An epidemic of craziness seems to have swept over the American political landscape. This is of course a problem not just for Americans, but for people all around the world. It remains the case that most people think of the United States as the world’s leading democracy. Although they may not choose to imitate many of the specific features of American democratic institutions, the prestige of democracy around the world is very much tied up with the performance of the American system. When this political system proves demonstrably incapable of keeping charlatans, conspiracy theorists, and religious fanatics out of political power, this is a huge blow to the prestige of democratic systems as a whole.
To see the problem that this creates, consider the situation in China, where plenty of people have very reasonable concerns about the possible consequences of democratization and whether it would be, on the whole, good for their country. Defenders of the existing system, such as Zhang Weiwei, put the argument in exactly these terms: “Despite its well-known strengths, liberal democracy as an institution has been seriously eroded by such persistent problems as demagoguery, short-termism, simple-minded populism, the excessive influence of money and the role played by special interests . . . the Chinese system of meritocracy makes it inconceivable that anyone as incompetent as America’s George W. Bush or Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda could ever get to the top.” The more degraded and corrupt American democracy becomes, the more difficult it becomes to argue for democracy—even if many of the conditions in the United States are a consequence of unusual features of that particular political system, which need not be imitated elsewhere.
Contemporary apostles of democracy often like to wax rhapsodic about the origins of Western civilization in Athens during the classical period. They point to democracy as one of the preconditions for the great flowering of science, art, philosophy, and mathematics that occurred during that period. They often forget to mention that the great philosophers of ancient Athens—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—were quite hostile to democracy. Their central objection to popular rule was that they regarded it as unstable. The figure that they feared most was that of the demagogue, the unscrupulous individual who could gain power by appealing to the emotions and prejudices of the people. For Plato in particular, it was this vulnerability to demagoguery that was the fatal flaw in democratic political systems.
From this perspective, it is more than a bit disconcerting to observe that modern democratic politics, particularly in America, has devolved into all demagoguery all the time, and that members of the pundit class—from David Brooks to Margaret Wente--have been mining contemporary psychology to argue that this is not just an aberration or even a problem, but that it is simply the human condition. If people are nothing more than a bundle of emotions and prejudices, what harm could there be in appealing to these emotions and prejudices as a way of getting elected? And besides, if your opponent is doing it, what choice do you have?
This line of argument has made it difficult to see the current situation as a problem, and even more difficult to start looking for solutions.
One of the reasons that modern democracies are able to survive despite this epidemic of demagoguery is that they have a wide range of institutions that insulate political decision making from direct democratic control (all of which were absent in ancient Athens). The biggest difference is that our democracy is representative, rather than direct, which means that citizens only choose leaders; they do not (except in exceptional circumstances, such as referenda) vote on policy. Beyond this, the mere fact of having written laws, applied impartially, which are time-consuming and difficult to change, lends stability to the system. Then there is the institution of judicial review, which permits unelected judges to strike down legislation that is deemed to involve misuse of state power—either because it violates individual rights or because it fails to respect the division of powers within a federal system. There are many other, less obvious arrangements as well. Almost every democracy has moved to an arrangement in which the central bank operates with almost complete independence from the government of the day. This is important because the central bank is often called upon to pursue unpopular policies, such as maintaining high interest rates to control inflation. That would be very difficult to do if central bank decisions were subject to direct popular or legislative control. There is no justification for this arrangement other than the recognition that if the public did have control over the central bank—as various populist movements have at various times demanded—they would make terrible decisions.
Thus it is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded. They do so largely by shifting power and control away from elected representatives toward experts. Even in the United States, where this is difficult to do, one can find examples all over. The most obvious is the enormous role that the Supreme Court has played in making decisions that, in most other democracies, would be left to the legislature. But one can see it in other areas as well, such as the amount of autonomy that government agencies have or the increased use of cost-benefit analysis in public decision making.
