Democracies are rooted in communication and citizen talk is the most fundamental form of that communication. But I have noticed in the last couple of years that talk has become more difficult, more contentious and impatient. I spend a lot of time talking politics but I have noticed increased levels of anger and recalcitrance. I suppose this is all an easy reflection of our national discourse and polarization.
But citizen communication should be treated as a national inheritance. It is still important and too precious to let wither; democratic talk has been called by various communication scholars the “soul of democracy.” Citizen talk is associated with sharpening political opinions, motivating engagement, contributing to social integration, and improving decision making. As Mutz and others have demonstrated, the opportunity for exposure to cross-cutting perspectives is crucial to quality deliberation.
But there is growing evidence that democratic practices such as citizen talk are breaking up with an increase in animosity and retreats to highly circumscribed ideational enclaves. Again, this fractured talk is correlated with similar processes in society; that is, economic inequality has produced more divergent lifestyles and limited exposure to opinions outside a narrow range of preferences. Talk and general social interaction is supposed to transcend and overcome these differences but it is proving too difficult. Talk seems to be losing the battle to establish more integrated cohesion to the muscular forces of anger, tribalism, and general contentiousness.
In an article by Wells et al., in the Journal of Communication (vol. 67, 2017, pages 131-157), they pose the direct research question: “Can talk and its benefits tolerate fierce partisanship and contentiousness…” The authors find that talk struggles against the influence of elite rancor, and everyday communication fails because of simmering historical divisions, resentment, economic crisis, and elites pushing their partisan advantage. You might ask “why doesn’t political talk increase during times of engaged political differences?” Wells et al found that some groups did, in fact, increase their political talk and others decreased. But in either case the increased communication made it difficult to continue when disagreements increased.
Moreover, the increased political tension was responsible for politicizing identities which inserted more subjective and emotional attachment into the discussion which makes it more difficult to compromise and generally consider the side of the other. So you have the interesting conclusion that contentious issues both increase and decrease the politicization of one’s interaction environment such that politics is still pretty invasive.
Social media does not contribute much to the solution because it exacerbates political enclaves. In other words, those on social media are typically like-minded and messages are “preaching to the choir.”
Depressive effects on citizen political interaction are a reflection of social problems that must be addressed. Quality political talk is associated with cultural integration, tolerance, and civic participation. These are not pleasant generalities that simply “sound nice.” They are central to a pluralistic society composed of the politics of difference because it is just that form of communication that manages the politics of difference. Through a combination of new media and cultural cleavages American citizens are less exposed to others, and less capable of the sort of communication that serves both a personal and political culture.
Finally, it’s important to understand that the existential life-world of the individual is different than the larger divides that circulate in the media. There must be an interaction between the individual life-world and the macro social world such that one does not overwhelm the other. For now, the battles between Fox News and MSNBC are defining and damaging the organic democratic culture that emerges from citizen contact.
Free expression, transparent information, and trustworthy and reliable elections are the hallmark of a decent democracy. And although the open and available nature of the Internet is democratizing, it is also easily manipulated in the service of inaccuracies, fake news, and inaccurately represented information. Russia’s full-on assault on American media and democracy is designed to weaken democratic processes and sow confusion. They have engaged in a sophisticated campaign designed to influence the operation and political processes of not only the United States but the Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Western Europe. Their goal is to shake the confidence of democratic institutions, exaggerate differences and divisions amongst groups, and use new technology to underscore a Russian frame and perspective.
This is a form of asymmetric warfare organized around weaker states using their available resources to combat stronger states. Theoretically anyway, it is the same principle as a less powerful ethnic group (e.g. Palestinians, Tamil, Rohingyas, Basques) using terrorist and guerrilla warfare techniques to combat a dominating ethnic group. The United States must now consider these threats as typical and persistent threats to its political existence. And, it is only a matter of time before other countries adopt these techniques and deploy them against other states.
