Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why is Big Media Issues-Free?

The morning after the Pennsylvania primary, I'm not sure there's much more to say about the Democratic race. The voters are speaking the way the polls were speaking during President Clinton's impeachment trial, and like then the power-brokers and the pundits can ignore the voice of The People for so long and no longer, and in the end we will have the Obama-Clinton ticket, because that's what The People have (already) commanded. The Party may yet disobey this command, but that, I predict, would be a grave error.
This morning something a little weightier interests me. I'm a politics junkie and handicapping the horse race is good fun and all, but the degree to which our political discussion has become issues-free is striking. In the past I've thought that our collective aversion to serious debate was a combination of being too fat and happy and America's legendary anti-intellectualism, but that theory doesn't really do the work it has to do in the spring of 2008. I think it's the very gravity of the situation that is rinsing out even the thin film of policy debate that usually passes for substance in Big Media. Conspiracy theorists are more optimistic than I am: they tend to think that finite groups of willful persons are successfully manipulating events. I think, on the contrary, that we have a tiger by the tail: large structural changes are generally driving things and, for the most part, nobody's in charge. Here's this morning's take on why there is now no substantial policy discussion happening on our politics-saturated television screens:
Dynamic systems, like flowing water, tend to seek equilibrium. Our two-party system, for example, has been successful for a long time because it adds another level of stasis to our political institutions. Where I live here in Puerto Rico, for another example, the public has distributed itself almost precisely into the half of voters who support the "populares" (the pro-status-quo party) and the half who support the "nuevoprogresistas" (the pro-statehood party). 50-50 splits are stable arrangements that are easier to get to than the stability of total victory for one side (and obviously more desirable from the small-"d" democratic point of view). It has always been thus, but the larger the system the more homogenous it appears, and we are now living in a fantastically huge system, not only in terms of persons (hundreds of millions in-country, highly integrated with global billions), but also in terms of information (both in terms of bits and of sources).
Both the proliferation of sources (not only the internet but also cable and satellite TV and radio and, contrary to popular hype, even more print media than ever before) and the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of the population leads to informational and political "cocooning." Individuals are now able to choose their sources of news and opinion and most people very actively construct a customized information environment that largely echoes back their preconceptions (I'm guilty: lately I've been experimenting with networking on Facebook and I very quickly worked myself into Liberal Intelligentsia Land). People now have huge, interactive information resources to work on developing their own world view and theories of what to do and how to do it, and thus the political news becomes simply handicapping the horse race. Big Media is no longer the arena where minds are going to be changed, except in superficial ways (Does he cheat on his wife? Is she obnoxious? Do they cheat on their taxes?).
But most importantly of all, and this is really the thought that is driving me here, real discussion has simply become too radical to be handled by the stasis-maintaining Big Media, because the changes that are necessarily being considered by any real discussion are much more radical than they've been in decades. Tax policy is wildly regressive by any historical standard, and reform means a substantial redistribution of wealth. Health care is similarly dangerously maldistributed, and reform means changes in government, medicine, insurance. America has to stand down as global gendarme and cease to flood the world with weapons, but many communities and whole regions depend on military industry. Can you spell "global warming"? And so on. The irony of our current situation is that it is precisely because the choices that we must make are so radical that we cannot bring ourselves to even discuss them. A paradox is that the more pundits proliferate on the cable news shows, the less they have to say.

No comments: