by Bruce Thornton
How the media's obsession with the superficial threatens our freedom.
“Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the motto of the post-Trump Washington Post. This pompous and self-congratulatory bit of virtue-signaling is meant to proclaim the essential function the media play in protecting the political order against the supposed threat of tyranny embodied in Donald Trump. The hypocrisy of a media that wear its progressive ideology on its sleeve, and that blatantly skew their coverage of the president at a 90% negative clip, has exposed the motto as mere marketing to the leftist choir.
The truth is, “darkness” is not a problem in the klieg-lit media carnival of 24/7, 365-day on-line commentary, blogs, videos, tweets, cable-news talking heads, and Facebook posts. The problem is the trivial, often childish, usually stupid content of our Madisonian “passions” that we indulge, even as our political dysfunctions relentlessly worsen.
That politics is a form of entertainment has long been obvious since Time-Life Inc. fabricated and marketed the Kennedy clan as a celebrity “Camelot.” Each subsequent decade has seen the worsening of the process whereby images and narratives appealing to the emotions or pleasure have increasingly crowded out verifiable facts and coherent arguments.
Gratifying our feelings rather than our reason was most obvious in the rise of Barack Obama. “The One” succeeded in becoming the most powerful leader on the planet despite being a political tyro with a poorly attended single term in the Senate, a negligently vetted candidate with a Swiss-cheese personal biography and a stable of unsavory associates like “free as a bird” terrorist Bill Ayers and “God-damn America” racist Jeremiah Wright, and a zombie leftist of the sort produced for decades by our decaying universities.
And Obama did so not just because of the duplicitous rhetoric of “unity” and “moderation” typical of all candidates, but because of the racial melodrama of white guilt and redemption promised by his light skin, lack of a “negro accent,” as Joe Biden put it, and photogenic smile and family the media made as ubiquitous as McDonalds. That’s all it took for the worst president since World War II to get elected twice.
But the descent into trivia accelerated with the arrival of Donald Trump, who infuriated the left with his uncanny understanding of the new mediaverse and its potential for bypassing the legacy media and speaking directly to the masses of disgruntled voters scorned as “bitter clingers” and “deplorables.” His critics became obsessed with his straight-talking, vulgar, braggadocios style that daily scorned their politically correct and elite-sanctioned decorum. But beneath that storm of tweets and insults, Trump addressed important issues––immigration, over-regulation of the economy, growth-killing taxes, the tyranny of political correctness, and an international contempt for this country fostered during the Obama years––that long had disgruntled millions of Americans and insulted their common sense.
And when Trump started to govern, that flamboyant rhetoric––unlike Obama’s silver-tongued catalogue of empty promises and camouflaged “social justice” bromides–– actually produced not legislative IEDs like Obamacare or a sluggish economy, but economic growth and jobs at home, and renewed respect from our adversaries and allies abroad. His blunt banter may have been trivial, but his accomplishments are real.
Enraged by this success, the progressive media and politicians sank further into the swamps of the trivial and superficial – their attention dominated by porn-star gold-diggers, preposterous oppo research, careless associates snagged in two-bit process crimes, obsessing over phantom “Russian collusion,” murky allegations about violations of campaign finance laws, serial hysteria about threats to “democratic norms,” warnings of looming “fascism,” 1st Amendment vapors over chastising a boorish media hack like Jim Acosta, and of course the continuing manic parsing of every transient tweet.
Madisonian “passions,” of course, are not the only motive for voters. “Interests” count as well. The unending trivial pursuits give cover to progressives for seeking what the left always wants––the power to achieve its agenda of technocratic centralized power at the expense of freedom. And for decades it’s worked. Democrats have done well at cultivating clients––recipients of redistributive largesse from entitlements and corporate pork, to government agencies and public unions––whose interests Dems exchange for votes and campaign funds.
Hence the hysteria over the Kavanaugh nomination, and the anger that despite losing the House, Trump and the Republican Senate will continue to reshape the federal judiciary away from its role as the go-to branch of government for a party that can’t take its case to the voters to whom they would be accountable. That’s why right now in Florida, serial gross violations of election law are reducing Rick Scott’s total votes, in order to whittle down the Republican margin of votes in the Senate and create opportunities for blocking the next judicial nominee.
Unfortunately, these tactics of distraction convince enough voters, as the midterm results show. Partly this reflects the long tradition of choosing “divided government,” in fulfillment of Madison’s aim that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This Constitutional principle has become our default impulse to prune back either party’s power when it appears to become overweening. Perhaps it also expresses some voters’ impatience with the Republican House’s failure to advance campaign goals like beefing up border security and reforming failed immigration policies, or finally putting a stake in the heart of Obamacare. But it also shows that emotion, sentiment, melodrama, and disgust with the president’s style contributed to election day decisions.
This oscillation between irrational emotions and common-sense thinking has defined every participatory government since ancient Athens. For 230 years our government has survived such swings in power between parties, and between bouts of irrational passion and more sober calculations, including a civil war that threatened the very existence of the Union. Yet several changes have made such swings more dangerous.
Most important has been the near-century long assault on the Constitutional order by progressive technocracy through an expansion of federal power at the expense of the states and individuals. The divided and balanced powers of the Constitution, and the federation of sovereign states, both functioned to protect citizens against the tyranny of the majority and the oligarchic elite. But federalism has been weakened by the direct election of Senators, stripping from state governments a powerful check of both majoritarian and executive ambitions. The federal income tax has provided what every tyrant needs–– the funds for the redistribution of wealth to supporters. And federal entitlements have corrupted the independence of state governments by getting them hooked on federal money to fund programs.
Second, we Americans enjoy an unprecedented level of material comfort. We are rich beyond the dreams of nearly all the human beings who have existed before us. There is no precedent in history for judging what impact widespread prosperity and freedom can have on the character of a democratic republic such as ours. But we do have a long historical record of human behavior based on a human nature consistent over space and time. And what it teaches us is that the wealthier a people are, the more extravagant are their expectations, and the more impatient and irrational they become when that affluence and comfort are threatened.
And threats are looming. Even as we indulge the trivialization of our politics and the progressive utopianism of “social justice,” the ever-growing federal budget, financed by borrowing and deficit spending, every day devours more and more of future growth. The confluence of growing numbers of beneficiaries, the decline in payroll taxes to fund them, and the continuation of deficit spending will collide in a few decades. Even without some unforeseen economic melt-down or foreign policy crisis, such challenges will be politically disruptive.
Then we will see if our indulgence of political triviality will bring us to the point where our long tradition of balanced and divided powers that has protected our freedom will survive, or whether it dies in the garish light of our own feckless passions and interests.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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