Russia boldly used proxies to set up phony webpages, Facebook accounts, and Twitter messages designed to influence the public discourse surrounding the election between Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as social issues. The perpetrators of these phony web accounts met with little resistance and had their faith in their own hacking skills reinforced. The Russians would find a division in society and then try to exaggerate it for their own purposes. Such instability is very debilitating and contributes to what is most damaging which is a loss of confidence in the electoral process. Few things are more damaging to a democratic system than a widespread belief by participants that elections are not fair. Of course, the Russian goals were not to facilitate rigorous debate but to challenge confidence and maintain social strife. They had ability to manipulate voting patterns and electoral results.
The cybersphere is a perfect environment to operate an anonymous and clandestine project such as this one. Even if they fail to achieve desired results they can still do damage to the confidence and institutions as well as spread distrust and cynicism.
First, the electoral process must be reviewed for security breach possibilities with checks and double checks that contain a complete review of the electoral process including access to machines, software, and computer security. This might include the use of paper ballots along with computers to ensure material backup systems.
Second, there needs to be more transparency with respect to funding elections and the nature and integrity of businesses hired to provide electoral services including machines and software.
Third, the tracking of foreign actors and their involvement in US companies should include more monitoring and oversight. This might include attention to various “media buys” and who is supporting them along with an examination of rules and regulations governing foreign control and ownership with respect to financial limitations and elections.
And finally, the detection of deception must be improved. This includes stories containing inaccurate information that seem to be designed to sow discontent and manipulate information. Twitter and Facebook are working on these issues trying to improve their ability to recognize questionable story structures including techniques for “re-informing” the public. Cyber attacks are a new form of threat in an asymmetric conflict that has revealed vulnerability in our democracy. It will require a concerted effort and some thinking “outside the box.”
It’s pretty easy for most Americans to pay little attention to Turkey. It seems to be a faraway exotic place that has little effect on their lives. But the truth is otherwise. Turkey has been a partner to the United States and Israel and informed a set of relationships with these two countries that help stabilize that area of the world. But more important than that, Turkey has been a model for Islamic democracy.
Ataturk established modern Turkey as a secular, European, Westernized state. He used the government to establish educational and political policies to shape the nation into a political culture that was close to gaining entry into the European Union. Ataturk literally outlawed many symbols of Islam and tried to relegate it more to the private sphere.
But there was a referendum last week on constitutional changes and Erdogan and his political supporters won a narrow victory. Now the country is about to be shaped in Erdogan’s image rather than Ataturk’s. Erdogan will move Turkey more toward centralized power supported by Islamic parties. None of this bodes well for Turkey. Moreover, and even more dangerously, Turkey is divided. Erdogan won a narrow victory. Just about half the population voted for him and the other half dislikes him intensely. These are the conditions for future contentious political behavior.
It appears that Erdogan knows how to distribute rewards making important constituents happy; a fairly large number of people have benefited from Erdogan’s largess. But these benefits are not merit-based or the result of significant contributions to economic, commercial, or political policies in Turkey. They are the result of payoffs to those who are more supportive of Erdogan and constitutional changes. And now the AKP (Erdogan’s political party) can continue its program of returning to Islamizing the state. Yet, there are some hopeful signs.
Turkey it is now quite diverse demographically, and too big economically to be easily redefined on the basis of one person. And despite Erdogan’s cronies, who always rear their ugly heads from the system of political payoffs, the real economic power in the country is dependent on secular, democratic, pro-Western liberal values. So if Turkey stays Democratic much of its progress will be maintained. But the worisome part is that Erdogan may realize full well that democracy is his primary enemy and therefore become more autocratic.
So why should the average American care about any of this? Well a couple of reasons. First of all the only way we are going to make some stable peace with Islamic nations is through elements, minimum as they need to be, of shared Democratic processes. If Erdogan becomes less democratic then the state becomes more Islamic and increases its distance and alienation from Western states and Israel. Turkey could have been a model for future Islamic democracy. Secondly, the Kurds have been a very supportive culture for the United States and we owe them our best efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This is of course very complex and an intractable issue but moves no closer to some sort of resolution if Turkey retreats into conservatism and religiosity. Third, Turkey demonstrated to the Arab world that some decent relationship with Israel was possible. Given the combustible relationship with our ally Israel, any indicator of stability is welcome.