If one looks, for example, at the record of regulatory decision making by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, one can see that it tracks very closely the level of public concern over various hazardous substances. The problem is that the level of public concern bears very little relationship to how hazardous various substances actually are. To pick just one example, the public cares very little about radon gas in their homes, despite the fact that it is the second leading cause of lung cancer (after smoking). It is certainly far more dangerous than second-hand cigarette smoke. The problem is that, unlike cigarette smoke, it is colorless and odorless, and is therefore difficult to get anyone to worry about. Experts, however, consider it a serious problem. Thus the requirement that all new environmental regulations pass a cost-benefit test winds up giving greater authority to expert judgment and diminishes the impact of public pressure.
So one solution to the problem of demagoguery is simply to have less democracy, and to hand decisions over to experts. This solution has certain advantages (indoor radon gas levels are more likely to be checked) but many well-known disadvantages. A more attractive solution is to improve the quality of democratic deliberation, or at least to provide preconditions for more rational debate. As a matter of fact, many of the complex and arcane procedures involved in democratic decision making are designed to do just this.
As we have seen, one of the most important features of reason is that it is slow. This is true not only of the operations of individual brains, but also of the social processes of contestation and dialogue that serve as a check on individual bias. Thus one way in which democratic institutions enhance the quality of decision making is simply by slowing down the process. The most obvious example of this is bicameralism—the practice of having two legislative bodies, the “house” and the “senate,” both of which must pass a bill before it becomes law. In Canada, where the Senate is unelected and almost never vetoes legislation, there is an obvious question as to what purpose it serves. (And so political parties on the left and right, which tend to be more populist in orientation than parties in the center, want to either abolish it or see its members be elected.) Yet the existing Senate serves an important purpose in the mere fact that it slows down the legislative process. (This is why it is often called the chamber of “sober second thought.”) With two legislative houses and a complicated process whereby bills have to go back and forth between them, undergoing multiple “readings,” both legislators and the public at large have a chance to go through things carefully, to think about and debate the consequences of a bill. Furthermore, the slowness of the procedure gives the public a chance to mobilize around the issue, for debate to occur. So even if the second chamber does nothing to make the legislative process more democratic, it can nevertheless make it more rational.
Popular democratic theory, however, puts a huge amount of emphasis on the practice of voting and comparatively little emphasis on argumentation and debate. One of the glaring deficiencies of the American political system, for instance, is that the president is never forced to engage in debate with other legislators and is never forced to answer any question he doesn’t want to answer. In the British parliamentary system, the prime minister has to show up in the House of Commons when it is in session and defend the policies of the government. He or she is there treated like any other member of Parliament, and thus jeered, heckled, and challenged by members of the opposition. For this reason, and despite how degraded the spectacle has become over time, “question period and debate institutionalize doubt and scepticism in the political system.”
The American president, by contrast, is like an elected monarch. Once a year he gives a speech to the House of Representatives, but no one has a chance to challenge anything he says to his face, and it becomes a national incident if the assembled legislators fail to show the utmost deference and respect. Apart from that, the only time that the American president has to answer questions is at press conferences. This is a disastrous arrangement, because it means that almost all public communication between the president and legislators is filtered through the media (and is therefore biased in the direction of talking points, sound-bites, and all the other tricks politicians use to get the media to say what they want them to say). If a reporter misbehaves or asks too difficult a question, or presses an issue too far, then she simply won’t be called on again, and may not even be invited back. Furthermore, the president is under no obligation to take questions if he doesn’t want to. Ronald Reagan, during his final two years in office, all but stopped holding press conferences. This was at a time when there were serious questions about his mental competence, and yet Americans had no way of assessing his state of mind. In retrospect, there seems to be little doubt that, had he been forced to enter a “parliamentary bear pit” every week the way the British prime minister is, he could not have survived his second term in office.
