Gore: American Democracy in Danger
Former Vice President Al Gore gave a speech this morning saying that “American democracy is in grave danger.” As best I can tell, he’s blaming this on television.
I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse . I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America’s fabled “marketplace of ideas” now functions.
How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it’s almost as if America has entered “an alternate universe”?
I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack. At first I thought the exhaustive, non-stop coverage of the O.J. trial was just an unfortunate excess that marked an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. But now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.
In fact there was a time when America’s public discourse was consistently much more vivid, focused and clear. Our Founders, probably the most literate generation in all of history, used words with astonishing precision and believed in the Rule of Reason. Their faith in the viability of Representative Democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry. But they placed particular emphasis on insuring that the public could be well- informed. And they took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas in order to ensure the free-flow of knowledge.
The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg’s disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new sovereign: the “Rule of Reason.”
Their world was dominated by the printed word. Just as the proverbial fish doesn’t know it lives in water, the United States in its first half century knew nothing but the world of print: the Bible, Thomas Paine’s fiery call to revolution, the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution , our laws, the Congressional Record, newspapers and books. Though they feared that a government might try to censor the printing press – as King George had done – they could not imagine that America’s public discourse would ever consist mainly of something other than words in print.
And yet, as we meet here this morning, more than 40 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and, for the most part, resisting the temptation to inflate their circulation numbers. Reading itself is in sharp decline, not only in our country but in most of the world. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by television.
Radio, the internet, movies, telephones, and other media all now vie for our attention – but it is television that still completely dominates the flow of information in modern America. In fact, according to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of four hours and 28 minutes every day — 90 minutes more than the world average.
When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time that the average American has. And for younger Americans, the average is even higher.
Consider the rules by which our present “public forum” now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.
Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers. Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.
Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation.
While almost all of what Gore says is true, his premise is wrong to the point of absurdity. When exactly was this golden era in which ordinary citizens had substantial amounts of free time in which to engage in a national two-way dialogue on politics? It never existed.
It’s certainly true that we are live stressful lives because of the expectation that most people maintain 24/7 contact with the office. It’s true that we’re spending more time commuting to and from work. And, of course, the norm in most families is for the husband and wife to both have full-time jobs. Still, we have substantially more leisure time than our forebearers; certainly more than those who lived in the colonial era and early days of the Republic.
The ability to get access to information and comprehend it has certainly never been greater. Even the president of the United States had no way to communicate with the citizens on an immediate basis prior to the advent of radio. Almost every American can read, something that was not true of the founding generation.
As to the ability of ordinary citizens to get heard on a national stage, it is infinitely easier now than it was twenty years ago, let alone two hundred. How was a shopkeeper in Philadelphia to get his message out to the masses of Charleston in the 1770s? It was virtually impossible, in fact, unless one owned a newspaper. Nowadays, anyone can set up a free website on Blogspot or several other services and commence typing. Some get thousands of visitors a day. That was simply impossible for even the rich and powerful generations ago.