Trump and Fake News

 

Mind you, I give Trump no credit for knowledgeable and skilled use of  social media. And even though I will examine his use of fake news this does not imply that Trump has conscious strategic understanding of what he is doing. This analysis concerns new media. The perpetrators of fake news or propaganda can easily find like-minded supporters who confirm each other’s perceptions and pre-existing prejudices. So fake news can become “reality” very quickly and easily. Trump benefited tremendously from this phenomenon. He would take the crowd size estimate at a political rally and deny it immediately claiming the crowd was bigger than the newspaper reported. They, according to Trump, reported lower numbers because they were prejudiced against him and not because it was an accurate calculation. Trump accused the media (e.g., the New York Times) of publishing fake news (crowds were smaller than they actually were)

Fake news is directly responsible for intervening in the civic sensibilities of the state. When Trump tweets that the news is fake, he is redirecting attention away from social goods such as public health, immigration policy, health insurance, or some other social value. This results in purposeful and systematic renegotiation of attention. Often, ignoring certain issues is just the policy position a political leader takes and this is exactly what the Trump administration did with respect to detention of immigrant children, government health insurance programs, Russian spying, and was even part of government’s approach to the Covid crisis.

 

Fake news causes information disorder. It contaminates the news streams. Figure 1 represents three types of information disorder discussed by Wardle (2020). Fake news can be simply misinformation where the information problems are unintentional and characterized by mistakes and inaccuracies that were hard to avoid. Or, it can be somewhat more extreme and be disinformation which is increasingly nefarious because it is fabricated deliberately. Disinformation causes

confusion and pollutes the social media with the intent of deliberately harming others. And the third is malinformation which is intentionally designed to cause harm such as deliberately revealing personal information. The key point here is that fake news, which influences the information environment in some way, is more complex and pernicious in the modern technological world. That some news is user-generated means that the collection and interpretation of such information is already predisposed toward certain presuppositions and power relations.

Fake news takes on a serious philosophical bent because it concerns the distinction between truth and post truth and the destabilization of objective facts. And fake news is particularly insidious with respect to open democratic societies. It has become increasingly important to all forms of social media that, as a whole, constitute the political talk of the culture. Fake news is similar to propaganda and propaganda is distorted political speech. Fake news is thus political speech and the quality of such political speech is dependent on the quality of a democracy.

Consequently, fake news is instrumental in determining who talks to whom and becomes a significant force in the determination of democracies and their trajectory.

Wardle, C. (2020). Journalism and the new information echo system: Responsibilities and challenges. In fake news (Ed.) Zimdars, M. & McLeod, K. (pp) 71-85. MIT press.

Fake News and The Semantics of Post Truth

This enigmatic term – “post truth” – has been around for some time now and it is confusing for most people. Since the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that the concept of post truth was significant enough that it was identified as word of the year in 2016, we are certainly justified in trying to make more sense of it. What does it mean and how did the concept of post truth get so central to the interpretation of some important ideas in contemporary culture? It is no accident that the concept of post truth exists at the same time as ideas such as fake news. What follows is an explanation of post truth and how it informs the notion of fake news.

Briefly, post truth is the idea that objective facts are not so important in shaping opinion as opposed to emotional appeal and personal beliefs. The “anti-maskers who refused to wear a mask or quarantine during the Covid crisis because they didn’t recognize the validity of the science behind immunology or network theory are one example of a group of people who represent a post truth mentality. Some theorists have argued that political policies are no longer developed on the basis of facts and the distinction between fake and real is unimportant. Consequently, democracies become emotional political processes.

If facts become unimportant or nonexistent then they become victims of a strong social construction; that is, it becomes possible to have everyday citizens be the determinants of what gets defined as a “fact.” There is something terribly paradoxical about this. Facts are supposed to be the sine qua non of stable truth. If anything should not be subject to the whims of human emotion and variability, it is facts. How can you argue that facts are pushed to the background and unimportant? Are not facts supposed to be stubborn and true? The answer, within the post truth theoretical tradition, is “no” facts are subject to the same social influences as any other construct and hold no privileged position in political discourse. Facts can be redefined, manipulated, and reinterpreted to mean anything and the key issue is how many converts can I create.

