Symposium 03

Rich media, poor democracy

Communication politics in these dubious times

Our era rests upon a massive paradox. On the one hand, it is an age of dazzling breakthroughs in communication and information technologies. Communication is so intertwined with the economy and culture that our times have been dubbed the Information Age. Sitting high atop this golden web are a handful of enormous media firms – exceeding by a factor of 10 the size of the largest media firms of just 15 years earlier – that have established global empires and generated massive riches providing news and entertainment to the peoples of the world. Independent of government control, this commercial media juggernaut provides a bounty of choices unimaginable a generation or two earlier. And it is finding a welcoming audience. According to one study, the average American consumed a whopping 11.8 hours of media per day in 1998, up over 13 percent in just three years. As the survey director noted, "the sheer amount of media products and messages consumed by the average American adult is staggering and growing." The rise of the Internet has only accentuated the trend. "People are simply spending more time with media," a media executive stated. "They don't appear to have dropped one medium to have picked up another." These patterns are emerging as well across the world. 

On the other hand, our era is one that is entirely depoliticized; traditional notions of civic and political involvement have shriveled. Elementary understanding of social and political affairs has declined. Turnout for U.S. elections – admittedly not a perfect barometer – has plummeted over the past 30 years. The 1998 congressional elections will have the lowest turnout of eligible voters in U.S. history, as approximately one-third of the eligible voters turn out on election day. It is, to employ a phrase coined by Robert Entman, "democracy without citizens."

By conventional reasoning, this is nonsensical. A flowering commercial marketplace of ideas, unencumbered by government censorship or regulation, should generate the most stimulating democratic political culture possible. The response comes that the problem lies elsewhere, that "the people" obviously are not interested in politics or civic issues, because, if they were, it would be in the interests of the wealthy media giants to provide them with that. There is an element of truth to that reply, but it is hardly a satisfactory response. Virtually all defenses of the commercial media system for the privileges they receive – made by the media owners themselves – are based on the notion that the media play an important, perhaps a central, role in providing the institutional basis for having an informed and participating citizenry. If this is, indeed, a democracy without citizens, the media system has much to answer for.

I argue that the media have become a significant anti-democratic force in the United States and, to varying degrees, worldwide. The wealthier and more powerful the corporate media giants have become, the poorer the prospects for participatory democracy. I do not believe the media are the sole or primary cause of the decline of democracy, but they are a part of the problem and closely linked to many of the other factors. Behind the lustrous glow of new technologies and electronic jargon, the media system has become increasingly concentrated and conglomerated into a relative handful of corporate hands. This concentration accentuates the core tendencies of a profit-driven, advertising-supported media system: hyper-commercialism and denigration of journalism and public service. It is a poison pill for democracy. Nor is the decline of democracy in the face of this boom in media wealth a contradiction. The media system is linked ever more closely to the capitalist system, through both ownership and its reliance upon advertising, a function dominated by the largest firms in the economy. Capitalism benefits from having a formally democratic system, but capitalism works best when elites make most fundamental decisions and the bulk of the population is depoliticized. For a variety of reasons, the media have come to be expert at generating the type of fare that suits, and perpetuates, the status quo. I argue that if we value democracy, it is imperative that we restructure the media system so that it reconnects with the mass of citizens who in fact comprise "democracy." The media reform I envision can take place only if it is part of a broader political movement to shift power from the few to the many. Conversely, any meaningful attempt to do this, to democratize the United States, or any other society, must make media reform a part (though by no means all) of its agenda. Such has not been the case heretofore.

My argument goes directly counter to the prevailing wisdom of our times. The ultimate trump card of conservatism and reaction, after all their other arguments have been discredited, is that there is no possibility of social change for the better, so it is a notion not even worth pondering, let alone pursuing. This card has been played by ruling elites since the dawn of civilization, but never has it been waved more ferociously than at the close of the 20th century. It has deadened social thought and has demoralized social movements and public life. And it is a lie, the biggest lie of them all. The world is changing rapidly and is doing so because of decisions made by actors working within a specific social system. If anything, humans now possess greater ability to alter their destiny than ever before. Those who benefit by the status quo know this well. They want to ensure that they are the ones holding the reins; they want everyone else to accept their privileges as "natural" and immutable. In my view, the duty of the democrat, and especially of the democratic intellectual, is to rip the veil off this power, and to work so that social decision-making and power be made as enlightened and as egalitarian as possible.

It might be wise to address what exactly I mean by the term "democracy." One of the heartening features of our age is that the term "democracy" is embraced by nearly all but a handful of bigots, fanatics and xenophobes. This is a relatively recent development, and its newfound popularity is a reminder of how far humanity has traveled over the past few centuries. But the term is employed so widely that it has lost much of its specificity and meaning. Hence a product that is consumed widely is termed a "democratic" product, as opposed to a product consumed by the few. Indeed, the term "democratic" is seemingly applied to describe anything or any behavior that is good, while terms like "fascist" or "Hitler-like" are used to describe negative behavior, regardless of any actual relationship to the Third Reich or fascist politics, or politics at all.