In January 2010, House Republicans took the unusual step of inviting President Obama to address their caucus retreat in Baltimore, after which the president spent over an hour responding to questions directly from legislators. Two things about this were noteworthy. First, Americans from one end of the country to the other were astonished by the lucidity of the exchanges. What they were used to seeing was the president and the members of Congress exchanging barbs through the media. Seeing the president able to respond to questions directly was a revelation. Second, there was the fact that President Obama completely eviscerated his opponents—to the point where Fox News cut off the live broadcast, in order to save the Republican Party from further embarrassment. The major reason is that most of the Republican legislators did what they were accustomed to doing, which is use their questions as an opportunity to spout talking points. They didn’t realize that this only works as a media tactic; it doesn’t work in a face-to-face exchange with a political opponent, particularly one who can take as much time as he likes to respond.
Because it went so badly for them, Republicans never invited Obama back. Therein lies the central problem with the American presidential system: this kind of exchange is optional. In most other democracies, this kind of exchange is institutionalized as a requirement. As it stands, the American political system simply lacks any mechanism to force the president and legislators to explain themselves or their actions to one another. This makes the “norm of truth” very difficult to enforce, and in turn encourages the slow descent into truthiness. The point is that irrationalism is not an inevitable consequence of the modern condition; it is in many respects a consequence of the institutions we have chosen. Furthermore, it’s not that difficult to think of institutional changes that would increase the role of reason in American political discourse. The problem is that people haven’t been thinking about this question because they fail to see how the exercise of reason depends upon its environment. Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason, for example, contains the usual complaints about the media but has nothing at all to say about how American political institutions are organized. It simply doesn’t occur to Gore that if the government were held accountable by the opposition, rather than just the media, and if political debate occurred among legislators with the status and authority to challenge each other, then a lot of the problems he is complaining about would be diminished.
Parliamentary democracies are, of course, not immune to many of the same problems that have bedeviled the American system. In particular, there has been a huge decline in the cognitive content of “question period” or “question time.” Much of this was precipitated by the introduction of television cameras, which encouraged legislators to shift away from argumentation and debate toward short, emotional sound-bites—the sort of thing that plays well on television. This, however, is not impossible to remedy. The obvious recourse is simply to remove the television cameras. Short of that, there are already multiple restrictions on what the cameras can record and how the footage can be used. One could simply add the restriction that broadcasters are not allowed to reproduce segments of less than one minute in length. Similarly, the British system that requires submission of questions in advance is demonstrably superior because it diminishes the temptation to go for “gotcha” questions and allows for the preparation of more intelligent responses.
Criticizing the American political system has, unfortunately, become something of a mug’s game, simply because the deficiencies are all mutually reinforcing, and so no matter how much sense it would make to change one thing or another, nothing is going to get fixed. Campaign finance reform might be a good idea, as would an end to the gerrymandering of electoral districts, but it’s difficult to see any plausible sequence of events that could lead to that outcome. In order to change these things, you would need to elect a president and a lot of legislators intent on changing them, and that’s unlikely to happen, precisely because of existing campaign finance arrangements and gerrymandering. This is why some Americans have begun to argue seriously for a constitutional convention that would look at reforming American institutions from the ground up—simply because there is no path that leads from the existing institutional arrangements to a better set through incremental change. But of course, there is no path that leads from the existing institutional arrangement to a constitutional convention either, so the whole discussion is pie in the sky.
There are, however, a few tweaks that are not entirely outside the realm of possibility that could lead to a slight increase in the sanity of public discourse in America. For example, while the media has its shortcomings throughout the world, broadcast news in America is especially bad, and it’s difficult to say exactly why. The insistence on providing saturation coverage of sensational but ultimately unimportant stories has become almost perverse in its intensity. More subtlely, American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts, making the entirely media universe something of closed loop. When discussing the federal budget, for instance, they will often put together panels consisting entirely of lobbyists and other journalists. It is relatively rare to see an actual economist (with the exception of Paul Krugman, who typically appears in his capacity as a New York Times columnist, not as an economist). This seems to be just a part of the culture of American journalism—public television is nearly as bad as private—and it’s difficult to see what could be done about it.
