At the heart of democracy lies a contradiction: The more open the society, the more susceptible democracy is to demagogues, distraction, and spectacle.
We often conflate the political process of “democracy” with the idea of liberal democracy, even though there is never any guarantee of what kind of government democracy will give us.
Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Zac Gershberg, co-author of the new book The Paradox of Democracy, reminds us that among the many contradictions of democracy is the fact that all modern fascist governments have been born from democracy.
Gershberg explains that we best think of democracy not as a form of government but, rather, as a “culture of communication”: a method of persuasion where free speech and the free exchange of ideas are deemed fundamental assets that can be exploited — for good or ill.
According to Gershberg and his co-author, Sean Illing, history teaches that each new medium of communication, from writing to the printing press to radio, television, and social media, has been the driving force in changing, shaping — and often undermining — our system of governance. And, crucially, without any buy-in from the public.
Gershberg talks about how, for would-be leaders, mastering each new medium has been more essential to getting elected than advocating specific issues or ideas. From the need for “likability” on television to a talent for stoking conflict and attention on social media, a politician’s ability to manipulate media is at the core of what we call democracy.
The paradox of our politics, says Gershberg, is that the more freedom of speech we have and the more we democratize the means of communication and persuasion, the more vulnerable and fragile liberal democracy becomes.
Without meaning to, Gershberg and Illing argue, we have evolved a political system that may be incompatible with the dominant “culture of communication” that underpins our society.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Almost daily, we hear that democracy is under siege, that it’s on a knife’s edge given our current political situation. But what if that’s wrong? What if being on the knife’s edge is, in fact, the natural state of democracy? Some of us remember in our own lifetime the threats to democracy of McCarthyism in the ’50s and the horrendous violence and anger of the 1960s.
What if the notions of free speech and free expression of ideas that many consider fundamentals of democracy are the very things that make it fragile and subject to destruction? After all, it’s worth noting that fascist regimes have only emerged from democracies. And what if we’re even wrong about what democracy really is in the 21st century — that it’s not a precast mold into which all the institutions of governance neatly fit but simply a cultural scaffolding that allows us to construct those institutions?
Add to this the way that free speech and the transmission of information and ideas takes place today: instantaneously, 24/7, in short bursts, and through technologies that are not neutral but carry within themselves their own inherent ideology and power to shape events and politics, even more than the content of those messages. All of this sets the stage for what my guest, Zac Gershberg, along with his co-author, Sean Illing, called The Paradox of Democracy.
Zac Gershberg is a professor of journalism and media at Idaho State University. Subjects he explores in his research and teaching include media history, the law, political communications, business, feature reporting, screenwriting, and media literacy. It is my pleasure to welcome Zac Gershberg here to talk about The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion. Zac, thanks so much for joining us here at WhoWhatWhy.
Zac Gershberg: I appreciate it, Jeff. Glad to be on.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. To some extent, we constantly conflate democracy with this notion of liberal democracy as if the two are somehow invariably linked. Talk a little bit about that, first.
Zac: Sure. And that was, I think, a great intro capturing the essence of what we were trying to do with the book. And I think this question about distinguishing democracy from liberal democracy really hits at the core here for, at least, since the post-World War II era, there has been this idea, whether it was McCarthy or the response to white supremacy and Jim Crow in the 1960s, is that our institutions, our mainstream press, will ultimately save us — that we can manage free expression and always come out the other end.
And this is what we often conflate as democracy, but, really, that is liberal democracy, which is a product of mainstream media having limited access to only a few television channels, a predominance of radio magazines. And so what happened really by the end of the 20th century is with the internet and smartphones and then the rise of social networking, what you have is a return almost to what democracy really looks like: democracy as such.
And what that comes with is a certain sense of chaos — that it’s a whirlwind of expression leading to dangerous rhetoric, and certain people and parties want to win and can want to do away with democracy, and that’s something we find, whether it’s in ancient Athens or Rome. It’s certainly something that took place with the rise of cinema and radio and European fascism. And America is going through a certain sense of transformative chaos right now as we see the after-effects of having a demagogic president who led a rebellion against the political capital.
Jeff: It’s this fundamental idea that democracy doesn’t guarantee any particular outcome — that as soon as you let loose the forces of democracy, and we’ll talk later about what some of those forces are, the outcome is hardly assured.
Zac: Right, so there is no political endpoint, no guarantee of particular policies. And I think the confusion over liberal democracy is that the political universe will always bend towards a certain level of progress and justice. Now, I might personally want that to be the case, and I might hope for that and support certain visions, but there’s nothing erected in the stars that makes that so.
And we sometimes think that our institutions will just somehow make that so, but it’s actually not the case. Democracy is this open field where competing forms of expression take place. And some of those can be dangerous, and it’s not always to protect individual rights. And that’s unfortunate. I’m not going to lie. [Chuckles] But at the same time, we fully endorse democracy. But I think it’s important for all citizens to recognize the troubles they’re in.
Jeff: The other part of it is the degree to which we look to democracy as a kind of government almost in and of itself, as opposed to, as you talk about in the book, this communicative culture. Talk about that.
Zac: Sure, so instead of democracy as a particular form of government because there are a lot of different versions of democracy, ranging from parliamentary democracy to an electoral democracy, like ours, to other types of presidential democracies as we see throughout the Americas, and that is nothing on the versions of democracy we’ve seen in the past. But the one consistent theme throughout any sort of society calling itself a democracy is it allows for the free expression of content and ideas without a real prohibition or licensing in advance of those ideas.
And so what that leads to is that we see democracy as more of a culture of communication in which citizens, parties, organizations, corporations, activists, are all trying to persuade the public for what they want. And, really, this is just rooted in my co-author and I really wanted to get to the essence of democracy because we, too, felt like, “Oh my goodness, democracy is dying.”
But we recognized as we started doing research that there was something slightly off about this commonly-held notion. And the only thing that we could find that was consistent throughout was this sense of free expression. In Athens, they called this “isegoria” that allowed for citizens to speak their mind in the assemblies and in the agora, even though there were problems back then, for sure. And so this culture of communication is the thing that democracies allow and ultimately characterize it.
Jeff: So that the essential framework of that becomes not so much a system of governing, but the essential factor that seems to determine how democracies evolve are the means of communications that are available at any given time.
Zac: Yes, so it’s no coincidence, though it’s not necessarily obvious. And we had great pains to illustrate this in the book is that what we find also in democracies over time is this incredible amount of media innovation that flourishes as a result of these cultures of communication. And so what happens is you have different media arise, whether it’s the daily newspaper, the telegraph, photography, the radio, cinema, television, cable, satellites, telephones.
So it’s interesting in some ways that whenever you have these democratic interventions in history, they’re typically accompanied by new media innovation, and yet, what happens, inevitably almost, is that these new media innovations, these novel media tend to give rise to new forms of exploitation and propaganda that could be worked against democracy from the inside.
Jeff: Certainly, we’ve seen the impact, most recently in the 20th century, of television on our politics and our democracy.
Zac: Right, so television is kind of this double-edged sword because, in some ways, it allowed citizens to see their representatives, to be informed visually in a way that newspaper photographs couldn’t necessarily capture. So it opened up the space for public discourse, and yet, even starting with the very early political campaigns in television, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, who ran for president. He wasn’t positioned as this great general; he was this humble little man from Abilene, and it was all about, “I Like Ike.”
And so we see this through Kennedy, through the return of Nixon, through Reagan. And so television becomes a super important medium enabling the public to see things that they hadn’t before. But at the same time, it provided a certain artifice in political ethos. And really, one of the big things about television as an intervention and democratic politics becomes the rise of the television commercial: the 30-second ad, which reduces discourse from arguments and everything else to just presenting an image.
Jeff: The other thing it did is it took emphasis away, and this is true, certainly, in the commercial realm that you’re talking about. But just in the realm of television as a medium, it took the emphasis away from policy or discussion of issues and really made it about likability, which has always been one of the key factors of television.
Zac: Yes, and I think that plays a huge role when it comes to this sense of artifice or what we would say, “general artifice” through televised politics is this sense of ethos or likability. It’s forming an impression, right? And that goes for a political campaign, but it also goes for even — as we saw this summer with the January 6th committee hearings — it was meant for television, right?
They could have just released a huge document with their findings. But after interviewing the people under oath, they then brought them back to do so for the public. And so not everything should be seen as too cynical. Our point is simply that television as a medium, as a dominant medium, a medium that still has a lot of influence in society, rewards certain manners of speech and conduct.
And I think likability is important but also that sense of attention and charisma and, certainly, a figure like Donald Trump, whose history with television goes way back from before his time as president. It’s about creating buzz and capturing that sense of attention. And so, TV is good at doing that, so understanding how the medium works is, I think, essential to understanding how politics follows.
Jeff: It also wraps it in this patina of entertainment and that no matter how you slice it in terms of cable news or anything else that is news-related within the context of television that, ultimately, it’s a TV show. It’s about entertainment.
