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

"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 2010-11, President Obama's approval rating by Democrats averaged 81 percent, but only 13 percent among Republicans. In 2004-05, 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.

About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years' private sector work experience.

Follow him on twitter at: @Steven_Strauss or on Facebook.


Follow Steven Strauss on Twitter: www.twitter.com/steven_strauss

This is cross posted from my blog, and originally published on July 04th, 2012 as America: Drifting Towards the End of the Republic, With an Entertained Citizenry

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Comment Preferences

  •  "Drifting towards the end of the republic" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mokislab, Wisper

    implies a whole hell of a lot more than one bad "news" network and a willfully ignorant portion of the population.

    We've always had both.

    Massively disappointing diary.

    Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

    by corvo on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 08:08:58 AM PST

    •  Don't hold back (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      unfangus

      Share with the group.

      “He talks a lot and he's not very bright. And that's a combination I like in Republicans.” James Carville

      by Mokislab on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 08:24:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Always"? (0+ / 0-)

      What are you? Thirteen?

      •  Actually, I'm almost old enough (0+ / 0-)

        to remember Hearst. :-)

        Not old enough to remember Barnum, although his opinion of the American public was . . . well, valid for not just our time.

        Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

        by corvo on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 10:03:54 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  There's something about the terminal (0+ / 0-)

          acceleration of human events that looks back, wistfully, on earlier "crises".

          There's never — NEVER — been anything in our history to compare with the combined spreading contagion of willful cognitive dissonance and a booming right-wing media disinformation industry cheering things along.

          Just curious... how do you see things resolving in the direction of reason and critical thinking?

          •  to answer your question: (0+ / 0-)
            how do you see things resolving in the direction of reason and critical thinking?
            I don't.

            To address the rest of your comment: This is a hell of a lot more than Fox "News" and birtherism.  You're looking for the end of the Republic?  Listen to Clapper.

            Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

            by corvo on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 12:13:03 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I should also add (0+ / 0-)

              that with both parties doing their damndest to destroy education in this country ("Race to the Top" being nothing but "No Child Left Behind" for colleges, after all), I don't see where all this reason and critical thinking is going to be coming from.  Forget the press, which was always close to worthless; the schools are increasingly less of a venue for the development of critical thinking skills as well.

              Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

              by corvo on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 12:14:50 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

            •  You seriously underestimate (0+ / 0-)

              the scope of that booming right-wing media machine when you limit it to Fox 'News'... there's a widespread presence of wingnut talk radio and some pretty virulent online toxicity, both gobbling up the weak minds of the distracted, the reactionary and the uninformed.

              I share your concern about Clapper and his ilk... but only in principle. I'm still waiting for the first documented case of an innocent citizen-victim of NSA abuses. Their databases are so massive, there aren't enough Americans (with enough time) on this continent to process them down to the level of innocent citizens committing sins of innocuous conversation.

              Call me crazy, but I'm much more concerned about dumbed-down voters and the literal tsunami of braindead right-wing 'media'. Those crazies vote — for people like Goehmert, Inhofe, Stockman, Farenthold and their fellow head-cases — and those head-cases, in turn, infest the Congress... where all the real damage is done.

              •  umm, no, (0+ / 0-)
                You seriously underestimate (0+ / 0-)
                the scope of that booming right-wing media machine when you limit it to Fox 'News'...
                I don't; the diarist does.  That's why I responded in the first place.

                But it's still a lot more than RW media.  Have you not seen the amount of support for the Security State at this very site? and why? because One of Their Own is (nominally?) running the show.

                Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

                by corvo on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 07:21:27 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  It is a failing of the school system that adults (2+ / 0-)

    remain willfully ignorant.  Myself, I cannot recall any 1-12 grade teacher discussing propaganda and, more importantly, its current practices.

    An illusion can never be destroyed directly... SK.

    by Thomas Twinnings on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 08:18:46 AM PST

  •  well, at least this didn't posit a grand (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wisper, blueyedace2

    conspiracy by mysterious "theys" to keep everyone distracted with "reality TV" because really, we've never, ever paid attention to silly people and their silly lives via the society pages in the newspapers and magazines.

    also because no society on this planet also enjoys being entertained. nope, just the US.

    I'm (and wow, in a rare agreement with corvo) pretty disappointed at the weak-ass analysis presented here. "63% of Fox Viewers don't know Hawaii is part of the US don't believe the president is really an American." First off, how many people actually watch Fox? Or CNN? Or MSNBC? It's my understanding that the number of people who actually watch those three networks is not very large. (Page 9). I certainly don't, and haven't for years. So how can one make an argument that "our country is doomed because cable news" when most people get their news from network news (22.1 million, apparently, every night), or they customize what they want to learn about through digital sites like Buzzfeed?

    this is just inadequate.

    as for the internet i joke (and probably will be writing about it really soon) that social media is the revenge of the introverts. We asked you extroverts to stop talking to us all the time. You didn't listen. Now we've made everyone the star of their own soap operas and they no longer talk to us. I love it.

