One of the key lessons I learned while getting my first degree in sociology is a simple one, but it’s also a profound one that is too often glossed over. The lesson is that democracy is fundamentally built on two pillars: 1) widespread availability of accurate, nearly complete information; and 2) a citizenry that engages in politics.
We have a president today who obsessively lies, gets away with it, and takes the side of Putin over the CIA, FBI, and the rest of our national security forces — actually, he seems to take their side over everyone in his administration and in Congress. He gets away with it not just because our population is mesmerized by the “endearing” personality of a career con man / “reality” TV star. We have such a president, and he still has the support of a decent percentage of Republicans, because the core pillars of our democracy have suffered severe erosion.
Rewinding a few decades, let’s quickly dive into one of the most important sectors tasked with keeping us informed — the media. Aside from challenges related to corporatization, consolidation, and the internet, the biggest blow to the heart of our media was the politically motivated advent of Fox News. Roger Ailes once upon a time convinced a Mr. Richard Nixon to make better use of television and propaganda for political advantage. Nixon didn’t get it quite as well as Ailes did, and he didn’t get it as well as Trump (aka, Don the Con) does. Ailes and what he did with Fox “News” may have been the most influential political figure of the past half-century. The channel warped information, excluded inconvenient facts, polarized political society, and misled the public for years, but it seems that it got far more extreme during the Obama years, even fanning clearly racist and unpatriotic claims that Obama, our first African-American president, wasn’t born in the United States. That is the lie that first floated Don the Con into the “serious” political arena, ironically.
Yes, a con man from Queens was able to build a political career in large part because Fox News gave him a giant runway for this conspiratorial con, and another, and another, and another. Even to this day, in large part, influential characters on “Trump TV” (or “Trump’s channel” as the Russian media call it) are willing to defend Don the Con when he sides with Putin — almost inexplicably — over US democracy, over all United States national security forces, over the strongest US-created alliances, and even over Trump’s own appointed staff. What will such a cancer on our society lead to?
Furthermore, Republicans in Congress have almost completely shirked their duties as members of a co-equal branch of government in order to enable our lying, democracy-bashing president over the people of the United States. Many of these people wouldn’t support Don the Con in the primaries, but they now whistle tunes of nearly religious praise for the “f***ing moron,” as Trump’s former Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) reportedly called him, out of some kind of cowardly submission to the growling reality TV president. They know he is wrong. They know he is compromising US security, US democracy, and the needs of the US population, yet they don’t stand up to him.
Thus, at the least, we have two key breakdowns in our democracy. One of the largest media channels in the country is misinforming and misleading much of the public, and one of the 3 critical co-equal branches of government is not wielding its power in order to block absurdly anti-American moves from our president.
Let’s step back for one minute and consider what Republicans in Congress would do if President Obama sided with Russia over the CIA, incessantly attacked leaders of the FBI and US Department of Justice, had his kids meet with Russian spies during the presidential campaign to seek damaging information on his political opponents, and then went off and met privately with Vladimir Putin for two hours before coming out and defending him over the most prestigious law enforcement arms of the United States. Wait, not just defending Putin — he basically appeared as an anti-American servant wearing invisible chains. Why won’t those Republicans in Congress do anything serious to push back on Donald Trump as he is doing all of these things? Why do they shirk their democratic, Constitutional duties on this? And where is US democracy leading as a result?
Even those who don’t watch Fox News propaganda regularly often know close to nothing about what is happening in US politics or — even more so — US policy. There’s a good chance Congress could pass a bill making it illegal to have green eyes and much of the public wouldn’t hear about it.
Of course, it is a whole other step to be engaged. Aside from the many uninformed members of our society, we also have fairly informed by unengaged citizens. Despite knowing enough to understand what is “good” and “bad” for our society, they skip out on their duty to vote and on their duty to help educate others. Thus, we don’t just have a cancer on our democracy, but also an unwillingness to go to the doctor to treat it. Where is that leading?
Clearly, I can’t say where the country, or the world, is headed. It has been clear for years that many politicians, especially Republican politicians, don’t do what the American public, or even their voters, want — but do what they and their richest donors want. The cut taxes on the rich and super rich and pull the social safety net out from underneath the middle class. They let the country’s biggest polluters pollute more, harming our health and the potential future livability of our planet. They pass essentially no legislation to help the middle class despite having complete control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency for two years.
So, one thing is obvious — our breakdown in democracy is leading the country in a direction that is worse for the masses. As China, Europe, and others are investing in cleaner technologies that help human health, climate stability, and their economies, the United States under Don the Con has decided to prioritize being friends with dictators Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un while cutting taxes on millionaires and billionaires so that they have more money to hoard in banks, giant mansions, and expensive art.
Can US society revive its democratic roots? Will people get off their coaches, off their Facebook feeds, and off the latest video game in order to discuss politics, advocate for more political involvement, encourage people to educate themselves, and simply vote? One can dream.