“The Permanent Problem” is an ongoing series of essay about the challenges of capitalist mass affluence as well as the solutions to them. You can access the full collection here, or subscribe to brinklindsey.substack.com to get them straight to your inbox. 

The photograph above is a screen shot from an old Star Trek episode titled “The Day of the Dove.” Pictured is a mysterious being of pure energy that has stolen aboard the Enterprise. Also on board are 38 Klingon prisoners whose ship was attacked and destroyed – and they think the Enterprise did it. Not long after the Klingons are taken into custody, an accident on the ship traps 400 crew members in the lower decks; soon thereafter, the Klingons get free, and it’s now a fight of exactly 38 on 38 for control of the Enterprise. But somehow, all the phasers have been miraculously transformed into swords, and in the ensuing battles it becomes clear that nobody can be killed: Even red shirts heal quickly from even the gravest wounds. Also, nobody can control the ship, and it’s now heading at high warp speed on a course out of the galaxy. As all these bizarre circumstances accumulate, both sides take events in stride, their brains so clouded by hatred of the other side and lust for blood they can’t see that there must be somebody else involved who’s pulling all the strings.

Eventually Captain Kirk and his crew figure out that’s there’s an intruder on the ship, and that this energy being seems to feed off violent, negative emotions. It has rigged everything – getting the Klingons on the ship, equalizing the Klingon and Federation sides, restricting them to primitive weapons, filling their heads with racist paranoia, rendering them immortal – all so it can get off on rage and murder and mayhem for all eternity on a doomed, speeding ghost ship. 

Kirk has to convince the Klingon commander of what’s going on so that they can team up against the intruder before it’s too late. They call a ceasefire and make a wonderfully hokey show of good spirits and bonhomie until the creature flees the ship and all is saved.

This screen shot has been the banner photo for my Twitter account since I finally ended up joining in the spring of 2017. I chose it because that episode seems to me to offer a near-perfect analogy for our current political predicament: two sides of equal size, their mutual hostility stoked to the point of spit-flecked rage, so consumed with anger and hatred and desire for revenge that they can’t see that they’re hurtling toward their doom.

When this analogy first occurred to me, there was a missing piece: Who, in our version of the story, plays the malevolent puppet master? Originally, I thought in abstract terms – it’s polarization, it’s partisan zealotry run amok after the end of the Cold War deprived us of an external enemy. 

That’s not wrong, it’s definitely part of the story. But I have a better, clearer answer now. There is a particular actor in our political drama, or rather a set of actors, that is constantly stirring up antipathy and mistrust for its own benefit. The monster that has divided us into Team Red and Team Blue and put us at each other’s throats is the news media.

The term “news media” is a capacious abstraction that contains multitudes — including many smart, dedicated men and women who take seriously the public trust they serve and who strive to report on and explain public affairs as fairly and thoroughly and accurately as possible. But when we look at the enterprise taken as a whole, the commendable efforts of the truth seekers and fact finders are overwhelmed by the flood of sensationalistic infotainment bullshit – a flood that panders to the public’s worst instincts and whips both sides into a mutually antagonistic frenzy, all to maximize media company revenues. 

Note that when I say “looking at the enterprise as a whole,” I mean looking beyond the sum of all individual actions and pieces of media content to the entire media environment – including the communications media being employed and the incentive structures governing their employment. The last thing I want to do is add to the right-wing demonization of the mainstream media, under cover of which a sustained attack on basic standards of evidence and reliability is being advanced. When I criticize “the media,” I’m criticizing the quality of the overall informational environment in which we learn about and discuss public affairs. As to the players, some are heroes and some are scoundrels and many are somewhere in between, but I’m not focused on the players; it’s the game I’ve come to hate.

Things weren’t always this bad. The way I see it, our current mess has resulted from the confluence of three interrelated developments, each of which can plausibly be seen as a species of progress: (1) the intensification of competition for the public’s attention; (2) the ongoing development of new information and communications technologies; and (3) the phase change from information scarcity to information abundance. It is an ongoing theme of this blog that what looks like progress in one dimension can bring with it a train of difficulties, and even outright regress, in other dimensions. And I believe that history’s capacity for irony is on grim display here.

