James Fallows – The Media and American Democracy

Fallows brings a rare note of optimism into the debate on the current state of US politics and its relationship with the media. He summarises his message with the sentence: “America is a functioning country with a non-functioning national political system”.

The belief that Trump was elected on foot of the pent-up discontent of an underappreciated part of US society that suddenly found its voice, is a misinterpretation. The idea that economic misery has led to dislocation in American society is both overstated and nothing new. Historically it has often been worse. While there have been economic shocks in the industrial mid-west in this century, the direction over the last 4 years has been positive. In fact, the economy was worse in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was elected and also in 1992, when Bill Clinton won.

On the issue of immigration, throughout the history of America each new wave of immigration has seemed disruptive when it arrived. Currently, in areas with high immigrant populations things are moving as always and generally moving in a positive direction. On the other hand, the areas with lower immigration levels have a greater “pro-wall” mentality and a greater fear of others. In Fallows opinion, the U.S. is very well positioned in scale, resources and talent. The biggest handicap is the system of national governance. Last year’s election was not an expression of misery about the state of the country, but one of misery with the state of its national government.

There is much reported on the tensions within the Democratic Party but these are all within normal bounds for that party. The same is not true of the internal conflicts of the Republican party. The current tension is between two streams within the party, the Trump/Bannon Republican movement and the Republican party of Gingrich and William F Buckley. The latter stream is bigger than just Flake and Corker, there are 20 or so other Republican Senators who hold their beliefs but do not speak them aloud for fear of challenges from the right.

Regarding the media, the recent blurring of the line between public information and entertainment is a unique and unprecedented problem. However, it is part of a continuum of challenges. Every 30 years or so, media face a significant challenge and extinction is feared. The second current problem is government hostility and government’s desire to control the media, but this is not new and arises during every crisis. The third problem the media faces is also one not being faced for the first time, the ‘siloisation’ of information. People are choosing to listen and absorb only the information that sits well with their pre-existing beliefs and, in the main, remain impervious to contrary evidence or counter-beliefs. Fallows is optimistic that all is not lost here either. He gives the example of the issue of sexual harassment, currently receiving a high level of reporting in the mainstream media, yet, unlike with many other issues, there are no cries of “Fake News”. Journalism deserves credit for this reporting.

Fallows’ message is that the U.S. as a country is in fundamentally better shape than one would think, albeit that the national government is in worse shape. The response needed is greater civic engagement. At local and state levels governance is better and civic involvement is higher. The hope (and goal) is that this should percolate up to the national level.

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