In his column last Sunday in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof dismissed the idea that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican counterpart Donald Trump tell lies with the same propensity or on a similar scale. Although Clinton’s numerous fibs and evasions propel longstanding doubts regarding her trustworthiness, nothing in her lamentable record compares to the outlandish and incessant lies doled out by Trump and his campaign.
This is a valid observation as far as it goes―which is, sadly, not very far at all. It does not even survive a turn of the page. In the same issue of The Times, juxtaposed against Kristof’s editorializing on asymmetrical falsehoods, was the launch article for a series exploring corporate influence over think tanks ostensibly guided by research imperatives but, in reality, steered by private interests. As in other instances of systemic bias, the disposition to cater to corporate sponsors was evident in the questions think tanks chose to pursue, including how those questions were framed, as much as in the answers furnished in response. One researcher cited in the article found that, as she shopped around her research proposal on drone warfare, prospective donors felt no compunction in sharing with her that their support would be conditioned on the preclusion of a finding that drone warfare was “bad.”
A prejudice against one particular finding not only shapes how a question will be crafted, it changes the entire effort from a research endeavor to a public relations exercise.
So, after being reassured on the one hand that lies can be accurately measured, we are told on the other that the search for truth has wandered well off course, more concerned with appeasing power than intellectual probity. By virtue of a simple circumstance of placement, one issue of The New York Times illustrated well the dilemma looming over the November presidential election: the political and media establishment do not lack grounds for censure of Donald Trump, yet, more and more, they lack the credibility to dispense it.
An establishment that functions without meaningful mechanisms of accountability is a power structure that is in “drift,” a characterization of politics famously used by Walter Lippmann to capture a sense of purposelessness in American life at the turn of the 20th century―and, as we return to Gilded Age levels of income inequality, one of enduring value that has acquired even more significance today. As Lippmann called for a bold departure from previous political idioms anchored in an agrarian life, he showed an exuberant faith in the ability of expertise to organize democracy and manage power.
Unfortunately for Lippmann and other American technocrats, though experts offer the possibility of consensus, the pursuit of knowledge can never be separated from power. This observation, commonly regarded as an article of faith of modern critical theory, is, in the context of American politics, the property of the populists who Lippmann dismissed as antiquated and irrelevant. While Lippmann and other progressives worried over the absence of an institutional apparatus and the necessary expertise to accommodate a modern nation―a concern that still has bearing for us today―the fear that either could function and retain influence absent any real accountability to the people has even greater warrant.
As the political establishment drifts in favor of a “managed democracy,” a merely performative embrace of mechanisms of consultation and consent, our politics, great and small, suffer as a result. Questions are specified along certain lines, with only those answers acceptable to power supplied as a possible response. The idea that drone warfare might be “bad” is never on the table, for example. No single elliptical treatment or unambitious question produces great alarm―as say, an egregious lie from Donald Trump might―but, by accretion and in their real effects, each does at least as much damage. Nothing less than the legitimacy of our political system is at stake.
Recently―and for me, inexplicably―the Clinton campaign has boldly invited voters to view the November election as an opportunity to pass a verdict on the status quo. Despite empirical evidence of Americans’ disgust with the establishment as well as the surprising electoral success of “insurgent” candidates, Hillary Clinton insists that America is “already great.” This benign patriotic expression takes on a air of complacency and privilege when uttered by someone who was shown favoritism from a Democratic Party establishment that, although beholden to her, denied its interference in the primary process until Wikileaks published some straightforward examples of it. Those who benefit from nominally impartial systems by virtue of de facto control over them are not exactly persuasive ambassadors of merit.
Already hampered by a lack of credibility, the Clinton campaign ventures into reckless territory when it touts the endorsement of neoconservatives who engineered the Iraq War. We have no more stunning example of the failure of our political class, or the media that obligingly covers it. Yet rather than take cognizance of the many things that facilitated this epic and costly blunder, the campaign prefers to curtly acknowledge a “mistake,” and reinstate the very people and ways of thinking that enabled it in the first place. Instead of an unsparing reappraisal of the Iraq War, we see an uncritical revival of its plot and many of its central characters. It’s reasonable to expect a reenactment.
As I have said before, the ability to control the designation of merit is not an adequate substitution for recognizing it; likewise, the power to dictate a conversation is not the same as settling an earnest dispute. In our political culture and across the institutions of our national life, dissent is ridiculed as dishonor, while servility is celebrated as competence.
Without autonomy and a diversity of perspectives, the experts applauded by Walter Lippmann become ornamental or, worse, agents of something more subtle and potentially sinister. This is the danger posed by an establishment in drift, immune to independent audit and critique but convinced, with a self-authorizing sense that can only be regarded as impunity, that it submits to both. What is routinely presented as analysis is actually a display of power.
A similar crisis of legitimacy afflicted the Brexit “Remain” campaign, a political project that enjoyed the better part of the argument, but lacked the standing to mount it persuasively. “Remain” also suffered at the hands of a media establishment that was either under the control of Rupert Murdoch and dedicated to exploiting an array of grievances, or under the sway of an establishment that had long ago surrendered any real desire to understand the source of those grievances. As with Trump and Clinton, in the case of Brexit, the “lies” were asymmetrical, and so too was the bias. Yet the problem was that the latter, more calibrated form of motivated reasoning prevalent throughout the media and among the political class was never named as such, let alone subjected to scrutiny for its cumulative effects. In retrospect, it is clear that the failure to substantively engage people in round after round of important decisions, only to present them with an urgent plea to rescue the establishment in some drastic measure, leads some to regard a voting booth as a place not to decide on a question, but to punish a system.
Unlike the Brexit “Remain” campaign, Clinton is likely to win in the upcoming election. To view that singular result in November as a redemption of what preceded it is, in itself, an excellent example of a smug contempt for democracy. It reminds me of the “charrette” meetings held to solicit input on a forthcoming development in my neighborhood. After numerous sessions made clear that these encounters served only as a box-checking exercise for the developer, my neighbors renamed the meetings “charades.” Their cynical humor conveyed a dark truth; the system was, in this case as in countless others, “rigged.” It was a classic episode of “managed democracy,” where participation in a process was used to impart a foregone conclusion with the veneer of consultation when in fact little had taken place. Although any given development may be built, and any particular election may be won, every insult that privileges power at the expense of people further entrenches an insular political culture capable of grievous damage.
Instead a self-serving establishment remains content to scout its own intricate web of interdependence to sort and understand “truth.” Rarely if ever do we hear that a majority of Americans either do not vote or classify themselves as “Independent.” Even before considering the degradations to our democracy that come in the form of money in politics and impediments to our voting rights, it is clear that the bipartisan political establishment that structures our politics is well removed from the reality of most Americans.
An engaged political class would regard that fact as an indictment; a disconnect in urgent need of rectification. Yet those convinced that America is “already great,” made indolent by the advantages of incumbency and uninterested in our crisis of legitimacy, reserve the bulk of their energy for revising instruments of consent into tools of control.