“I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appear from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses.”
–Henry Kissinger, Financial Times, July 2018
Old Pretenses, New Players
When I read that Kissinger quote over the summer, I wrote it down in my notebook. And I’ve been turning it over in my head. Love him or hate him, Henry Kissinger says a lot of things that make you think.
This quote rings true. There is a thick strand of “I’m just saying publicly what you’ve all been thinking and doing privately,” to many of Donald Trump’s public moments as US president. As in, when Bill O’Reilly on Fox News called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer,” and Trump responded with: “What, you think we’re so innocent?” Or when he bluntly proclaims that his foreign policy is “America first” and demands that other countries recognize the reality of American dominance in trade negotiations. Or when he openly manipulates domestic public opinion by publicizing lies, and shrugs off any sense of guilt or shame at having done so, because it’s all fake news anyway.
“Fake News” & Our Oldest Pretense
What is the “old pretense” that the persistent cry of “fake news” is asking us to give up? Nothing less than the central myth of liberal democracy. Namely, that a “public sphere” exists in which voters, who possess a certain degree of knowledge and critical thinking skills, take an interest in and take part in rational discussions. Why? In order to help discover what’s “right” or what’s “just,” guided by some inkling of the general interest. That’s why we need facts, why we need real news: so that we can exercise our responsibility, as citizens, to take part in this public sphere of discourse and deliberation toward rational judgments that serve the common good.
This pretense reminds me of the central myth in classical economic theory—that people are “utility-maximizing individuals.” Anyone who studies economics past the first-year introductory courses spends a lot of time reading about why that myth doesn’t describe how people really think and behave. This myth of how our democracy works doesn’t describe how voters really think and behave, either. It makes many strong assumptions about the personality of the typical voter: that he or she is interested in public affairs; that he possesses knowledge on questions of public interest and an accurate eye for observing the world; that she has well-formed moral standards; that he wants to engage in communication and discussion with people who think differently; and that he or she will do so rationally, with the community interest in mind.
Myth vs. Reality
The research shows—and the last couple years, surely, have proven—that’s not at all how today’s “advanced liberal democracies” function. The myth is that people on different sides, or in different situations, talk with one another. The reality is that most conversations of a political nature in society are confined to in-groups, to family, friends and neighbours.
The myth is that higher levels of “engagement” and “participation” in political discourse will yield a healthier democracy. The reality is that those who engage in political discussion more frequently tend to do no more than confirm their own ideas.
The myth is that voters who have not declared which party or person they’ll vote for in the next election are “undecided.” The reality is that these voters, who tend to fluctuate between parties, tend to know and care less than those who reliably vote one way or the other. “Undecided” is a euphemism. The label pretends that these voters are still deliberating. “Not altogether indifferent” would be more accurate. (The “altogether indifferent” voters don’t vote at all.) And the way you “swing” these voters, if you talk to any campaign manager, is not to appeal to their faculties of reason or policy preferences, but to treat them as consumers and advertise to them with the same tactics that motivate people to make a purchase decision.
The myth is that voting is the periodic, concluding act of a perpetual, rational controversy carried out publicly by citizens. The reality is that, for most voters, it is their only public act.
In a democracy, real, reliable news is supposed to matter, because public opinion, if it is to fulfill its democratic function, must first fulfill two conditions: it must be formed rationally, and it must be formed in discussion. And we can’t do either of those two things if our public sphere is full of people lying freely.
If the above paragraph were entirely true, “fake news” would be troubling, because fake news makes our rational discourse harder.
But more deeply troubling is that the above paragraph may be entirely false, and we are finally being forced to admit it. In a democracy, real, reliable news no longer matters, because the idea that public opinion is formed rationally, in controversy with fellow citizens, has long since passed into pure fiction. Instead, today, public opinion is something to be temporarily manufactured, on a periodic basis, to dress up our prejudices in rational argument, and in order to win a ritual-contest for raw power (i.e., an election), the result of which determines which group gets to oppress the other for the next few years.
These are the pretenses that come into focus for me—when I re-read Henry Kissinger’s quote, and when I think about the popularity of the phrase “fake news” today.
’Twas Not Always So
How did our public discourse come to this, with pretense and reality standing so far apart?
It’s helpful to bring a sense of history to the preoccupations of our present moment. (If you don’t like digressions, skip to the next section. 🙂 ) In academic circles, the man who literally wrote the book on the history of the “public sphere” in the democratic world is Jürgen Habermas (1929- ). According to Jürgen, you’d have to go all the way back to the 18th century to find a democracy in which real news actually mattered in the way we merely pretend it does today. Then, in England, France and Germany, you would have observed citizens getting together in salons and coffee shops, debating the latest opinion essays and newspaper reports, and reaching, through deliberation with one another, consensus, compromise and a settled opinion of where the public interest lay. This public sphere wasn’t a mere audience to information and ideas; it was the gauntlet through which ideas had to pass in order to enter public relevance. Jürgen wrote,
There was scarcely a great writer in the eighteenth century who would not have first submitted his essential ideas for discussion in such discourse, in lectures before the academies and especially in the salons.