Trump set about the business of delegitimizing the press. Of course, the press is the one institution that holds Trump’s feet to the fire. The single institution that fact checks him, exposes his lies and manipulations, and records his indiscretions. So, it makes sense that he would go after the press and he did so by making the distinction between fake news and real news. Of course, real news was only stories supportive of Trump. Anything critical was labeled fake news.

Facts are under siege. They are becoming highly politicized where people express their own facts – what they believe to be facts or want to be facts – in order to turn the concept into a rhetorical weapon. The term fake news is a good example. It is appropriated by political actors in order to attack opponents. The concept of “fake” is no longer a measurable or precise definitional question but one of political authority because the issue is who gets to control the definition in order to use it for his or her own purposes and is therefore in a position to dismiss others.

Trump’s appropriation of the term fake news is so extreme as to be laughable. A skilled manipulator of meaning will exploit certain commonalities of meaning in order to lend them some credibility. Those who accuse liberals on the left as being socialist have been effective because certain concepts and ideas that emerge from the political position termed “liberalism” do in fact have at least some similarity to positions emerging from theories of socialism. That is why those who attack liberals by deploying the word socialist have been successful. They conflate the two terms (liberal and socialist) sufficiently such that the relationship between the two terms is plausible and the narrower more aggressive and distasteful ideas associated with “socialism” are more easily transferred to “liberalism.” But Trump declared even before the election that if he did not win the process was rigged. He baldly asserted the “fact” that there were election improprieties even though no charge was ever accepted and not a single claim supported.

It is clearly possible to cite more precise meaning and fact-based issues that distinguish liberalism from socialism, but this is not my concern at the moment. Because the role of communication is so central to democracies, these democracies are saturated with disagreement over what is “real” and what is “false.”

Part 2 of this essay will examine the nature of democracy and how one discourse follows another in terms of how much accepted disagreement it can tolerate. I will clarify how post truth rejects a rational political discourse that results in consensus; thus, post truth contends that maintaining a multitude of political voices, all contained in their subjective reality, is a more accurate reflection of the work of democracies and must grapple with the idea that logical and rational problem-solving is the definitive approach to managing differences, which is the goal of democratic processing.

Civility is More Than Good Manners

We must continue to underscore the concept of “civility” for democratic deliberation and political problem solving. It remains the case that too often civility is thought of as a simple nicety that makes things more pleasant and is the result of little more than good manners.

It is no accident that as civility declines in our polarized political culture argumentative complexity and sophistication suffers. So how do we attenuate this marked drop in civility and break the cycle of mutual incivility? How do we get both policymakers and ordinary citizens to at least approach the deliberative ideal? Alas, it is possible to make progress in this area.

Deteriorating civility causes citizens to be less trusting of democratic institutions. Institutions lose credibility and appear to be failing when they are characterized by diminished civility. Moreover, the spectacle of incivility draws attention away from the core content of the conflict. Citizens pay more heed to the displays of incivility than they do to the content of the messages exchanged between the conflicting parties. And, when participants in the democratic process are not paying attention to the core issues, they are more influenced by stereotypes and partisan cues which serve as reptilian responses that are not comprised of the thoughtfulness we desire during deliberation.

Three Tips on How To Be More Civil

Start with even a modicum of respect. Liberals often think conservatives are unevolved and less educated. And they waste no time communicating this. And conservatives believe liberals to be out of touch and naïve. Any conversation is going to be improved if I feel the warmth of your affection and respect. Everyone develops a political consciousness over time that is the result of multiple influences including family, education, social environment, and ethnopolitical identification. Take the time to understand, to quote the vernacular, “where someone is coming from”. Personally, I’m interested in why people believe what they do and how they came to those beliefs. Consequently, I find it useful, more respectful, and less likely to drift into extreme polarization if I ask questions and make contributions in a more engaged and circumscribed manner.