There is a term in political and communication theory known as “democratic reason.” Generally, democratic reason is the collective intelligence of a group of people. It is the notion that democratic communicative processes – that is, things like inclusion, balance, equality, resources, speaking rights, participation – result in higher quality decisions. Or, we could express it in the everyday phrase “two heads are better than one.”
Netanyahu and Trump both fail to meet some basic communication quality standards. Both face electoral problems and controversies because they refuse to recognize attitude trends in the citizenry that call for inclusive and democratic input. Polls in Israel show that about 60% of the population wants peace and is willing to make some sacrifices. It is the leadership that is stubborn and not serious about real progress. Real progress, without being naïve, can be made if a representative group of people spent their time in serious deliberation with the goal of using the communication process to create new ideas solutions.
This notion that two heads are better than one is actually pretty powerful. Even in simple aggregation such as voting more participants improves the likelihood of decisions being improved or not random. In the well-known “jar of beans” example, we could ask individuals with no previous exposure to the jar about how many beans are in the jar. We then get a group average on the basis of the entire group (the group produces a simple average) and the group average will be better than the average of the individuals. Finally, we can organize a group and give them time to talk to each other, deliberate, and share ideas. In other words we could make the communication system available to them. This third group, which allows for as rich and controlled democratic communication process as possible, will most consistently produce better answers.
The reason for this is the epistemic nature of communication but we will talk about that some other time. For now, I want to make the observation that the full Republican control of the senate and congress along with Trump is a dangerous situation. Key decision-making issues will escape the scrutiny of diverse voices and fail to let each side fully participate in the intelligence of the other side. This is why the Congress is polarized rather than democratized.
Trump already has authoritative tendencies. He has no patience for other people and little history having to answer to anybody. Much of leadership in his business world is based on clear lines of command with few or no constituencies to please other than investors. Moreover, Trump holds to the belief that the best and the brightest are going to beat and know more than the average citizen. Whether or not Trump has actually identified the best and the brightest we will leave for others just to say, but his aristocracy theory that the elite will always know more and therefore make better decisions than the average citizen does not always hold sway.
The reason that elites do not always make better decision is because they lack diversity; they may hold expertise even deep expertise in a particular subject but they lack diverse points of view and variety. In an interesting book by Scott Page (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Society: Princeton University Press), he demonstrates the power of inclusiveness and diverse voices in decisions.
True enough that collective reason can go awry but that is usually managed by the communication process and the conditions of contact. Communication is only smart when it is allowed to work properly. When communication is restrained or distorted or the victim of a host of other maladies it then becomes a mechanism for collective unreason preventing itself from finding real solutions.
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.
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.
Trump continues to use fear appeals and scare tactics when it comes to Muslims and terror. And while he is minimally effective – and getting less so every day – his supporters are sympathetic others who are increasingly misinformed about terror and Islam. A piece of video footage showing Trump supporters at a rally had one fellow screaming at another that Islam was an “ideology.” The point was that Islam is a nefarious set of beliefs and practices designed to manipulate you into its belief system.
The dilemma here is that defining Islam as violent justifies an armed response when, in fact, the only response that will be effective is a long-term war of ideas pitting *Islamist extremism against liberal democracies. As Gutmann and Thompson have claimed in their highly recommended book Democracy and Disagreement,“of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement.” In other words, those who have sacred values and are what Scott Atran calls “devoted actors” rather than “rational actors” pose the biggest challenge to liberal democracies because conflicts over fundamental values are so resistant to resolution. You cannot simply subject the moral disagreement to the rational calculations of the marketplace.
But if wanton murder of men, women, and children is so fundamental to Islam why is it such a recent phenomenon on the world stage? Why doesn’t “jihadism” as it has come to be known have long history? Typically, Islamist terror is first associated with the 1979 Iranian revolution. But even the Iranian revolution can be analyzed as a clash of political ideologies where Islamists attach themselves to religious sounding terminology (“infidels,” “holy wars,” “party of God”) in order to give themselves religious justification.