    Dawkins is to atheism as Rand is to personal responsibility

    by terrypinder on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 08:48:02 AM PST

  •  The demise of the Republic (0+ / 0-)

    has always been greatly exaggerated.  (usually for political reasons)

    By the thin-soup logic of this diary we should have seen either a) the collapse of the US Republic at any time from 1789 up and until this morning and b) the same teetering collapse to be blamed on the over-entertained apathetic masses in every major democracy in the world.

    Neither has happened.

    This idea that at some point we were this tuned-in hyper-informed Jeffersonian citizenry self-policing our prized marketplace of ideas as we judged and monitored our elected officials in real-time.....  .....is just silly, and yet here we are, still in our republic intact.

    Красота спасет мир --F. Dostoevsky

    by Wisper on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 09:22:35 AM PST

    •  I'd be a little more cautious (0+ / 0-)

      with the term, "intact".

      For any number of reasons, too many to list, we now blithely accept one of our two major political parties that hosts certifiable lunatics (aw, you know the names), subcontracts to fringe groups to do its dirty-work, has proven incapable of coughing up a single worthwhile initiative to advance the interests of the nation, voted 40-plus times to "repeal" a law that's been affirmed by a Presidential reelection and the Supreme Court and believes that this planet — an object with a complex atmosphere — is immune to man's best efforts to fuck with it (from deforestation to groundwater contamination to toxic spills... yadda, yadda, yadda).

      Thing about extinction is, it proceeds slowly enough that a given species doesn't have a clue as it's unfolding.

      Ask a passenger pigeon... or a Dodo.

      •  worst. times. ever. (0+ / 0-)

        Just like every generation thinks of their current present-day issues.

        We survived a reinvasion by Britain.
        Slavery
        Civil War.
        Reconstruction
        The Industrial Revolution
        The Great Depression
        Two World Wars
        The constant threat of Nuclear Holocaust
        Multiple assassinations
        Pearl Harbor
        9/11
        The civil rights movement
        Vietnam - both the war and the protests
        The Dot-com boom/bust
        The disruption of the Internet Age
        A world wide collapse of Imperialism/Colonialism
        The breakup of the Soviet Union
        Women's Suffrage
        and any other major development in Western Civilization.

        ...and you want me to take a GOP in majority in one house that is dead set on repealing health care as a sign of the end times.

        I'll pass.

        Красота спасет мир --F. Dostoevsky

        by Wisper on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 10:00:48 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Getting there (0+ / 0-)

          is half the fun... and I cited a lot more than the GOP's obsession with the ACA.

          The Republican Party is the turkey thermometer, not the turkey.

          See: Roman Empire.

          Who'd'a thunk?

          •  a case could be made that our republic is slowly.. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            the autonomist

            ...improving:

            direct election of senators (started out as appointed)

            universal suffrage (started out as white men of property)

            end of slavery

            women voting

            decentralization of media (my father was frustrated beyond belief by the subjects that went un-mentioned by the networks, including historical context and issues of class/economics, when the press was swooning over Reagan. well worth putting up with Fox and that ilk than be in the thrall of 3 networks and corps. like the NYT)

            i could go on...

            the point I'm making is that "losing the Republic" is a concept that requires one to think of our Republic as more or less developed, ergo something intact that can be lost. Political power in the hands of elites and partisan disinformation in the media has, alas, been with us the whole time!

            what we're talking about here is backsliding, having to go back and rework things we thought we should be done with already. it sucks, but it is not the loss of something that we totally had, or that can't be fixed.

            200+ years is a very short period in historical terms. I think we're still in the start up phase and will be for a while, long past our own lifetimes.

            but, of course, I do worry where we'd headed....sometimes.

            •  You've made some thoughtful points, (0+ / 0-)

              all of which — I'd suggest — are very much individual developments in "a very short period in historical terms".

              Some of those developments have been more pivotal than others, but I believe none has yet constituted the achievement of "critical mass", after which all bets are off.

              I fear that the combined effect of a thundering right-wing media machine and the dumbing-down of a distracted populace are moving us perilously close to that critical mass.

              Is your optimism just "whistling past the graveyard"? I don't know... but I'm hard-pressed to perceive a realistic path to enlightenment. If the blatant insanity of those right-wing voices hasn't already rattled the population, I'm not sure what will.

              I, too, worry where we're headed... always!

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