A crisis in manufacturing consent

A crisis in manufacturing consent
A crisis in manufacturing consent

The reactions of both party establishments, Republican and Democrat, to Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in the U.S. primaries is basically the same: Their success demonstrates the crisis of our democracy; it is an abnormality that we should somehow control and contain.

This reaction tells us a lot about how our democracy effectively functions: It is tolerated if properly controlled by political establishment, or, as Noam Chomsky noted years ago, “it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated.”

Walter Lippmann, the icon of American journalism in the 20th century, played a key role in the self-understanding of the U.S. democracy. Although politically progressive (advocating a fair policy toward the Soviet Union, etc.), he proposed a theory of the public media that has a chilling truth effect. He coined the term Manufacturing Consent, later rendered famous by Chomsky—but Lippmann intended it in a positive way. In Public Opinion (1922), he wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the challenge—he saw the public as Plato did, as a great beast or a bewildered herd—floundering in the “chaos of local opinions.” So the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality”—his elite class is to act as a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omni-competent citizen.

This is how our democracies function—with our consent: There is no mystery in what Lippmann was saying, it is an obvious fact; the mystery is that, knowing it, we play the game. We act as if we are free and freely deciding, silently not only accepting but even demanding that an invisible injunction (inscribed into the very form of our free speech) tells us what to do and think. As Marx knew it long ago, the secret is in the form itself. In this sense, in a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king—but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: How to protect the dignity of the king? How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true?

[Extract. Appeared in Newsweek, on March 19th, 2016. (full text).]

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