplying the distorted effects.
Turning more toward public media rather than commercial media is one response to this situation. Public media presents more in-depth and critical news about domestic and international affairs and is capable of increasing citizen engagement as well as quality information.