by Emmett R Smith
IT Was Baroness Thatcher who (in)famously decreed in the 1980’s, that ‘society doesn’t exist’. Now, as well, the public no longer exists as a decisive, nor even as a significant, factor in our american, but no longer particularly ‘national’, political life.
The proliferation of media have made of us in effect a kind of clamourous mob, rioting through the ‘internet’ in every direction, each in pursuit of some solipsistic idiocy. The consequence is that to speak of the american (or, ‘western’) ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense is to risk farce; and, at worst, it is categorically delusional. The corollary of the enormous aetiolation of electronic outlets for self-display and egotisms (as in these mainly inconsequential, and hence wretched, ‘blogs’) is that ‘our’ soi-disant leaders do NOT need to take into account the ‘american people’–certainly not as a people–any longer.
Nor have they done since at least the days of the sainted J E Carter; rather, now, and in the light of the most advanced monetarist theory, we are conceived of as, precisely, markets.
Historically, as John Lukacs points out, the role of public opinion was critical; and, it was a definitive function of democracy in every phase of democracy’s history, especially in England and America. Nor was this public opinion to be confused with public sentiment, with what the common people understood (and, sometimes, actually ‘knew’) about national and world affairs. Public opinion was, precisely, the on-going dialogue between the legislature and leading media of the day. In the twentieth century, the force and efficacy of public opinion perhaps reached its zenith in the heyday of the great national newspapers. With the advent of radio, and even more of Tee Vee, gains in ‘immediacy’ and entertainment-value seemingly extorted their cost–in an increasingly sarcastic and un-believing, general, passivity.
It is perhaps a direct consequence that less than half of the eligible electorate now vote; and, that any administration momentarily ‘in power’, now is chosen by a scant quarter of the befuddled (and sometimes deliberately mis-educated and misled), whose ‘duty’ this is supposed to be.
Now it must be kept in mind that public opinion was ever no anodyne in the history of democracy, against error and the wrong-headed taking of the wrong direction. But, the leadership, then still dependent in a direct way on the party-process, the caucus and the national ballot, was accessible to the collective sentiments of american citizens in a way it is no longer–and, if only haltingly sometimes, the leadership yet then could be brought low and back to its senses. Very likely, as matters now stand, future historians of the decline of the United States will cite the February, 1968, editorial on CBS Tee Vee, by ‘anchorman’ Walter Cronkite, as the last instance in which public opinion exercised a direct influence on the american presidency. Mr Cronkite called severely into question the Viet Nam war; and, L B Johnson said to his press-secretary, and to Mr B Moyers, ‘if I have lost Cronkite, I have lost middle America’.
Indeed so; and, within five weeks L B Johnson withdrew from the 1968 Democrat party nomination-race.
That a more coherent public opinion is no sure guarantor of the well-being of the political state doubtless is attested by the consequent election of R M Nixon to his first presidential-term (I voted for Nixon in his second-term campaign, my first vote ever cast); but, even so, public opinion did succeed in forcing his 1974 declension from highest office; when at last his involvement in rascality could no longer be gainsaid.
As to to-day, however, does anyone now suppose, except in wildest nostalgic phantasy, that there is even the remotest chance similarly of driving from office the unworthy heir of J Adams and of C Coolidge, Mr G W Bush?
That finally G W Bush has lost the american people, root and branch, with the advent of three-dollar gasolene, is a circumstance to which his handlers simply do not have to pay heed. And, as I have seen for myself in this, my maternal home, in southern Minnesota, the bemused and inarticulate commons have indeed repudiated this president; and, they have rejected ‘his’ made-for-Tee Vee Terror War.
After all, now, one sees nowhere here on the motorcars and trucks on the inter-state motorways anything like the number of american flags that were to be seen even one year ago.
MORE Startlingly, those treatment centre-style magnetised gold-coloured, or red, white & blue, ‘Wal Mart’ ribands reading ‘I Support Our Troops And So On’ have all but disappeared!
THIS Is a sure manifestation of the public mood (as opposed to the ‘public opinion’ of such ineffectual luminaries as G Will, E Goodman, C Thomas, M Ivins, the animus-ridden S Fields, and the passionate but anachronistic L Pitt).
In England, in the 1939-45 war, at least the echelons around what was–unlike to-day–a truly national leadership would have had some idea of this particular folk-trend, as they indeed had of many other shifts in the moods of the common people. The English had a system of regular reportage called ‘Mass Observation’, or MO. These reports did not represent ‘scientific polling’, to the ambiguous value of which I shall return. But, day-by-day and week-by-week, a host of volunteer informants reported, in anonymous terms, what they heard said by their friends and neighbours in the course of their daily rounds, in the market and at work, at church and school, on the ‘buses and in the trains. The result was the compilation of a body of evidence about the character and moods of the English people all throughout Great Britain, going down through all the years of the Second World War.
Now I have no evidence that Prime Minister Churchill at any point directly consulted the findings of MO. But this materiel was summarised regularly to middle and senior civil servants; and so, Churchill might well have gotten above-all-better-informed advice from his minions, when called for. Very probably the chief significance of MO was that the collective opinion of the bureaucracy deemed it important to take an ongoing account of the public feeling.
The curse of hypercredentiallism of the 1946-64 unworthy generation is that, now, we have seemingly more polling data than ever before. And yet we do not have the wherewithal to use any of this ‘information’ to do any more, in any connection, than to mount specific (‘marketing’) operations, all ad hoc, all ultimately damned by the sheer staggering unwisdom of all of this ‘much knowledge’.
In direct distinction to the situation of our 1939-45 English language-cousins, there now does not seem to be anywhere an analogous, hence close and meaningful and living, connection between institutions and the common people.
This is a fact; and, it is a grim fact.
That it is a fact is not only a grim thing, it is an unlucky thing.
For us it is unlucky–and, so, it is a bad thing.
And, that unlucky bad thing is this; and, it may be the death-knell of our constitution and our history:
OUR Leaders now have no idea of who or what we are–and, they do not need anymore to have any such idea.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 14 May 2006]