America: Drifting Towards the End of the Republic, With an Entertained Citizenry

“A republic, if you can keep it.”
-Benjamin Franklin
, when asked whether America would be a republic or a tyranny.

Our political debates reflect little interest in facts and nuanced discussion — soundbites reign supreme. The fault’s not with our politicians, however; it’s with us. Politicians (e.g., Mitt Romney, President Obama, etc.) don’t deal with reality because citizens prefer politics as entertainment and theater. If we’re the generation that loses our republic, the epitaph should read: “American Republic, Killed by the Internet and Cable TV.”

No prior generation of Americans has had such convenient/free access to high quality information. This should be democracy’s Golden Age. Paradoxically, the ease with which citizens stay informed — is destroying the foundations of our republic.

If this seems counter-intuitive, read on.

The Internet revolution provides an incredible wealth of high quality online data from the Congressional Budget Office, Census Bureau and many others, while Google and other search engines rapidly locate what we’re seeking. We have access to dozens of cable TV channels, rather than just three networks.

But the easy availability of information hasn’t promoted fact-based discussion. Instead, rumor and innuendo have a greater-than-ever role in politics. For example, although President Obama was born in America – – 13 percent of Americans believe he was born in another country. This is a partisan issue — 23 percent of Republicans think Obama was born outside the United States.

Gallup has tracked the partisanship gap (support from President’s own party, minus support from the other party) since 1953. The 10 highest partisan gaps occurred during the last 30 years, with the nine largest gaps during the last 20 years. The birth of the new media age correlates with the birth of hyper-partisanship.

In 2010-2011, President Obama’s approval rating by Democrats averaged 81 percent, but only 13 percent among Republicans. In 2004-2005, President George W. Bush’s approval rating by Republicans was 91 percent, but 15 percent among Democrats (a partisan gap of 76 percent =91 percent -15 percent). Partisan gaps of this level suggest that Democrats and Republicans are living in different countries. In fact, they do live in different countries — in cyberspace.

Courtesy of technology, we can now receive all our information from people who agree with us — which is exactly what human beings want. And, the new economics of media makes it extremely profitable for information-providers to pander to what we want to hear.

A significant body of peer-reviewed academic research demonstrates that we seek information confirming what we want to believe. Prof. Daniel Gilbert describes this as a contractual relationship between brain and eye, where the eye agrees to look for what the brain wants to see.

Research reveals that convincing us of something we don’t want to believe (e.g., persuading hyper-partisan birther Republicans Obama is US-born) requires much stronger evidence — shown repeatedly — relative to what’s needed to convince a person with neutral views.

For most of our republic’s history, news providers tended toward oligopoly or monopoly (due to high fixed costs for gathering/distributing the news). In the 1960s, Americans got news primarily from TV (one of three major networks), local newspapers (which were monopolies, or part of oligopolies) and perhaps a news magazine. The economics of the 1960s’ news business favored a focus on the broadest possible market, and penalized narrow-casting to only a targeted political segment.

The 1960s’ TV networks would have continually repeated the message that Obama was US-born. They wouldn’t have had any economic incentive to pander to birthers, and birthers wouldn’t have had alternate TV channels to turn to. Today, we have Fox & Friends treating all sorts of malicious nonsense as serious, factual news.

During the 1980s (birth of cable news) and 1990s (birth of online news), the old oligopoly models dissolved. Media started offering differentiated products to give consumers what they want. Today, you can choose from hundreds of different breakfast cereals, and hundreds of different news sources. As with cereal, we pick the news source we like. Some media sources will decide pandering to birthers (or whomever) makes business sense. It’s much cheaper (saves the expense of deep research) and more profitable to tell people what they want to hear.

Consumers choose news organizations that affirm their worldview, or at least that won’t seriously challenge it (even if contrary to truth and reality). (63 percent of daily Fox viewers believe: “It is unclear whether Obama was born in the US — or, Obama was not born in the US”).

So, welcome to the collapse of our republic. It will be broadcast live — through hundreds of media channels — to provide entertainment, but not edification, to the voters.

A version of this article originally appeared at the HuffingtonPost.

6 Responses to "America: Drifting Towards the End of the Republic, With an Entertained Citizenry"

  1. james   July 9, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    with your repeated use of the single example of "birthers" you sound as partisan as anyone I've read.