You would have also observed that these citizens were almost exclusively men, and property owners.
It was these “classical liberals” of 17th- and 18th-century Europe who introduced the modern ideal of rational, public discourse that our democracies still play-act today. For them, this ideal emerged as an alternative to the absolute power wielded by kings and queens. The problem was this: subjects, who were ruled by the crown, weren’t free. To be free, the crown’s power had to be taken away. But somebody had to rule. How could the people wrest absolute power away from the king, without creating another king in their midst? How could the people dominate and be free at the same time?
The classical answer to this conundrum was that reason, not man, should rule. It made sense. A law, to be just, had to be abstract. It had to be general—a just principle that could be applied to a number of specific cases. Now, who was more likely to reliably articulate such general principles? Who could be trusted more? A single monarch? Or the wider public, whose many members could argue the many cases that the principle needed to cover?
Public debate would transform people’s individual preferences into a rational consensus about what was practically in the interests of everybody. And if government made rules that way, then citizens would be both dominated and free at the same time. Ta-daa!
It was an elegant theory. And for a time, it worked. But one way to summarize the history of the last few centuries (at least across the democratic world) is as an attempt to expose how arrogant this theory also was.
The German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), called bullshit on two key assumptions, upon which the whole theory rested: first, that a conversation taking place exclusively among property-owners and merchants could ever arrive at an understanding of the universal interest; and second, that in any such conversation, “reason” could rule, free from natural social forces of interference and domination.
At a minimum, the “working class” needed to be included in the conversation. And this is where Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) entered world history. “Public opinion,” Marx argued, was really just fancy language that the bourgeoisie (property-owners) used to dress up their the class interests as something good for everyone. The idea that debates in the “public sphere” produced rational laws that made men free wasn’t some profound truth; it was mere ideology. Specifically, it was the ideology of those people who, in the “private sphere,” actually owned something, and therefore needed the protection services that the “public sphere” could supply. The only way to turn the public sphere into the actual factory of freedom that liberals claimed it to be (rather than just another social space in which one class oppressed another) would be to put everything that was private into this sphere. Then, and only then, class divisions would disappear and people would genuinely, rationally debate the communal interest (hence, “Communism”).
Humpty Dumpty (Or, Our Fractured Public Sphere)
But I digress. (Frequently! I know…Sorry!)
Communism was a bust, but the workers movement was not. Marx and Engels helped those who had been on the losing side of the Industrial Revolution recognize themselves as a class with interests and political power. The democratic states that emerged out of the chaos of World War I and II were countries that saw the working class play a much bigger role in society. The vote was expanded to everyone; unions forced companies and governments to set limits on how landlords and business owners could run their apartments and factories; the welfare state was born, and expanded, to protect workers from exploitation, illness and injury and to supply them with “public” goods that had, in the previous century, been largely private—education, healthcare, and law & order.
The point of my long digression is this: Almost since the day it first came into being, the “public sphere” has been losing its claim to be a place for similarly situated citizens to reach reasonable agreement through free conversation. Instead, it’s fractured into a field of competition between plural, conflicting interests—big conflicts (like capital versus labour) that (history suggests) might not rationally fit together again. It’s the Humpty Dumpty problem. And if nothing like rational consensus can possibly emerge from debate between these competing interests, then the whole exercise can, at best, only produce an unstable compromise, one that reflects the present temporary balance of power.
By consequence, the press and media have been losing their claim to be organs of public information and debate. Instead, they’ve become technologies for manufacturing consensus and promoting consumer culture—long before “social media” became a thing. (I think, for example, of how the US government manipulated public opinion during the Vietnam War…has anyone else seen the excellent documentary on the war by Ken Burns on Netflix?)
Jürgen wrote his seminal book on the history of public sphere back in 1962. Already then, he pointed out that at the heart of our democracy, there lies a growing contradiction. On the one hand, the public sphere—that elegant place of rational, public discourse—has shattered. It’s been replaced by “a staged and manipulative publicity,” performed by organized interests before an audience of idea-consumers. But on the other hand, we “still cling to the illusion of a political public sphere,” within which, we imagine, the public performs a critical function over those very same interests that treat it as a mere audience.
What Trump has done is dare to drop the pretense. He uses media technologies not to inform public opinion, but to manipulate it. By his success in doing so, he forces us to recognize that, yes, that is in fact what these technologies are good for. And he forces us to recognize that, no, one does not need to be armed with facts or rational argument to use them for that purpose.
Dominated or Free?
Are we witness, then, to the death of democracy’s central myth?
If so, the implications are grim: we’ve failed, as a political project, to build a society of citizens who are both dominated and free at the same time. Instead, we must be either one or the other, depending on which side won the last election.
Jürgen, for his part, tried 55 years ago to end his assessment on a hopeful note. In his dry academic prose, he wrote,
The outcome of the struggle between a critical publicity and one that is merely staged for manipulative purposes…is by no means certain.
That’s academic code-speak for, “I’ve defined the problem for you; now go out and fix it!”