Listen fully, and don’t stop listening just when you hear something you disagree with. You have to treat yourself as a filter sifting through ideas but ultimately letting it all filter through before responding. Otherwise, you run the risk of quickly categorizing the other person and then never getting beyond those category boundaries. Civility will be emergent if the other person(s) in the conversation is convinced that they have your attention. Maintaining this attention, and the attendant civility, requires cognitive effort.

Ask a lot of open-ended questions. I am often surprised at the willingness of some people to blurt out an opinion that is clearly harsh and rigid with no consideration given to the context or presence of others. Just go to your neighborhood bar that has the news on television – a rarity these days for just the reason I’m talking about – and see how long it takes for somebody to curse at the screen and yell at Hillary Clinton, or Obama, or Trump. If I ask a question such as “What do you mean by that…” or “Tell me how you came to that conclusion…” or “What do you think about some issue” then these questions are going to open up the other person and require them to expand on challenging assertions and charges. Making confrontational accusatory statements or directly challenging the other result in two troublesome possibilities, namely, the categorization of the other which narrows the relationship between the two, or the perception of interpersonal threat which exaggerates differences and creates even wider gaps differentiating the two parties.

Learning civility helps people become explicable to each other and makes for deeper conversations. Ideally, the parties to the confrontation would engage in reciprocal conversation such that they would express themselves in a such a manner that they find out more about what they believe themselves. The interactional self finds its own image and the other in the network of interactions that he or she occupies. Civility is foundational. So, next Thanksgiving confront your right-wing uncle or your left-wing cousin in a manner consistent with the civility necessary for reflective conversation.

How Did We Allow Trump to Happen?

Yes, Trump lost the election. But he got 74 million votes: That means there is still work to do. There has been much analysis of Trump –his style, inelegance, crudity, and manipulation. But there has been considerably less analysis of the audience side of the relationship. What is it about our culture that allowed Trump to thrive and be elected in the first place?

I’m concerned about and threatened by the general intellectual (rather anti-intellectual) nature of our citizenry. Trump was a historical mistake, an anomaly, a monster from another planet, the trickster capable of fooling the creatures that grow in democracies.

Our democracy, and the Constitution that warrants it, is designed to manage and control differences. That’s what systems of control do. Political cultures are composed of differences and those differences can be exaggerated and out-of-control with asymmetrical power relations, or they can mollify differences. And the history of our democracy is one of expanding inclusion; that is, demagogues like Trump are held in check while the legitimate political class tries to understand the makeup of the electorate.

The citizenry of a democracy is supposed to hold primary agency and need to be prepared given effective educational and socializing systems. In a word, too many Americans (shall we say 74 million of them) were easily duped or at a minimum failing the cognitive requirements of sound political decision-making. I typically ask someone who voted for Trump what it was they were imagining. Given his history of corruption, fabrications, narcissism, and moral turpitude what justified a vote for Trump. Usually, and this is the case with the Christian right also, they recognize Trump’s character but do not care. How did we develop into a political culture that does not care about respect for others and generally moral behavior? There are three areas that must change in order to avoid future “Trumps.”

First, our polarization stretches us to opposite poles of opinion. The guardrails protecting us from extreme language and exaggerated points along with poor evidence-based reasoning have come tumbling down. People express themselves more extremely and make it impossible to find common intersections of agreement. Polarization is not the same as disagreement. The participants in our political culture must learn to disagree and maintain respect for an opponent that is an adversary and not an enemy.

Secondly, we have damaged one of our founding creeds which is pluralism. Our anxieties over cultural differences continue to deepen even in the face of calls for diversity in a society replete with messages about respect for differences. Structural discrimination is a continuing problem and will be dependent on civic practices of persuasion over coercion and toleration rather than resistance.

Finally, I have a gut feeling that our educational system is failing many students in the basic practices of democracy especially argumentation and decision-making. There should be a redoubled effort to return to teaching strategies of rhetorical practices and the benefits of evidence-based reasoning.

Teaching public life and the opportunities for an increased unity of public goals is a direct response to the threats of Donald Trump and will guarantee a citizenry prepared to resist the demagogic aspirations of some future Trump.

