I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America.
—Democracy in America, Alexander de Tocqueville
This is quite a pessimistic quote to choose on election day, but I feel it’s appropriate after this grueling election season. For me it has been a thoroughly disheartening affair with little to redeem it.
Trump is a problem—a thoroughly disgusting human being—but only a part of the problem. It is too easy, and too satisfying, to rant about how bad Trump is. No superlative is strong enough to capture his vileness. But vile people have always, and will always, exist. The depressing thing is that this man, so obviously unfit for the presidency, has gotten so close and indeed might win.
It’s very easy to point fingers to the media. And there is some truth to this accusation. The amount of free airtime given to Trump, the double standard that has always been applied to him, the fascination with scandals over substance—all this has characterized this year’s election coverage.
The intellectual level of political discussion has been comparable to the interviews on reality shows. We are voting for personalities, not policies; we hear about controversies, not conflicting ideas. After every debate, the “viral” moment is inevitably something that has nothing to do with the politician’s plans or values. We haven’t even approached a rational discussion. We are voting between two public personas, each with their own package of scandals. Waiting to hear the end result of this election is frighteningly similar to waiting for the finale of a reality show.
But is it completely fair to blame the media? After all, newspapers and cable news need to make money to stay in business; and that has been increasingly difficult lately. Because their existence is now so precarious, they simply cannot afford not to seek as much profit as they can. This provides a serious disincentive to report substantive, serious discussion, since by their nature such discussions are difficult and time-consuming. Simple, dramatic, eye-catching, easily-digestible headlines sell more papers and generate more revenue. And why do such things sell better? That’s not the media’s fault: it’s ours.
In any capitalist system, the supply is always shaped and driven by the demand. Our tastes, our preferences, and our values form the demand for our media content. And these tastes, preferences, and values are apparently, on the whole, so shallow that we cannot even approach a thoughtful discussion.
I am not old enough to really know if it was ever otherwise, or whether such shallowness is a persistent feature of democracies. Yet I can’t help suspecting that this is a bad omen. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but Trump is such a sumptuously, startlingly, indecipherably unsuitable candidate that it is hard to resist the conclusion that something has gone badly wrong.
Of course, every society is vulnerable to duplicitous demagogues. Even Athens succumbed to Alcibiades. What most vexes me about Trump’s rise is that he is not even a skilled demagogue. He is a bald-faced liar, one of the most obvious con mans I have ever seen, a man without strategy or subtlety.
Trump may lose tomorrow. But unless we figure out how to elevate our public discussion, and attain Tocqueville’s independence of thought and freedom of debate, we will continue to be vulnerable to people like Trump.