There are some other more obvious problems. The creation of straight-up propaganda networks like Fox News in America has done enormous damage to the quality of democratic discourse in that country. Many people blame the abolition of the Federal Communications Commission’s “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987, under President Reagan, for setting this process of degeneration in motion. This rule had required broadcasters, both radio and television, to inform their audience about matters of public interest, and specified that “coverage of these issues must be fair in the sense that it provides an opportunity for . . . contrasting points of view.” This doctrine was, over the years, unpopular with both the left and right, depending on the tenor of discussion in the media. It seems clear, however, that a lot of current right-wing talk radio, as well as Fox News, could not operate as it currently does without the abolition of this rule.
Because of this, Democratic legislators periodically attempt to revive the rule, prompting outrage among conservatives. And there are some obvious problems with it. Not only is the rule exceedingly vague, but it encourages the type of “opinions on the shape of the earth differ” reporting that makes it difficult to hold people to account for lying. Most other developed countries, by contrast, have narrower rules that focus specifically on lying and misrepresentation. The European Parliament, for instance, has passed a resolution specifying that “news broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration.” In the United Kingdom, the Broadcasting Code requires that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” Canada has a rule (enforced by the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission) that simply prohibits the intentional, repeated broadcast of “false or misleading news.” This type of constraint is more easily defended than the Fairness Doctrine, since it is closer in spirit to the laws governing false advertising. And yet the Canadian rule is strong enough to have so far prevented Fox News from expanding into that market.
Many of the problems with news networks are similar to the ones posed by political advertising, which constitutes a huge challenge to the quality of democratic discourse but which is very difficult to do anything about. Typically, attempts to limit advertising focus on controlling the amount of money that can be spent (through spending limits and constraints on donations, which have, in effect, now been completely abolished in the United States). Another approach might be to focus on the impact that political advertising has on the rationality of public discourse. The most obvious and uncontroversial reform would be to hold political advertising to the same “false advertising” standards that ordinary commercial advertising is expected to satisfy. Companies are subject to fairly strict rules when it comes to the claims that they make in their advertisements—even statements that are true and yet misleading may be prohibited. Political advertising, on the other hand, is basically subject to no constraints. Certain practices, such as editing a recording of one’s opponent’s speech, removing words in order to change the meaning of a sentence, are so obviously deceptive that it is difficult to believe they are legal in any jurisdiction. The telling of obvious lies could also be restricted. Of course, in the United States the constitutional straitjacket (in particular, the extremely broad way that the Supreme Court has been interpreting the First Amendment) would prevent any such changes, but that doesn’t mean that other democratic societies should be forced to follow the American lead.
It doesn’t take any fancy theory of human psychology to see how a prohibition on outright falsehood could be salutary. Indeed, many people are surprised to discover that political advertising is held to a lower standard than commercial advertising. There are other, more subtle changes, however, that could also enhance the rational character of political communication. For example, one could prohibit the use of images, music, and sound effects in political advertising—making it so that the ad could feature only the candidate talking. This would make it more difficult to bypass the audience’s rational faculties. Such changes would no doubt be challenged as a violation of “freedom of speech,” which is why it is important to emphasize that they do not actually restrict speech.
One could also take measures aimed at eliminating certain “voter suppression” techniques. Negative advertising, for example, is often intended to create disgust with the political system and thereby reduce voter participation. It works in part because it leads more of one’s opponents’ supporters to stop voting than it does one’s own. But of course, when all sides do it, it just leads to an overall decline in voter turnout. A relatively simple way to address this problem is to make voting mandatory, as it is in Brazil, Australia, Argentina, and many other countries. Failure to vote is, after all, a free-rider strategy for anyone who enjoys the benefits of living in a democratic society, so it doesn’t violate any important principles to prohibit it. By making voting mandatory, certain forms of political advertising that are not really aimed at communicating but rather have the strategic intent of discouraging participation would be rendered ineffectual.