The left and social justice overreach

 

I have been interested in, and somewhat put off by, that spectrum of the left that considers their moral status to be so fundamental to the principles of the democratic state that they become almost fascistic in their expression and implementation of these principles. The belief that society is saturated with illiberal forces and it is the responsibility of the left to constantly surveil and adjust these forces such that the political system moves more toward equality and ethical pluralism.

In the truly moral political society asymmetries in power and access to resources (both symbolic and material) are to be subject to equalizing forces. In other words, if an ethnic, religious, political, or social class group holds particular power, then that power is to be attenuated.

There are two classes of power, one economic and the other symbolic. Economic inequality is difficult to manage unless the state is described as highly centralized or socialist and the economy is centrally managed. The issue of how centrally managed an economic system should be is the subject of persistent political debate. The political parties typically organize around these issues with liberal parties favoring more central management in pursuit of social goods and weakening of debilitating group differences, and conservative parties relying less on managed government.

 But other inequalities are symbolic and refer to differences between group status and the perceptions of group rank and significance. This is where ethnic, religious, or social class differences develop into stereotypes and distorted perceptions of others and result in unequal groups and the resultant group tensions. So, racist speech on campus is considered harmful because it attacks the goals of education, inclusion, and it interferes with rational discourse. The key issue here is how much difference do we tolerate. And the attempt to manage these groups – typically by changing language – is what is referred to as political correctness or PC. Tactics and strategies are controversial such as speech codes, language policies, and restrictions on how one speaks in the workplace etc.

This is where the left slips into repression operating under the guise of group sensitivity. This is the area of social justice overreach. Pre-scripting in the form of a speech code is nothing less than prior restraint where language and communication are censored first and examined later.

The logical extension of speech codes, prior restraint, and group identity rights is state-promoted conformity. This results in support for the liberal state to counteract oppression and inequalities in the name of justice. The state becomes 1984-ish and coupled with restricting individual liberties rather than increasing them, which was the original liberal goal. Consequently, the left’s attempt to smooth out inequalities and enhance social justice, ends up doing just the opposite.

But it gets worse. In the leftist postmodern conception of social justice anything that claims to move us toward truth or a more accurate reflection of reality (such as science, or reason) becomes disreputable because it is a hegemonic system that is destined to reproduce its own power. Thus, the left has again overreached.

The liberal agenda is noteworthy in its attempt to moderate differences and more equally distribute justice and fairness. And even some sort of soft censorship might be acceptable. But when the liberal left institutes policies and infrastructure designed to forcibly oversee the use of language, that is engaging in illiberal behavior on the basis of the misguided notion that such oppressive behavior is justified.

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

The challenge of popular discourse

 

Reprinted From: The Conversation

Deliberative processes must confront populist rhetoric and help return to the tradition of informed and moral discourse. Populist discourse remains insufficiently informed and outside the boundaries of the American historical tradition.

This article is part of the Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This piece is part of a series, After Populism, about the challenges populism poses for democracy. It comes from a talk at the “Populism: what’s next for democracy?” symposium hosted by the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in collaboration with Sydney Democracy Network.


We are “living in the end times”, or so Slavoj Žižek tells us. We have seen the arrival of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the global ecological crisis, sharp inequalities in the economic system, the biogenic revolution, and exploding social divisions.

The global rise of populism, it seems, is only a symptom of these long-standing tragedies in the making.

Populist claims – the grand promises that prey on unrealistic expectations, those that dodge responsibility by conjuring “alternative facts”, and the kind that leaves citizens committed to the project of Enlightenment dazed and breathless — are both outcomes and drivers of Žižek’s apocalyptic vision.

How should we make sense of these realities? Wicked problems and intractable conflict have indeed marked the past few decades. But these have also been times of widespread democratic experimentation.

Participation in “traditional” politics such as voting and party membership may be declining, but there has been an explosion of activities that seek to “do democracy differently”.

The promise of deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy could once have been dismissed as pie in the sky with no bearing on the world of practical politics.

More recently, practitioners of deliberative innovations have generated compelling evidence to show the democratic virtues of mini-publics. These involve small(ish) groups of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on an issue.

Random selection, similar to the logic of jury selection, underpins this process such that the forum represents a microcosm of the wider population.