Zac: So a good example of cable television news is we all are pretty aware that there are differences between Fox News and MSNBC and even CNN, right? Different maybe political agendas and that sort of thing. And yet in terms of the production values and the rhythms and logic of these cable television news stations, they’re all very similar. There is a host or a pair of hosts. There are interview guests of talking heads, and there are ways in which there’s A blocks, B blocks, and then you come back from break and discuss something else, and there are images and people talking over images.
And so, I hope we can see the similarities in the form in how that plays a role before we get to those biases, but there’s differences within each medium. For instance, there are elements and rhythms and logic to radio that are different than podcasts. And so I think each medium has its own sort of incentive system and how people use it, how people consume it. And that plays a huge role in this larger culture of communication we’re talking about.
Jeff: Right, which is a very sort of McLuhanesque concept: The idea that the medium itself, whether it’s television, which may favor likability and pure entertainment, is different from talk radio or Twitter, for example, which is really much more about attention and conflict, and the form becomes more important than the message in many cases.
Zac: Right, and the message, sometimes. And McLuhan’s famous phrase, “The medium is the message,” it functions as this great slogan, but the point is we’re always focused on the content. And a lot of our media literacy education techniques are all about sifting through news and being able to distinguish between what is accurate and what is inaccurate or what might be a propagandist-fueled agenda and what might be an actual substantive argument or a carefully-reported bit of news.
And so I think it’s not necessarily one is more important than the other or one should displace the other perspective so much as what McLuhan is so good about identifying is that we’re always focused on the content, but not exactly how these media work as parts of the overall communications environment.
Jeff: Except that it, seemingly in the environment that we’re in today and the media and journalistic landscape we’re in today, accuracy or inaccuracy seem to matter less because it is so fragmented, and there is so much noise and so much misinformation that people find their own level, essentially.
Zac: Right, and I think an important or crucial distinction we try to make in the book is there’s a sense to which, and sometimes, this is generational. Sometimes, it’s like digital media hasn’t overtaken everything yet. We still do have some newspapers, and we still do have television, and we still do have radio, but they all are in this huge convergent, networked brew.
And so what we find is we find certain journalistic outlets who care deeply about ethical sourcing and verification techniques, and then we find some that don’t. And so we have this open field of communicative culture. And I think this is tremendously difficult for citizens to wrap their head around because we’re just bombarded with different messages. And if our problem, then, of the collective media is a sense of an issue of scale, an issue of volume, that it’s just filling up the tanker.
And there’s a sense to which not any one inaccurate message is destructive, but it’s the sum total of where citizens cannot get a foothold. And what you do when you’re in a very complex environment is you retreat to what makes sense. And sometimes there are those who will exploit people who are nervous about this environment and can provide super, super simple answers and rationalizations for what’s going on.
Jeff: There’s also to the degree to which negative attention, negative coverage, and, certainly, Trump is the penultimate example of that, where the negative coverage fuels him, and that becomes part of the story as well.
Zac: Right, and I think what we’ve seen most recently with the search warrant executed at his Palm Beach property in Florida over the last week is that it’s becoming increasingly clear. Whereas it seems like if you have top secret, classified documents and the government says, “Hey, can you please give them back?”, and you have over a year and a half to do so, and you don’t, and then they go and try to find them. It was clear from the press release Trump issued that evening — calling it a siege and a raid and how they broke into a safe — is that the idea is that you can leverage the news of what happened to try to persuade people to a particular perspective.
Jeff: Isn’t part of that, this notion of cable news or talk radio or Twitter, perhaps most of all, selling conflict — that it’s the entertainment and sports version of politics?
Zac: Yes, I think there is some level of that. I do think that that idea of sensationalism is something that we have had in political media for a very, very long time, but what we’re seeing is that, more than ever, I think that what you have is just this scale of continual conflict. And so what we’re seeing within the convergence of the online world, the traditional media world, is that there’s an incentive here to play up conflict and drama. And those are the narratives of how people can understand the world, but we also know that there are absolute consequences to how those things play out.
Jeff: The other part of it, as you point out in the book, is that every time there has been a major change in the media landscape where there’s been a fundamental shift, that liberal democracy is most at peril.
Zac: Yes, so there’s two things. When the media innovates and offers something new, there’s opportunities there for democracy and expanding the expression and connection of citizens. And we saw this, I think, with the rise of the World Wide Web globally. And there were quite a number of hopeful techno-utopians that really saw the opportunities there. And I think it’s easy to bag on them, but I think there was reason to register hope.