  2. desi erasmus   July 10, 2012 at 3:19 am

    Yes, a few references to "9/11 truthers" and "climate change" fanatics might have helped preserve a facade of balanced commentary, but the thesis is fatally flawed in any case. Recalling that the facade of a "republic" persisted for some time after Augustus had transformed the Roman Republic into an imperial order, a military dictatorship in effect, a more plausible framework for thinking about the present is that the American Republic has become an imperial order, driven by the needs of a warfare/welfare state created to prosecute the Cold War, and likely to persist until its military/welfare establishment's financial profligacy ruins it. The continuity of the policies of the prior administration and the current one simply underlines the thin veneer of civilian polity masking the imperial military/corporate foundation below. The leaps in communication and information archiving technology simply speed up the process of imperial over-reach. The previews of the 2008 financial crisis and the more recent turmoil in the eurozone are warmups for the main event, as suggested by "Dr. Realist".

  3. guest   July 10, 2012 at 4:43 am

    Well, well said. Lest not we forget also, the financial channels with their single, this is how markets, business and finance "is", all the while, glossing over their miscues, which were previously as good as "gold" another valueless commodity. Take the Goldbugs, one simple calculation will tell you that, of all the gold ever mined, where 13% on the necks, wastes, arms, ears, noses and waists of Indian women, that ll the gold, wouldn't handle one year of balancing the trade between countries globally, on year. With one simple calculation, I never had to read another Ron Paul, Tea Party, Lew Rockwell, AsiaTimes, Illogical Libertarian argument (although i am in many ways Libertarian, just not stupid).

    Although a students (in the sense of a mature adult studying the topic) of business, economics, trade, international relations, history, etc…. I am so surprised how many of the common elements are used by one group of fringe elements or another in these dialogues. Whether it be the assumptions Corporatist, Environmentalist, Anti-Imperialist, Al Qaedean, Democrats, Social Democratic, and Conservative dialogues are often the same, and wrongly so, while the peoples of the world seem led by their noses to the awful smelling places of their own preferences.

    Whether it be the Eurosceptics, Anti Washington Consensus Marxists, Social Democrats, Religious Panderers, Libertarians, Conservatives, or Neo-Nazi's etc, they all are essentially the same…..It points to, as the author purports, the ease to which we except memes that were used in previous ideological battles of decades ago, how we seek confirmation (bias), and how we seek to support or Mental Models for reviewing evolutions in the world around us. Rather than consent, it is more like manufactured dissent, it is fed of Hollywood type fodder, and is less filling than a single potato chip, or grain of rice, after having left a concentration camp. Unfortunately, what is holding the concentration is rather more substance less than substantive. It seems a really good business, for those with some foresight, to bring a for profit the model of c-span to the international dialogue.

    It's like all the stuff on the financial channels, has any one lived in the developing world.
    These guys and gals, need seriously to get a reality check, and check ut of the 4 seasons to get a better appraisla, spend more than a weekend to see how it really is.. Anyway, greater maturity is required in all this. Some people say that ou are what you eat, more importantly you are the drivel you ingest. I myself, pride myself, on having a view developed of my own hard work, not spoon fed to me, by Madison avenue, the Kremlin, Tiananaman Square, some rain-soaked tree-hugger in an Oregonian forest, a bow-tied man having never left the Studio, some Guy Fawkes mask wearer, "Plumber Joe", Ms. Watananbee extenders, CEO's, News Personalities, an Academic, and similar, I will read all of them, some rather quickly, as they are so filled with values and lies in support of them that can can quickly move across them, as I remember "Aura Medicritas", the Golden Mean, all truth is found in the Middle.

    • R. Coutinho   July 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      Truth being found in the middle assumes that the 'middle' is known. If one side perceives that discerning seekers of truth will look for the middle, they will move their side further and further to the extreme, thus making the midpoint shift in their direction. Such appears to be the case in the US today. Richard Nixon's record would get him burned in effigy by the Tea Party people and even Ronald Reagan could not be nominated by the Republican Party.

  4. Rendo Fiddlehead   July 10, 2012 at 8:37 am

    What is the name of the last politician with any momentum that said the breakup of BIG CORPORATE US Media needed to occur-

    The Mouse, aka Disney, aka ABC, took care of that "problem" in less than 24 cruel hours, and later actually admitted the "lie" via a noise cancellation mic and a set of blonde lips-

    Name that politician, and a recent secretary of state that shit entirely on corporate cable teevee, long after the Madam Secretary could have ANY impact whatsoever on US corporate media regulation and standards of broadcast-

    Don't fault the ignorance of the public; lay blame where it belongs; squarely on the 1% who have manifested the current reality of ignorance which they falsely believe will keep their beloved, mentally under developed and significantly well healed, spawn from ever encountering the sharp thin point of pitchfork tines…

  5. spider   July 24, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Does this partisan schmuck really believe the assumptions supporting political correctness are better supported by the facts than those of birthers? That there's much better evidence for humanity's role in climate change than for severe overpopulation and its necessary immediate and forced reduction? Apparently so…thus proving the author's thesis; liberals can't really learn anything which challenges their beliefs.