It is still unclear what the long-term impact of the internet on the quality of political discourse will be. This is partly because the technology is changing so quickly and partly because the impact on traditional media—newspapers in particular—is yet to be determined. Twitter, of course, because of the limits it imposes on message length, is completely inimical to rational debate. It encourages the verbal equivalent of slap fighting. The incredible “need for speed” that Twitter imposes is also catastrophic from the standpoint of rationality. So the fact that journalists and pundits now spend hours every day tweeting and reading tweets cannot be a good thing.
Blogs have much more potential, and obviously have become an important element of the political culture. It is, however, interesting to observe that no blog or media site hoping to maintain a rational debate can get by without active censorship of “trolls”—people who post comments simply with the goal of provoking other people. This doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom of speech, because of course the trolls can always go and post somewhere else. A more subtle problem is caused by paid commentators. Many newspaper and magazine sites, for instance, are essentially crippled by staffers working for the major political parties, who are given a series of talking points then instructed to comment on all news stories and opinion pieces on all major media outlets. They are like trolls, in the sense that they are not interested in engaging in discussion with the other commentators, but they are seldom outrageous or inflammatory. The net effect is just to flood the comments on these sites with junk and to sidetrack serious discussion. This dramatically diminishes the value of the internet as a tool for political discussion and debate. Bad talk drives out good, and so the only people left on the site are those who are too naive to realize that they’re arguing with paid political hacks.
Furthermore, the resurgence of text-based communication caused by the internet may end up being just a consequence of bandwidth limitations. As it gets easier to move more and more data, the importance of video is steadily increasing. (So now, instead of just blog posts and comments, people upload videos, prompting others to upload “response” videos, and so on.) The move to the more visual medium has exactly the impact on the quality of discourse that one would expect. It is entirely possible that the past ten years will be looked back on as the “golden years” of public discourse, precisely because of the technological limitations that left us with no choice but to type out long messages to one another and to leave written comments on blogs.
The protestors who threatened to turn the Rally to Restore Sanity into a rally to restore politeness were right about several things. The decline of rationality in public life bears more than a passing resemblance to the decline of civility, which has been ongoing for more than forty years. As time goes by, people seem to get ruder and ruder, while popular entertainment becomes more and more vulgar. The problem with this decline is that it is almost entirely a cultural phenomenon, which makes it very difficult to reverse. You can blame the media, but obviously the media is just a part of a much broader trend. The problem is that, in the competition for attention, being rude (or vulgar) is a way of getting noticed. In order for it to work, however, you need to be ruder than everyone else. Everyone else, of course, is not about to stand idly by and let you steal all the attention. They will respond in kind. The result is a classic race to the bottom, where the level of rudeness gets steadily ratcheted up over time. But what can be done about it? Complaining about this or that egregious instance is completely self-defeating, because it gives the offenders precisely the attention that they crave. And it’s not the type of thing that can be legislated against. Courtesy is maintained by informal social norms. Once those norms begin to erode, it is very difficult to see how the process can be halted.
This problem—how to stop or reverse long-term cultural decline—is one that traditional conservatives used to worry about (and religious conservatives still do). Common sense conservatives, by contrast, tend not to worry at all (perhaps because vulgarity is the way that “real people” talk), and in public discourse, it is conservative commentators who have been pushing the level of rudeness to new depths (not to mention making violent rhetoric increasingly mainstream).
