Fooled By Democracy

Democracy and a Free Press

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

The only surprising thing about Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich’s campaign against the Baltimore Sun is his boldness in being so public about it. As Tom DiLorenzo observed on LRC last week, this sort of campaign against uncooperative reporters is hardly anything new in the annals of government secrecy, and is hardly limited to any one political party. DiLorenzo notes that reporters know this too, and they are usually careful to protect their precious relationships with politicians to ensure that they maintain their access. Yet, given their natural affinity for government, few American journalists are likely willing to admit that much of this grim reality is due to the fact that the government itself, having become so omnipresent in virtually every aspect of our lives, now controls a substantial amount of the information that matters to people.

This particular controversy in Maryland is little more than a clash of big egos and is not terribly scintillating. But the political fallout of the case may illustrate much about the relationship between the government and outside critics such as journalists as it has existed in democratic America for quite some time. Governments virtually always win with the public in these conflicts with the press precisely because, by virtue of being a democratically elected government, public opinion is on the side of the politicians, and that is a formidable obstacle to overcome.

Without a doubt, much of this must stem from the fact that people generally have a higher opinion of the government than they do of journalists. Yes, there are those Gallup polls out there that show that people trust journalists slightly more than congressmen and lawyers, but of course, the terms "congressman" and "lawyer" only make people think in very anonymous and general terms. As experience shows however, if one were to be asked how he compares journalists to a specific politician (such as a popular president, for example) whose smiling mug regularly graces the nation’s television screens, the person would no doubt be much more likely to rank the politician above a journalist most any day of the week.

Indeed, the Gallup ranking of groups’ ethics from best to worst is rather telling:

  • grade school teachers
  • pharmacists
  • military officers
  • doctors
  • police officers
  • clergy
  • judges
  • day-care providers
  • bankers
  • auto mechanics
  • local officeholders
  • nursing home operators
  • state officeholders
  • TV reporters
  • newspaper reporters.

In this list, government employees such as judges, police officers, military officers, and various officeholders all rank higher than reporters. As recently as 2001, Gallup polls showed that 72% of respondents said the possibility of the government withholding too much information from the media is not a problem. 62% think that journalists are providing too much detailed information about American military actions.

All this deference to government is the natural outcome of the democratic mentality. After all, many Americans have navely convinced themselves that they have something more than only the most minimal and oblique control over the government’s policies, The media remains, in their view, an independent and uncontrolled institution, often undermining the democracy the voters worship rather than enhancing it. The preference for coiffed politicians over nay-saying journalists only makes sense, since if the politicians enjoy popular approval (and incumbent politicians almost always do) a journalist coming out boldly against a sitting politician will be almost certainly telling the voting public what they do not want to hear. There will always be a certain lurid entertainment value to scandal, but few let such things rise to the level of being convinced to throw incumbents out of office. The logic must then be that if the journalist wishes to communicate something that is contrary to the existing public opinion, it is rather unlikely that he can hope to strive against both the government and public opinion and win. In a democracy, there is no institution with any independent branch of power to which this journalist might appeal, and thus will suddenly find himself in a rather unpleasant situation.

And this situation is exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his observations on American public opinion, wrote long ago. Since the public tends to equate its own will with that of the government (especially on matters of "National Security" these days), any determined or thorough questioning of the government’s agenda, let alone the legitimacy of such a government or its policies, will hardly be greeted with significant gratitude by the public. Exceptions like the Watergate scandal are noteworthy for the fact t hat they are so exceedingly rare in American history. Virtually 100% of the time, however, public opinion is more of a constraint on the critics of government than on the government itself. As Tocqueville observes:

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-f, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

The public claims that it wants the press to be a watchdog, but "woe to him" that might suggest anything particularly sinister or boldly critical about a sitting government. The public don’t like to be told that the men they have selected to run the government are liars and fools, since the voters themselves are foolish enough to think themselves masters of the State. Thus, if the voters consider the government to be the servant of their will, the public will hardly appreciate it when the press begins calling its will into question. Consequently, many defend these "formidable barriers" to liberty of opinion as a matter of practical good sense since it prevents any significant or potentially violent ideological differences from taking shape. Yet, this is like saying it would be best for everyone on a sinking ship to keep quiet about the rising water level lest any disagreements rise among the crew members over what sort of action should be taken.

For Tocqueville, this is due to the democratic habit of closing off any discussion once a decision has been made by the democratic mass. After the public has made its pronouncement, regardless of any questionable means of arrival at this conclusion, all further questioning or skepticism is prohibited with any dissent labeled subversive or destructive to democracy and the public will:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

In a society where there is a non-democratic element poised against the democratic element, there is always some place for the dissident, the heretic, or the revolutionary to find protection from either the democratic mass or from the non-democratic authorities. Yet in America — the claims of the Constitution notwithstanding — every branch of the government, as well as even non-government organs of opinion and criticism, are all ultimately and directly beholden to the powers of public opinion.

After a time, what was once considered debatable becomes "common sense" and anyone who might challenge this consensus is labeled a kook, a traitor, or worse. It is hard to see then how a society that is so fundamentally egalitarian and democratic (as is Tocqueville’s America) could ever truly value journalists and intellectuals who offer anything more than the most banal and mundane criticisms of the American State. Having what is now an essentially unlimited democracy in America makes the stakes too high for everyone involved to allow any sort of truly biting or insightful questioning of the government or its officers.

This isn’t to say that the American media hasn’t been doing its part to de-legitimize itself. So completely enamored of multiculturalism, race-baiting, and other leftist nonsense, the media has managed to alienate itself from much of the citizenry. Yet if we Americans truly valued liberty, we’d be willing to look beyond token issues like gay marriage or the much overstated differences between Republicans and Democrats, and we’d welcome thorough and relentless criticism of the power of the American State wherever we found it. We’d consider the source, come to our own conclusions and get on with our lives, rather than become indignant that someone has challenged the prerogatives of the great "democratically-elected" leaders. Fooled by democracy, we choose to trust those who can tax and impoverish us over those who cannot.