In recent years, the case for mini-publics has been articulated more boldly, by David van Reybrouck and then, just this year, by Brett Hennig. Both make a case for sortition, where a group of citizens drawn by lot are given a mandate to deliberate and propose, if not decide, policies that bind the rest of the polity.

Given the enthusiasm for mini-publics, why has this not been enough to avert “the apocalypse”? There are three ways of looking at this.

1. We haven’t scaled up enough

The application of mini-publics has been disparate, inconsistent and small-scale.

Had people, especially the so-called “pissed-off white men”, had more opportunities to participate in deliberation, they would have, potentially, taken a more complex view of issues that they feel threaten their identities, such as immigration or gay rights.

Had “smug cosmopolitan liberal types” engaged in deliberation with “pissed-off white men”, societies could have developed a shared vocabulary to cohabit a world with meta-consensus on the range of legitimate discourses.

Forms of deliberative democracy are not only effective, but also much needed in deeply divided societies. Joe Flood/flickr

There is evidence that mini-publics work in deeply divided societies. Examples include deliberative polls in Northern Ireland and deliberative forums involving ex-combatants and paramilitaries in Colombia.

We can only wonder how the US elections or the UK’s Brexit referendum might have turned out had they convened a “deliberation day” where citizens deliberated systematically before the vote.

2. We are scaling up incorrectly

One could argue that mini-publics, by themselves, are not the answer to mass democracy’s legitimacy deficit. Even where well-resourced, excellently designed and high-quality deliberations unfold, these have little bearing if the epistemic gains and civic virtues developed in these forums do not spill over into the broader public sphere.

To scale up deliberation is not simply to host bigger mini-publics (mega-publics?) but to think of ways in which mini-publics can be linked to the broader public discourses.

What use is it if we replace politicians with a randomly selected group of citizens if the public sphere is mostly still characterised by partisan point-scoring, cheap political tactics, spin-doctoring and market-driven media?

The reforms of deliberative politics must equally focus on reforming the broader structures that shape public discourse.

3. Mini-publics are not the answer

The logic of mini-publics primes participants to be respectful, public-spirited, other-regarding and open-minded. Unsurprisingly, citizens who harbour deep scepticism, strongly held views and defensiveness in their private interests may not find these forums to be the most understanding and supportive spaces.

In other words, mini-publics may have inherent limitations in processing populist rhetoric. This is because they, by design, aim to keep loud and insistent voices out of the room to celebrate the voice of the “average reasonable person”.

Discursive enclaves such as those found online, or in assemblies of populist supporters, may provide a more hospitable stage for impassioned, confrontational and sometimes bigoted discourses.

While mini-publics enable citizens to carefully reflect on their prejudices, one must take a step back and consider that some do not want to reconsider their views.

Research on climate change deniers provides evidence for this. Australian studies have revealed how deliberation not only fails to dispel scepticism but also makes the deniers feel like they are not listened to, so they become more dogmatic and belligerent.

Other research data demonstrate how people with a “social dominance orientation” tend to see participatory processes as rigged if the forums do not produce their preferred outcomes.

ABC’s Q&A often illustrates the limitations of some forms of deliberation.

The issue of trust compounds such alienation. Mini-publics typically rely on information presented by expert witnesses and resources persons, and we now know that many people have simply had enough of experts.

Beyond expertise, public trust in Australian politics and politicians is at a staggering low. Recent research suggests the public has little trust in any level of government in Australia. For the most part, mini-publics in Australia are instigated by or at least associated with government.

Even though the best-designed forums are independently organised and facilitated, we have to recognise that people may simply not trust the process, organiser or the expertise presented. “Micro” deliberative events don’t exist in a political vacuum. We cannot design out the broader context and power relations.

How can things go right?

There are many reasons to consider populist rhetoric as the opposite of deliberative reason. Populism appeals to base instincts. It sacrifices intellectual rigour and evidence to the promise of quick solutions.

The polarising speech style of populism creates information silos, which bond rather than bridge, opposing views. Inherent in the populist logic is the division of the “virtuous people” versus “the dangerous other”. This inflames prejudices and misconceptions, instead of promoting public-spirited ways of determining the common good.