Rationality is also maintained by a system of informal norms. These include not only a commitment to the cooperative search for the truth, a willingness to accept the force of the better argument, and a recognition of the possibility of reasonable disagreement, but also more fine-grained norms, such as the willingness to listen to others (sometimes at length), the ability to focus on a single topic, and the ability to move on when disagreement becomes intractable. Rationality is not hardwired. Indeed, when isolated from one another, we are not particularly good at reasoning. But as even Jonathan Haidt acknowledges, “if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”
What happens, though, when people begin to act in ways that undermine the “common bonds” that make good reasoning possible? One can see the erosion quite clearly in the political world, where a dynamic has set in that seems to undermine rationality just as steadily as the competition for attention has undermined civility in popular culture. In this case, what drives the process is ultimately a competition for votes. People have found all sorts of highly effective strategies for winning votes that, unfortunately, violate the basic norms of rational discourse.
This rising demagoguery poses a serious challenge to the political system: it may help to win elections, but it degrades democracy and impedes the ability of the state to develop rational policy, not just in response to crises (such as the 2008 financial crisis or the longer-term crisis of global warming), but even with respect to the everyday business of government (such as maintaining infrastructure or keeping schools open and staffed). Both politicians and campaign strategists have been acting as though the democratic system can’t be broken. This is obvious in the case of campaign tactics that involve suppressing voter turnout, but is equally true of strategies that involve willful violation of the norms of truth and civil dialogue. This recklessness may be due to the belief that democracy is nothing more than the expression of the individual liberty of citizens and therefore needs no special “ethic” in order to survive. But that is clearly not the case. Democracy involves a finely balanced set of institutions that evolved over the course of hundreds of years. Maintaining this balance requires an enormous amount of self-restraint on the part of everyone involved. It is not at all obvious that it can survive in a system of no-holds-barred electoral competition.
When people enter into a competitive interaction, there is a temptation to think that any conduct at all can be justified on the grounds that “it helps you win”—and that refraining from doing something that might help you win is either stupid or naive. But this is not true in every area of social life. The mere fact that an interaction is competitive does not mean that anything goes. All staged competitions—and democracy, like sport, is a carefully staged competition—are governed not only by explicit rules, but also by an implicit “code” that puts constraints on how far people can go to win. Even warfare, perhaps the most extreme form of competition, is governed by rules. Granted, this code of honor in warfare has been significantly eroded over the course of the past century. Yet the fact that it ever existed at all—despite the lack of any serious legal enforcement—gives the lie to the idea that people are incapable of restraining themselves in competitive interactions. Even when people are trying to kill each other, they are still capable of respecting informal norms that limit the destructiveness of that competition.
This sort of code is, of course, much easier to destroy than it is to build. One of the most serious objections to the American use of torture in the “global war on terror” is that it violated the spirit, if not the letter, of a set of norms about the treatment of prisoners that had been painstakingly built up over time. In much of American public discourse, the mere fact that “lives were at stake” was taken to be sufficient to justify the most outrageous behavior. It took Christopher Hitchens, the most vocal British supporter of the war, to remind people that it is possible to act honorably even when lives are at stake. In a memorable exchange with Bill O’Reilly, he observed that “in the Second World War the British had a special prison for captured Nazi spies. And you were fired in that prison if you even raised a hand or you even threatened violence. This was a time [when] London was being bombed every single night.”
The American decision to prosecute the war on terror without honor was not an unfortunate necessity, forced on them by circumstances. It was a decision. The same can be said for the choice, made by many of the same people, to fight elections without honor, by engaging in every sort of demagoguery possible. The decline of honor is a huge loss to the political system. And like the decline in military honor, it’s not obvious what can be done to fix it once it’s broken. Informal norms are by their nature unenforced, and often unenforceable. People are willing to follow these rules as long as everyone else does, and so when one person stops, the rest may quickly follow. Getting everyone to go back can be an enormous challenge, even if they can all see that they would all be better off that way.
Part of the problem, in the case of the political system, is that people have talked themselves into the view that the outcome is not actually that damaging and that “all demagoguery all of the time” is a perfectly natural way for a democracy to function. The argument of this book is intended, at the very least, to undermine that notion. But when it comes to repairing the damage, there is no quick fix.
Excerpted from "Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy and Our Lives" by Joseph Heath. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Heath. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.