So it is that when the United States is characterized as a democratic society, what is meant varies considerably with the identity of the person making the claim. In general, however, when the United States is characterized as a democracy, this is meant to suggest that in the United States the citizens enjoy individual rights and freedoms, including the right to vote in elections, and that arbitrary government power is held in check by a constitution and laws and a legal system that enforces them. What is conspicuously absent from notions of the United States as a democracy is anything that has much to do with democracy, the idea that the many should and do make the core political decisions. In fact, very few people would argue that the United States is remotely close to a democratic society in that sense of the term. Many key decisions are the province of the corporate sector and most decisions made by the government are influenced by powerful special interests with little public awareness or input.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood has pointed out in brilliant fashion, what is called democracy in the United States and, increasingly, around the world, is better thought of as liberalism. As Wood notes, liberalism developed in Europe in the movement to protect the rights of feudal lords from monarchs. Later, with the rise of capitalism, liberalism became an important set of principles to protect, among other things, private property from the state, especially a state that might be controlled by the propertyless majority. In the United States today, therefore, some go so far as to present democracy as being defined first and foremost by individual freedoms to buy and sell property and the right to invest for profit. That there is any distinction between these liberties and the democratic rights to free speech, free press, and free assembly is dismissed categorically. The absurdity of this equation of market rights with political freedom, of capitalism with democracy, should be self-evident; scores of nations have protected market rights this century while being political dictatorships and having little respect for any other civil liberties for that matter.

There is very much that is commendable in liberalism–and it is impossible to imagine a democratic society without core liberal freedoms–but the fact remains that it is different from democracy. In democratic Athens, for example, liberal concerns about arbitrary state power would have appeared absurd to the citizens because they were the state. In Athens, all political decisions were voted on directly by the Assembly, to which all citizens were members. Notions of free speech were regarded as axiomatic for democracy to exist and scarcely debated. When democracy is defined as liberalism, the notion of popular rule, rather than being the heart and soul of democracy, drifts to the margins. In contemporary U.S. society, citizens have precious little control over political decisions. In strict terms, what distinguishes the United States from a political oligarchy is that citizens do retain the right to vote in elections and thereby remove politicians from office, even if they have little control over what politicians actually do while in office. Since the elections are rather dubious enterprises–they are more like auctions favoring those with great sums of money, the campaign debate almost always avoids wide-ranging debate on the core issues, and the choices on the ballot are mostly inconsequential to the important decisions to be made after the election–even this democratic right to vote seems trivial. Yet in dominant thinking the existence of this right to vote is what qualifies the United States as a democracy. It is an awfully, awfully thin reed.

When I invoke the term "democracy," then, I mean it in the classical sense, as the rule of the many. The democratic aspects of the liberal tradition are to be preserved and expanded–such as individual civil liberties and checks on state power–but the needs of minuscule investor class can never be equated with the needs of the citizenry or with the foundations of a democracy. A society like the United States which has rampant inequality, minimal popular involvement in decision making, and widespread depoliticization can never be regarded as democratic in an honest use of the term. When I talk about "democratizing" our society, I mean to create mechanisms that make the rule of the many possible. This means among other things, as I will spell out in what follows, reducing social inequality and establishing a media system that serves the entire population and that promotes democratic rule. In structural terms, that means a media system that has a significant nonprofit and noncommercial component.

As we turn from the United States to the balance of the world, "neoliberalism" is a main factor that accounts for the corporate media boom, on one hand, and the collapse of democratic political life on the other hand. Neoliberalism refers to the policies that maximize the role of markets and profitmaking and minimize the role of nonmarket institutions. It is the deregulation provided by neoliberalism that has been instrumental in allowing the wealthy media corporations to grow and prosper as they have. Likewise, neoliberalism is a political theory; it posits that society works best when business runs things and there is as little possibility of government "interference" with business as possible. In short, neoliberal democracy is one where the political sector controls little and debates even less. In such a world political apathy and indifference are a quite rational choice for the bulk of the citizenry, especially for those who reside below the upper and upper-middle classes. 

Neoliberalism is associated with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s, and it has boomed as a global phenomenon throughout the past two decades. But it would be misleading to present neoliberalism as an entirely new phenomenon. In fact the desire by the wealthy few to limit democracy predates capitalism, and has been present throughout U.S. history. At the time of the American Revolution, Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin advocated universal adult male suffrage. Their opponents, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington fought to see that suffrage be limited to property holders, and that the government be structured in such a manner as to reduce the possibility of popular rule. Jay and Adams counted as one of their favorite expressions, "those who own this country ought to govern it." During the constitutional debates James Madison argued that the goal of government must be "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." In short, the nature and quality of democracy is always the result of conflict and struggle between contending groups in unequal societies. Neoliberalism mostly reflects that the few are dominant politically and ideologically and able therefore to inflict their will on the subdued and unorganized population. It is the main enemy of democracy in the world today.