Given the coming populist apocalypse, then, it is worth revisiting how deliberative democrats conceptualise power and its relationship to knowledge.

The populist moment reminds us of the insidious legacies of power, the kind we generally take for granted, but experience every day. Drawing on the “epistemologies of ignorance”, the solution is not simply to offer facts, but to lay bare the structural phenomenon that disables people from seeing in a certain way. We undeniably find ourselves facing:

… an ignorance that resists … an ignorance that fights back … an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go away.

Deliberative democracy may have been the punching bag of those who remain sceptical of the virtues of participation governed by reason. But it has also been a beacon of hope for visionaries who keep on asking how we can make democracy better.

This field of democratic theory and practice has a lot more to offer, especially when we set our gaze towards spaces for reform beyond the forum.

Farrakhan and the Jews

Louis Farrakhan just turned 87 and his Nation of Islam still represents the best of old-fashioned racism and anti-Semitism. He has more in common with the white racist right then he does mainstream African Americans. Farrakhan takes his battered wrecking-ball beliefs to the sweet spot of anti-Semitism; that is, he blames the Jews  for everything. The Jews, as Farrakhan tells it, have an elderly cabal of leaders who have made the destruction of black children their goal in life. Black economic progress, damage to black communities by Jews, and Jewish secret relationships are all a result of this conniving cabal that meets and plots on a regular basis.

Farrakhan is a magnetic trickster. He has been successful at exploiting individuals and bringing them under his spell so he can manipulatively interpret the history of slavery (that the Jews were the biggest participants in the slave trade) and other historical and sociological distortions.

These tropes about Jewish dominance and secretiveness have been around a long time and they resonate for certain groups of people. Such anti-Semitic conspiracy claims land on receptive ears. In Muslim and some Christian communities such claims serve important psychological purposes.

Farrakhan’s publication The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, which contains his charges against the Jews, serves as a comforting reassurance for some. And while he says that the white race is culpable it is the Jews who are to blame. He consistently tells groups that the Jews were at the rotten core of the slave trade. He goes on to hold the Jews responsible for the Ku Klux Klan (a truly creative point given the relationship between the Jews and the Klan).

Blaming United States for slavery, racism, Jim Crow laws, and the educational and employment structural variables that have discriminated against African Americans for generations, is understandable and defensible. But blaming the Jews! Farrakhan seems to have little use for something as trivial and apparently as malleable as reality. But all this appears to serve Mr. Farrakhan well because once reality is ignored or irrelevant then there is room for new conclusions even facts that better serve private purposes. Mr. Farrakhan, I ‘am sure to his horror, sounds like someone else is currently leading a great nation.

Fortunately, Farrakhan is not a builder. And something like the Million Man March doesn’t count because although he managed to rally enough people to gain some attention he used his speaking time to ramble on about a mystical number when there are so many more important things to talk about.. The march had no follow-up organization and resulted in little more than a momentary pleasure.

It actually is astonishing Farrakhan has the following that he does. But his natural charisma follows him as he is able to attract followers to his doctrine – wait a minute, what doctrine?

 

We Probably Need to Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine

 

The problem of polarization continues and is likely to be the defining political characteristic of contemporary United States. The US populace has been polarized before but it is typically over a single issue. Slavery, for example, in the 19th century. Below is some data from the Pew Foundation on the increasing tendency toward rigid opinions and polarized values.

As the Pew report concluded, the fault is structural; it is not the sort of problem that can be solved by an individual or piece of legislation. Political parties are more ideologically coherent than they’ve been probably at any time since the Civil War. As citizens spend more time talking to those who are like them – which is intensified in the current social media environment – they become more easily reinforced for their particular perspective. The literature by Sunstein and others conclude that this mediated world of interaction with others who hold the same opinion as you do causes those opinions to become rigid and increasingly unmovable. And the dynamic of polarization is increasing. But with the realignment of ideologies that started over the issue of civil rights in the 20th century, ideological purity became a bigger factor in American elections.

Ideological purity is a dangerous form of essentialism. One’s beliefs become so strong, and the sense of ingroup and outgroup become so clarified, that perceptions of the outgroup are assumed to be biologically natural.