It is true enough that Islamism is really a totalitarian movement that has hijacked some religious terminology in an effort to alter traditional Islam and challenge Western democracies. But Boroumand and Boroumand writing in the Journal of Democracy make the following emphatic statement and I quote in full:
“There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah… To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions… has nothing to do with Islam and one does not have to be a learned theologian to see this… The truth is that contemporary Islamist terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics” (p.6).
I don’t mean to imply that traditional Islamic religious teachings hold an inclusive democratic vision for the world or that it resonates with contemporary ideas about liberal democracies and human rights. But the long view of any religious evolution has it moving toward a widening circle of inclusion and dignity for others. As of now, there are more than a few Islamic countries that are pluralistic but have no political concept of “pluralism.” For this reason they define rigid group boundaries and more nascent forms of control.
But as with most of the issues in this election, Trump is not the answer to anything.
*Terminology note: I use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to refer to those extreme groups or ideologies that justify violence and cherry pick the Koran to give their ideology a religious sounding façade. The term “Islamic” refers to the long political, religious, and scholarly tradition of institutional Islam.
The video below is a dramatization (although not much of one) of “common sense” and part of its infrastructure, namely, “sincerity.” Donald Trump has been trying to capitalize on this deep-seated American value where “common sense” or “plain talk” or “telling it like it is” is glorified as the highest form of discourse. John McCain in 2000 termed his campaign tours as the “Straight Talk Express.” Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” and the rhetorical technicalities of Bernie Sanders continue this effort to convince people that they are authentic and lack any pretenses. The Norman Rockwell image of the common man standing up to speak plainly is burned into our psyches and is an iconic image of communicative authenticity.
Well, I’m here to point out the dangers and the potential damage of this rhetorical shell game called “straight talk.” Trump is the worst perpetrator of this myth and he is successfully fooling millions into believing he is actually worth listening to. The assumption that one is “telling it like it is” or doing nothing but “talking straight” is a dangerous myth that weakens the quality of decision-making and directs attention away from substantive issues. Of course, for Trump directing attention away from substantive issues is just the point. Since he does not know anything about foreign policy, governance, or macroeconomics he has to redirect the conversation. Thus, he has spent his time trying to convince the populace that he is “sincere”.
Political communication is organized around language and symbols of various types so it is particularly important that we attend to words, their meaning, and how they are used. Otherwise we are confused about the state of political discourse and are likely to come to poor decisions. The myth of straight talk directs attention to a preferred ethical stance related to sincerity rather than the quality of reasoning. Sincerity is, of course, important because we do not want to believe our leaders or communicative partners are lying or manipulating us. But sincerity doesn’t have anything to do with the quality or truth value of what we are saying. You can “sincerely” say something stupid and inaccurate.
But it gets worse. Performing sincerity is designed to convince the listener that the source of the message is not only being truthful but also complete. The implication is that everything of importance and relevance is being said and nothing is left out. The speaker is providing all relevant information and nothing else is pertinent. This blunts the listener’s responsibility to pursue additional information. So when Trump says, “the economy is in terrible shape” (which it certainly and clearly is not) he wants you to accept that statement on the basis of his sincerity and not facts.
And it gets worse again. Convincing someone you are being sincere and speaking “straight” is designed to relieve the source of the message of any further responsibilities. The implication is you no longer need to inquire any further or challenge anything I have to say because I have “laid it all out.” It’s a way of saying a speaker is not responsible for what he says, and thereby sealing him from criticism, because he has fulfilled his responsibilities.
More than a few times I’ve heard people whom I know can barely pay their bills characterize the billionaire narcissist Trump as “telling it like it is” and a “man of the people.” To describe Donald Trump as “like the average guy” – meaning a sincere absence of artifice and symbolic trickery – means you have been thoroughly co-opted by the candidate’s studied sincerity.
Language and symbols are central to political communication, but so is critical inquiry. If leaders and political figures are going to be held responsible for their words, which is crucial to the democratic political process, then the capacities of the subject population must not be limited; it must be possible for them to interrogate leaders and satisfy truth challenges. Trump has skillfully convinced many to substitute his calculated sincerity for thoughtful critical inquiry. This can be dangerous and we have seen historical precedents for this danger.