But the issue is any medium that comes along can also be used by forces of power, whether it is governmental forces, corporate forces, what have you. And what we’re seeing over the last, I guess, 10 years or so is people and organizations in positions of power are becoming exceptionally savvy at fighting back, of exploiting media, so I think it runs in both directions.
And the danger here is democracy exists as a communicative culture that allows citizens the opportunity to express themselves without penalty. And democracy, one of the great things about it is that it at least holds the opportunity to hold people in positions of power accountable. But as we know from history, not just our history but [chuckles] any engagement with history at all, is that people in positions of power are willing to do quite a bit to preserve their privileges and power.
Jeff: Does the rapid speed of our hyperdigital world have an impact in the way communication is impacting the political culture in ways that are profoundly different from historical examples?
Zac: Yes and no. This is a really good question because we identify the variables of scale and speed as being a real struggle for us to overcome, especially in the age of we worried in the ’90s about 24-hour news, and, now, it seems like the big news happens every 30 minutes on our push notifications on our phone. And so, the one thing I would say, and why we went through this long, historical look at media and politics combined is that for whatever time people are living, especially during times of media innovation, it will always feel that way.
The scale and the speed of newspapers in the early 20th century having a dozen daily editions coming out hawked by newsboys — think about how that must have felt or seeing the first, these newspapers, arise. And I think we point this out about pamphlets during the age of the Enlightenment and how that must have felt, or even the impact of having a huge radio player in your living room, which was then displaced by television.
And so there is a sense to which the scale and speed certainly feel different at each given period, but here’s the thing that truly is distinguished in the 21st century. What makes the new media of digital internet and social a real change? For most of human history, there has always been barriers to entry to disseminate information. And what we have now for hundreds of years, you had to own a printing press or be an editor or producer to create something.
But, now, we all have the power. All citizens have the power of mass communication at our fingerprints. We could write something and publish it, take a photograph and share it, record a video, record a podcast, and disseminate that. So even though scale and speed are things that have always been with us and always feel new, that power of everyone having access to disseminate information, that is truly new.
Jeff: Neil Postman, the great media critic, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, talks about this idea that we think progress, particularly as it relates to communication technology, the progress is always a good thing or the progress just keeps moving forward. And we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what the consequences are.
Zac: Sure, and Postman writing that book in 1986, he’s like, “Look, we’re a democracy. We’re supposed to have this freedom of public discourse,” and yet we allowed our society to change without really discussing it, just facilitating TV to become this dominant medium in which political communication plays out.
And I think our book continues the tradition a little bit of Postman and others in the sense that new media technology clears out some really valuable public, democratic space, but it also has a way of working in a really savvy and even scary mode to work in ways that we don’t necessarily recognize and colonize our public spaces. And eventually, people in positions of power figure that out and figure out how to confuse, distract, or unwittingly persuade the public.
Jeff: And what it does, to bring us back to where we started, is that all of that brings into bold relief all of the things that are the most dangerous about democracy.
Zac: Right, the pathologies are certainly there. And what that is is, ultimately, democracy allows people to exercise their choices, what they want, but our notion of the paradox is simply that we’re asking people to agree in a democracy, ask people to accept losing and being disappointed from time to time. And for some, that’s just going to be intolerable — that they always want to be in power or those that they support to be in power.
And they may be willing to do things rhetorically, in particular, to make that happen. And so democracy is always going to be a little bit dangerous because of that sense of free expression, which isn’t necessarily an endpoint of where the truth emerges out of this marketplace of ideas. It is a contest of communication, a culture in which everything is up for grabs, and nothing is settled.
Jeff: And to the extent that the technology is democratizing in some way that somebody gains more power in that in their ability to communicate, somebody also loses more of the power and the control that they had.
Zac: Sure, and I think to come back around to where we started, the conversation about the first question, I think, you asked was about the distinction between democracy and liberal democracy. So much of what liberal democracy relied upon was these gatekeepers in radio, television, newspapers, magazines, that could decide what was the news and how it would be framed because they had a certain control on the dissemination of information, but now, that’s just no longer the case.
We can speak our minds through social media as well as share what we are reading or looking at. And we are subject to the very sights in which we connect and engage and interact with news. And there’s no secret, I guess, that social networking platforms reward particular types of engagement, and those levels of engagement sometimes are the most provocative or polarized sorts of discourses.
Jeff: Zac Gershberg, his new book is The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion. Zac, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Zac: Jeff, this was great. Really appreciate it.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.