U.S. President Donald Trump has made many statements where he suggests that perhaps he is being treated unfairly by the media. I agree with that assessment. I think it is fair to point out mistakes and give constructive criticism when appropriate. But there obviously should be a balance.
This relentless attack on Trump by political adversaries, media establishment, academia, hollywood, leakers from government agencies etc. is phenomenal to behold and makes a northern European outside observer sometimes wonder what is really going on.
We live in a cosmopolitan political culture. All the western countries face pretty much same issues.
Obviously what happens in America has great import all over the world. The current power struggles has been described with many perhaps simplistic labels like globalism, populism, nationalism, ‘outsider’, ‘swamp’, etc. There are differences of opinion concerning many issues like immigration, international trade, role of government in health care etc.
But the overwhelming impression is that the free press does not seem to be a platform of detailed debate on these issues where arguments between different viewpoints are freely introduced to the general public, instead it seems to be a platform of power politics. And the press does not shy away to be an active actor in this struggle.
The role of media is perhaps least problematic since it is so obvious what is going on. I guess perhaps more problematic is the role of intelligence agencies. But perhaps the biggest problem is the indifference of the average citizen.
Let’s look first at intelligence agencies. It prompts me to ponder a bit philosophically the whole dynamics at play.
Knowledge is power. A sketchy glance on some historical documentary report on J.Edgar Hoover suggest what this power can potentially do to a person.
But in democracy power should be ultimately coming from the people. And at the same time national security has its requirements of information whereupon people at large can not have direct oversight. In democratic process people should have the last say concerning the rules of the game like how and why this information is gathered and handled. The people who give this power may not know all the contents of this information so the power over the rules of game can only thus be described more or less in abstract. In the ideal world we would not need any secretive info since no-one would need to have anything to hide. But alas, that is not the human condition currently. Who did no mistakes that might not be flattering to the person if reminded about them in selected settings?
This conundrum also makes one wonder about the concept of democracy itself. Who or what gives the power to the people? In democracy – at least in theory – power comes from the people, but why should people have that power that is delegated in the first place? Actually people never have the power and at the same time it is inherently coming from an individual. In practical terms people never have the power that is delegated in democratic process like elections. People just decide who can have what they most likely will never have. It makes an ordinary citizen feel more or less a bystander and yet democratic elections can make a difference. But certainly anyone can also decide to enter into the game and run for an office. On the other hand people ultimately have the power since every one has free will. And I think America is and perhaps should be the greatest defender of this power of individual that ultimately guarantees freedom and democracy.
But back to the intelligence agencies. It is common knowledge that some of these agencies have competence to record and store almost any digital communication that happens in the whole globe. I suspect that in practice 100% coverage is never possible, there is likely inherent technological and engineering challenges that will always limit this coverage and of course not all communication is digital. But nevertheless the surveillance ability of some actors look quite significant and vast.
And now I think a democracy faces this question: what is the role of democracy regarding the power of information gathered by governmental actors? How is the rules of gathering and handling this information guaranteed to stay under the scrutiny of the people – the democratic process.
Current phase of political power struggle in Washington suggest that this information may be used as tool of political influence. Knowledge is power but not only knowledge. Power can also be exercised by hearsay, innuendo and lies. Of course these exercises need knowledge too, or at least educated guesses.
It seems that the election of Trump as the president has now exposed into the headlines what has happened all the time since intelligent agencies have had extensive resources to gather extensive information. This information has perhaps been always used as tool of influence that bypasses democratic process. But now there is ‘outsider’ in the office. There are no donors that he should be concerned about when making policy decisions. So if there is a “power elite” that previously exercised more influence than what was democratically delegated to them or documented in journalistic accounts, that power elite now has a problem. The only leverage it might have is information. And only damaging information may be quarantee of real influence.
So let us ponder and speculate this a little bit. I guess there is two possibilities for this supposed power elite: either the person who holds office (‘is officially in power’) cooperates or resources should be employed to remove the person from office.
What is happening now in the news?
One must be amazed how much of the inherent problematics of western democracy surfaces now before everyone’s eyes. Not only can we witness daily media bias whether in journalism or entertainment but also the role of intelligence institutions as part of exercising power that is not exactly under democratic scrutiny.
It looks to me that Trump is a big exposer. He certainly is not a perfect politician. He makes mistakes all the time as far as what is the expected conduct of politician in public office. Some of these expectations might be still legitimate and some of these might be something that we should perhaps forget about anyway. These mistakes are now exploited to the fullest by adversaries. But in the big picture if you agree with most of his policy ideas like about half of the people in America do, the question remains: how can the culture of democracy recover to the state where these issues may be debated and view points exchanged without recourse to ad hominem smear campaigns?
The word recover is probably utopian in a sense that perhaps democracy never was in that state. But on the other hand now it is so dirty and ruthless that the inherent crisis is blatantly in our face. What are the options?
My view is that Trump is showing the way. Even if you don’t agree with his policy there is something that is really pronounced here as far as the volume and intensity of attacks against Trump. Why was the volume and intensity of attacks against Clinton, Bush or Obama never at this level? They had their share to be sure but the level of intensity now seems to be on the next level.
Now you could say that the guy deserves it because his policies “suck” and I think this is perhaps the attitude of many people who consent or amplify to what is going on. But this is exactly what is the biggest problem here in my opinion. And I think it is the core issue in the crisis western of democracy. It is even bigger problem than the possibility of intelligence agency employees misuse of informational power or the role of “power elite” pulling strings, (whoever they may be) or the mainstream media confusing the line between journalism and propaganda, or hollywood elite cheering and sneering along or political adversaries exploiting speculation, hearsay, leaks, fabrications, minor mistakes, the whole panoply of traditional power politics game that has been going on since politics was invented.
All this is counter to the real culture of democracy. And culture is something that can not be really codified or legislated, it can only be cultivated.
I think the culture of democracy needs desperately an attitude change for vast segment of the most vocal actors in politics and public discourse. It is the issues that matter. It is the policy decisions that matter. It is the arguments that are employed in these decisions that matter. Culture of democracy should be something where free discussion, debate and exchange of opinions should be defended.
Because of this I hereby consider to formulate disapproval to all those attitudes that can be described oneliners like: “well he/she is a racist”, “he/she sucks because his policies suck and thus he deserves contempt, mockery and well, any means possible of removal from office actually” etc. There is a legion of patterns like these in circulation in between the lines and many times not in between.
Of course it is not easy to change habits. But that is what western culture and the future of democracy and freedoms we now take for granted require. At least it sure looks that way if you ask me.