Some data suggest that the problem of bias is characteristic of both liberals and conservatives (Baum and Groeling, 2008, Political Communication) are responsible for polarization because both parties have media outlets that are biased in one direction or the other, and attract large audiences. It might be time to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine”, which legally guarantees equal time and presentation of both sides of an issue. And although such a political policy would be difficult if not impossible to institute, it is a step in the right direction with respect to the benefits of hearing both sides and suppressing the power of money in campaigns.

 

The Table above shows that from 1994 to 2014 a larger percent of Republicans became consistently conservative. And a larger percent of Democrats were consistently liberal. The two groups – liberals and conservatives – consistently drifted toward more rigid ideological opinions that do not vary and are less subject to moderation and persuasive influences.

 

The data reflected in the bar graph above shows that the two parties have increasingly unfavorable attitudes about the other. From 1994 to 2014 the unfavorable attitudes about the other party has more than doubled. I don’t need to reiterate the danger of these data. They make working together and solving problems in any sort of bipartisan way almost impossible.

Note: An earlier version of this posting was October 30, 2019.

 

Relativism and the Disinformation Epidemic

Trump’s unhinged and deceitful presidency continues. Just when you think you’ve heard it all he suggests that citizens inject themselves with the chlorine-based chemical as a possible cure for the coronavirus.

There is surely a degradation of truth and a decline in reasoning and decision-making quality. And I don’t accept the argument that those who make such statements are elitist and should be ignored because they are just trying to tell others what to think. The attack on others as elitist is an emotional way to gain ground in an argument without having to do the hard work of evidence-based reasoning. Satire, humor, and innuendo have replaced some journalism – not all. The vacuous cliché “perception is reality” has taken on hallucinogenic qualities in the Trump administration. At one time a candidate could skillfully influence an audience into perceiving him or her in a certain way; that is, they could present themselves as concerned about the welfare of citizens, or a good family man, hard-working, etc. But now the so-called created realities are rank lies that ultimately do harm to good political order. The Willie Horton ad was an early creation perception from the right. A perception that was clearly racist and a lying misrepresentation of a group of people based on a crude violent stereotype. [Do you want to see the Willie Horton ad? Go here] The Swift boat ad that turned John Kerry into a coward rather than the hero was a direct attack on the American military’s credibility and diminished the honorable behavior of a veteran. [Go here to see Swift boat ads and read about the controversy] We are a long way now from slight rhetorical flourishes that enhance the candidate’s credibility or something equally as innocuous.

Trump spent years defining himself to meet his momentary interests. He was at once a hotel magnate, then had a clothing line, is the head of a university, purveyor of steaks and bottled water, playboy, TV reality star, and civic leader. All of these images had to be embedded in his name so his only strategy was to create phony events designed to gain attention and associate his name with the perceptions. He is clearly a modern PT Barnum. What seems true and possible to believe has replaced truth in the traditional sense of the term which implies some connection between reality and comprehension of that reality. [I would encourage the reader to seek out Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image, which treats these issues clearly and incisively]

The challenge now is not to just correct wrong information, which implies a truth to some other type of information, but to control disinformation which is purposefully false and misleading with the intent to deceive. One strategy used by the right and FOX News is to make outrageous statements (e.g. the Clintons killed Vince Foster) and state them quickly and briefly on the various talk shows and then drop the issue. But the media echo chamber picks up the story from Fox and repeats it on smaller more localized media thereby keeping it alive and repeating it often enough for portions of the audience to believe it or at least cast doubt on the accused.

More than ever before, there are plenty of warnings about the fragility of American democracy. And many of these warnings are exaggerated or overheated. But as Levitsky and Ziblatt maintained in their book “How Democracies Die” the most dangerous trends are a polarized and uninformed public that has the very institutions of democracy used against the public. The drift toward authoritarianism is inevitable when reasoning and analytical skills are in decline and the quality of information required to make sound decisions is compromised. Interestingly, Trump’s trivial, inconsequential, uninformed, and non-substantive messages will hobble American democracy.

But it will be entertaining.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: