It was a priceless heirloom, passed down through the generations for well over two hundred years and for those more ancient Europeans, twice as long as that. It was once much more than the least-bad it has become…. for our grandparents democracy was fought over, won and re-won with the blood of millions, a bastion of protection against the forces of darkness, of anarchy, of totalitarianism and fascism. Our democracy was a simple idea entrenched with every far-sighted effort to make it permanent by wise owls long dead, who thought it likely more people would know better than less people, that the majority would tend to be more right than the few. That regular elections would constantly draw the leaders back in line with those who elected them. That election by the majority would ensure most people had nobody to blame but themselves and that would make them self-correcting. And we have reversed their oversights and prejudices in massive revisions over time to correct racism and sexism.
Then some time in the first few years of the twenty-first century, we accidentally dropped democracy on the floor and broke it. Time to get out the glue. We broke it resoundingly by the confluence of money, media, fear and the parallel death-throes of public education. These great evolutionary waves interacted, magnified each other and together they drove a jagged stake into the heart of democracy.
Which was the egg, which the chicken and does it even matter? The media run candidates for office on a treadmill of charisma, good looks, height and curb-appeal. Would FDR have a prayer of election today in a campaign inevitably featuring his wheelchair? Those soundbites the media require drive our candidates to few words to express complex issues. The superficial focus of the popular media drives attention to the candidates’ clothing, their haircuts, their media-friendliness, all in 15 second clips. So long as we make the delivery of news subject to the same lowest common denominator economic rules as television entertainment, the spiral in the integrity, accuracy and importance of its contents will be ever downwards. Just follow the money: Paris Hilton will always trump Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because she sells more Ragu Sauce.
Beyond that there is the mandatory purchase by candidates of television advertising: buy it in vast quantities or wither away. And with that advertising comes the primacy of the money: one candidate raises over one hundred million dollars in a year and six more are close behind. The money buys the advertising, so without bucketloads of money there can be no serious campaign. The democracy we created to do away with the rule of the rich and insensitive few has become a contest of who has or can raise the most advertising spend. And if a Michael Bloomberg simply took one fifth of his personal wealth, outspent the other candidates five-to-one and took the White House, would we really see democracy at work, democracy to be proud of? What is buying an election and what is buying it through buying the advertising?
And most of the money raised comes directly or indirectly from the special interests, from the companies who stand to benefit, from the new elite high-net-worth barons of this new Elizabethan court: if you need money in bucketloads, you prize the ones bearing the biggest buckets. In our selection of candidates, we have been driven away from the best ideas, the best leadership, the most honest….. and towards the best fundraisers.
Which then leads to our repetitively dysfunctional elections themselves, where relentless mass media combined with frequent polling have driven democracy into the awkward world of the evenly split electorate, the world of 50.1% trumping 49.9%. Is it coincidence or the collision of statistics with mass-media advertising that so many recent elections are won by the thinnest of margins, leaving almost exactly half the electorate dissatisfied? Could it be that we have now built perfect engines of attack and counter-attack? Might it be that the computerized Rovian brains running our candidates’ campaigns have created a circular eddy of analysis leading to counter-attack, of thrust leading to parry….. and if the pollsters and the Carvilles and the Roves are all using the same software and the same tactics, does the relentless calculus of mass media advertising not virtually guarantee a tie? Any movement away from the middle leads to an equal and opposite advertising barrage, precisely targeted to the shifting demographics of the support-base. That pushback then leads to yet another counterattack that exactly nullifies the shift. The new, equally split electorate sits on the Center Court at Wimbledon, but in this game of tennis all ball speeds and direction are computerized to exactly counter the computerized media balls lobbed from the other direction. If two Cray computers are programmed to use the same chess software, they will play to a tie. Welcome to the democratic election of leadership for the free world.
The logic of democracy is that more people will make better decisions than less. Flying in the face of this is the level of knowledge, of awareness, of shrewdness and of exposure to the world among those who vote. If two generations of low-ranking public education, disgracefully fallen behind that of so many other nations, has decimated the electorate’s alertness to the issues…. if the media drives people away from the thoughtful and towards the soundbite…. if so few Americans have ever left their country, so few own a passport, so few experience the neighbors down the road…. at what point does the dearth of the necessary building-blocks for sound choice by the electorate trump the hope that “more are more likely to choose right”? Do the people who advocate "sending the illegals home" really think there is any way to export 11 million people, even if they wanted to leave? Do the people who advocate "keeping jobs here" realise that then they will have to pay more for their toys than the price of labor in China will support?
Witness the crazed new dance of three zombies spiraling downwards with arms interlocked: fear, media and fascism. Scared people have always voted away from their fear: The Germans elected Hitler in reaction to the chaos around them. The terrorists have realized, like the Nazis before them, that the willingness to use violence, to kill, to maim, to scare the wife and kids, will cower all but the most stubborn opponent. And in our brave new world of continuous television news, diminished by those soundbites calibrated to every under-curious short attention span, fear sells very well indeed. Fear sells even better than the schadenfreude of our latest celebrity-fallen-from-grace story. And when more people watch the latest threat, the latest explosion, advertising revenue rises and our media report more profit. Such is free enterprise: never has asymmetrical warfare been more potent than in this new era of a populist media that ever craves the latest horror.
So how do we fix democracy, how do we find the right glue? How do we persuade the well-educated few, the uber-class, that mass public education of a world-challenging level is ultimately the preserver of their freedom too? And if public education is to remain under-funded and its recipients oftentimes under-curious and open to irrational persuasion (“Oh look, a Famous Actor appeared with a politician, so I’ll vote for him!”), how do we make an arabesque around it and bring critical thinking and a community of the global, the thoughtful and the curious to our voters? Well, how about if we use the same new media the forces of darkness are using successfully to run our democracy into the ground?
There is considerable evidence that our new breed of young people, children of the self-interested Baby Boomers, younger than the hedonistic Generation X, this new Millennial Generation is significantly more engaged in the world than any group since the Great Generation who battled Hitler and Hirohito. In preserving their own freedom and restoring that of others, those who came of age in the Second World War often became permanently socially engaged themselves. Every college applicant these days performs meaningful voluntary service; for half that habit sticks even when it is no longer self-interested. 85% of Millennials aged 15 to 25, will change brands if the new offering has a social benefit. And Gen Y’s young people are nothing if not media-fluent. They build community online, they read foreign news streams, they text, blog, date, discuss, activate and cross-pollinate with far less regard to geography than their parents. They are the only future we have and we should be glad, because with a little encouragement they will take over and build a new, more vibrant democracy. The Founding Fathers would want no less!
Social Networks already experiment with peer referral, with peer ratings and the systematic badging of expertise. Not Ebay itself, but Ebay’s users provide a sophisticated review of any potential buyer’s or seller’s business ethics, their history, a full codification of their reputation. Let us now develop an evolving set of competitive systems to rate our politicians, our leaders and for sure those young peers who voice public opinions. If an elected official lies repeatedly, why can we not codify that? And if a publisher of political and social opinion oftentimes and empirically ‘gets it wrong’, why can we not record that? Why can we rate restaurants but not leaders? Why do we have to rely on media susceptible to their own bias to remind us of the prior track records of those asking us to follow them? I hear you say, “But truth is in the eye of the beholder”…. Well firstly, no, it is not; a great deal of empirical truth can be measured independent of opinion. And secondly, OK, so first profile the seeker of truth, then supply a range of relevant opinions placing the target’s reputation in that context. Those online dating services look not only at the sought but also at the seeker before suggesting a match.
While we are at it, why can we not codify the media voices so that their reputation is not some vague and ill-defined sense buffeted by their own and their rivals’ media blasts? Why can GuideStar codify all the major non-profits in America but we can’t get our empirical measuring arms around the journalists any more than the politicians? Why do we assume it is good to be influenced by polls telling us what others think? Why should any prior polling rationally influence voters in an election? Why can’t we see track-records parsed the way we measure racehorses? Come on guys, where’s the algorithm? This is our civilization at stake here and we are not sheep. Where’s the beef?
Let’s encourage our young people to meet online the young people who are not like them. Let’s encourage the lowering of borders, of geography, of nation states, of religion and of fear: are we using our new media as well as we can to show that what unites young people across the world is more powerful than what divides them? Hats off to Nick Negroponte and his $130 dollar third-world wireless laptop computer: now let’s build the MySpaces and the Facebooks and the rest of the social networks to unite kids across the world, regardless of the hatreds and lack of understanding of their parents. We have the real-time translation capabilities: turn them on. And let's ensure please that the communities and the blogs and their buzz are inclusive
and facing outwards
.... what a terrible irony if all this new technology only creates narrow communities of those who are already alike and already agree! Let's use cheap, widely available technology to bridge the gap between rich and poor and between those who misunderstand or hate each other.... let's build wider links, not more techie silos grouping people into subsets of the ignorant and intolerant! Techology is powerful but totally dumb: it is our responsibility to use it properly.
And let’s go further. Remember Negroponte’s ‘Wired’ article a decade ago about the ‘Exogenous Brain’, the concept that many minds linked electronically could crack complex problems together, beyond the ability of any constituent part? Ant hills of complex, ever-evolving and self-correcting organic reasoning and knowledge applied to complex and intractable problems beyond the conquest of most any individual…. Well, hell, that was ten years ago…. where’s the software? We have Wikipedia and Wiki- this and that: compendiums of knowledge from many contributors on millions of subjects. But that’s what it is: facts neatly set down. No disrespect to facts of course, but where’s Wiki 2.0? Where is the Opinion Wiki, the Solutions Wiki? Where is the software that drives interlocking waves of thousands of agile minds towards solutions to the complex problems that face us every day? Please go invent it!
And let’s please, please focus on where our young people are getting their information. Let’s work to lower their reliance on the news-gathering and selection whims of three major conglomerates. How do we drive global, independent news to young American eyes and ears to create a wide sense of those neighbors down the road and how they see things? Sure, there is the Google News aggregator, but where is the easily accessible television? LinkTV aims to use its non-profit platform as an international aggregator of news and culture to open American eyes to The World Out There.... but as yet it is much too narrowly distributed. Diversity of information, culture and opinion is totally available from all over our planet: we need to translate and channel it much more widely to our young American Millennials.
Let’s consider mandatory voting, as is done successfully in Australia. If we want to live in a democracy, we should vote our franchise. And can we really not make online voting safe enough to use? We safely transfer trillions of dollars electronically every day, all around the world. Is secure online voting really beyond our reach? Why not run it in parallel to the traditional not-so-hot hanging chads until we see that it works better?
Let’s educate and encourage our Millennials to speak truth to power. It is not only because we have no Draft that there is so little mass protest of the Iraq War: it is also because our young people feel disengaged from the halls of their leaders and under-powered in stating their views: they do not generally believe anyone much is listening over there. So let us adapt and adopt the sophisticated social networking tools used to sell music and films and macramé and bring them to opinion and dissent and attitude. And let’s publicize those truths to power that are generated, not just drop them into some Senator’s unread email file for electronic shredding. And at least send a receipt!
Democracy is passing through a bleak and bumpy patch, buffeted by the strong adverse winds of money, fear and a bottom-feeding media…. But democracy is still the best hope we have for an aspirational future to support and nurture the most people to their best possible lives. We must use every tool in our new media and social arsenals to evolve and empower our American democracy beyond the thrall of the bombers, the self-interested elites and the totalitarian fear-mongers. We need to deliver a Democracy 2.0 based on education, knowledge, community empowerment and responsive leadership. We have the tools to build this new virtuous circle and we need to hurry to deliver them. We have the technology. Let’s turn it on.
Labels: 2008 election, candidate, Democracy, Election, Fascism, Media