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Crumbling Pillars

Opinion | November 9, 2010

Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” It is easy to dismiss Mr. Churchill, and say this quote is nothing more than British aristocratic snobbery. However, it contains a prescient warning. For those who still hold the concept of the sovereign public dear, it inspires fear. The Latin roots of democracy, demos and kratos, mean people and power, respectively. For a democracy to function optimally, the people need to facilitate this power to maximize the democracy’s ability to serve their interests.

It is often said that with great power comes great responsibility. This does not apply only to dictators and monarchs. In the United States we underestimate the power of the vote bestowed on each of us; we have forgotten our responsibility. Though power in the hands of the common person is ideal as a political philosophy, what if the common person is ignorant?
Alexis de Tocqueville traversed this country in 1831 because of a European curiosity about democratic societies. America was the great laboratory for democracy. How do its people behave? What ideas do they hold most dear? His book Democracy in America attempts to answer these questions. Tocqueville resolved that the democratic individual in America was too materialist. The democratic movement brought with it the expansion of the free market, which in turn encouraged the profit-maximizing individual. This type of person, Tocqueville claimed, does not have the time or the energy to participate in important debates. He or she does not strive to answer the greater questions of religion, government, or justice. Rather he or she accepts what is facile, the gross oversimplification of mass ideologies. The cult of the majority holds sway of the mind: If something is generally held to be true, how could it not be? Tocqueville’s observations were apt; his words contain an implicit warning for us today.

Tocqueville foresaw many things, but not the rise of the mass media. What educates the citizen engaging in political discourse? Secondary education, television, radio, and more specifically, our news networks; they must bear this burden. They must, in their interaction with the common person, inform him or her of the significant debates of the day. In fact, news networks purport to fill this niche; they consider themselves the emissaries of truth. Whether they are “fair and balanced” or “the most trusted name in news,” each station claims responsibility for the unbiased presentation of fact.

So where have they gotten us, our schools and our news networks?

•    “According to a survey, nearly one in five Americans—18 percent—say President Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in 2009. Obama is a Christian, but the number of people saying Christian when asked his religion has gone down sharply, from 51 percent in 2008 to 34 percent today. And 43 percent say they don’t know what religion the president follows.”
•    “In a nation called the world’s superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released recently.”
•    “About 11 percent of young citizens of the U.S. couldn’t even locate the U.S. on a map. The Pacific Ocean’s location was a mystery to 29 percent; Japan, to 58 percent; France, to 65 percent; and the United Kingdom, to 69 percent.”
•    “More young U.S. citizens in the study knew that the island featured in last season’s TV show “Survivor” is in the South Pacific than could find Israel.”

When in doubt, they say, follow the money. Corporatism is the malignancy plaguing our most revered institutions. We praise those who “run things like a business,” whether it is political campaigns or our schools.
While budget concerns cannot be removed from the discussion of education in America, they should not dominate it. The Bush administration approached the topic of education from a capitalist perspective. No Child Left Behind placed a stronger focus on standardized test scores. The program relied on incentive-based payouts—schools that performed well on standardized tests were granted federal funding. This posed a significant problem for lower-income school districts, which were forced to sacrifice any ideas of holistic education in order to get the greatest number of students at a proficient level.
The National Geographic Study, which yielded the results on America’s geographic (il)literacy, tested young adults aged 18-30. This is the heart of the young American voting population. Our primary and secondary educational institutions are failing us. Our democratic state has neglected its duty to properly teach the young.

The influence of money is even more transparent in television and talk radio. Not only are we bombarded by advertising, the programs are becoming a vehicle of advertising themselves. Unfortunately, many of these programs also function as important tools in our society; they serve to inform the public. At their helm are entertainers disguised as pundits: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Bill Maher, and show hosts on NPR who ascribe to a liberal agenda. Glenn Beck, for instance, was a former radio DJ. Now he is charged with derailing the current administration and galvanizing the extreme right.
It is perhaps easiest to see the corrupting influence of money in the political realm. Unimaginable sums of money are gathered, and countless hours are spent in the defamation of political opponents. For example, the misconceptions held about the president are especially troubling. They speak to the culture of misinformation and slander associated with American politics. Moreover, Fox News and MSNBC have been reduced to mere caricatures, the two faces of partisan hack-ery. Rather than present news and commentary as two distinct, exclusive entities, they merge the two. The line between the Fox News Report at six and the Bill O’Reilly Factor at eight is becoming increasingly more difficult to define. Additionally, Chris Matthews at MSNBC is equally as polarizing. In summation, the issue is this: Our news is presented in a way that furthers the political ambitions of the people who are funding these stations.

The corporate arm behind our news media is both powerful and unseen. Rupert Murdoch’s wallet shapes our idea of what is true. And this “truth,” a daily message that millions of Americans receive, influences them when they step inside the voting booth. You cannot buy the political convictions of others;  legally, it’s not permissable to  pay for votes. Yet, in a way, we are allowing this to happen. We continue to watch these channels. We have not voted out incumbents who have supported the current campaign finance structure. Donations from large corporate interests are still treated as contributions from private individuals. In the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled in the favor of corporations’ right to endorse political candidates.

Education, money, politics and television, these are pillars of American society. Monolithic in their institutionalization, it is hard to combat their influence. The fact is that there are some entities that should not be run like a business. Our political campaigns, our news networks, and our schools all have great responsibilities toward a democratic polity. They should be infused with the commitment to progress, not subject to the calculations of profit. Lost in this struggle is the average voter, misinformed by the most trusted anchors in news and taught only to answer the necessary number of questions on the SAT.

Looking at the results of the midterm elections, it seems my concerns are not unfounded. The Tea Party has gained a voice in our legislature, an extremist threat to a moderate nation. I hope only that the bludgeoning to the mind of the common person, done by the fists of the corporate media, does not become our greatest downfall, but rather an instigation, an impetus for the pursuit of truth in the battle for a better democracy.