It would be difficult to overstate how distasteful and contrary to my strongest intellectual impulses it is for me to have come to the views I now hold. I’m a strong partisan of technological progress, and yet it seems to me that every new communications technology after the printing press has ended up making us stupider – at least in our role as citizens. And I retain a strong libertarian presumption in favor of freedom, especially free expression, yet I see the broadening of the robust exercise of free expression leading us away from understanding and ever deeper into confusion and delusion.

Here’s a deeply unlibertarian conclusion that I now regretfully find inescapable: There is a fundamental misalignment between profit-seeking and democracy’s need for a well-informed public. That misalignment can be mitigated when profit-seeking is appropriately constrained, but in today’s competitive free-for-all for eyeballs, clicks, and ratings, the result is informational anarchy in which truth is hopelessly outmatched.

For much of the 20th century – that is, for the bulk of the mass media age until recently – competitive pressures in the news industry were unusually restrained. The newspaper industry settled into a pattern of local monopolies or duopolies (typically a morning and an afternoon paper) in all but the largest cities. In this commercially stable and relatively unchallenging environment, it was possible for journalism to develop a professional commitment to disinterested objectivity and defend it with a “Chinese wall” separating the business and news sides of the newspaper. Meanwhile, the new entrant of broadcast news – first on radio, then on TV – was a regulated oligopoly, with three networks required to provide a certain amount of public affairs programming and compelled by the fairness doctrine to air opposing views whenever matters of opinion were discussed. Here too, journalistic standards were shaped by canons of professionalism rather than catering to audience appetites.

That old 20th century media environment is gone with the wind. The internet wrecked the local newspaper industry, while cable and satellite TV ended the dominance of the broadcasting triumvirate. And with the loss of the old structure has come the collapse of the old journalistic standards.

Many disparate factors have combined to produce our toxic politics, but the role played by the newly competitive media landscape has been critical. In particular, it is no exaggeration to say that contemporary authoritarian populism, which now poses a serious threat to the core values, norms, and institutions of liberal democracy, was the creation of a small group of media entrepreneurs. The sources of populism were many and varied: the declining leverage and power of ordinary people, the rise of a mass professional and managerial elite, the professionalization of civic and political life, and the fading of widespread poverty and brutal working conditions have all been discussed in this series for their contributions to shifting the central fault line in politics from economics to culture. And obviously, politicians on the right have sought to exploit these sources for electoral advantage, from Nixon and his “Southern strategy” to Reagan and his cultural appeal to “Reagan Democrats” to Gingrich and his post-Cold-War vision of domestic politics as the new existential struggle. 

But the creation of a mass constituency for authoritarian populism – what we now call the “Republican base” – was ultimately the handiwork of a small group of media innovators. People like Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, and Andrew Breitbart saw an entrepreneurial opportunity in the East Coast media establishment’s combination of subtle but real liberal biases and serene confidence in its own objectivity. They saw a large potential audience for programming that derided and mocked liberal sanctimony and hypocrisy while catering to conservative sensibilities – and they struck it rich. By serving up red meat for the right-wing id nonstop for decades, they ended up changing the nature of American conservatism. Ugly reactionary sentiments were nothing new in America, but the conservative movement and Republican politicians had previously tried to sublimate those sentiments by channeling them toward supporting a coherent policy agenda. The right-wing media, by contrast, shamelessly pandered to those sentiments and wallowed in them – and over time, audiences thus humored came to expect nothing less.

Republican politicians originally saw the emergence of conservative media as a useful prop for their own plans and ambitions: Media rallied the troops and got them riled up, and politicians would then lead them to political and policy victory. Over time, though, their expectation that the base would dutifully follow their lead gave way to the realization that they could only keep their position as “leaders” by serving the base’s now-insatiable appetite for stroking. As David Frum observed back in 2010, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Then we discovered we work for Fox.”

Thus the evolution of Republican politicians: from occasional cynical manipulators of the underside of the log, to reluctant servants of its creepy-crawlies, to creatures of the underside itself – those for whom the right-wing caricature of the world is the only reality they know. Cue Donald Trump’s escalator ride and the subsequent downward spiral of American politics. 

Once Trump appeared on the scene, mainstream media outlets descended to the occasion. His bid for the nomination was greatly aided by extensive free media exposure: Trump’s endless provocations and scandals were ratings gold, and the allure of cashing in outweighed any scruples about the effects on democracy of elevating such a dangerous demagogue. As CBS Chairman Les Moonves confessed, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

And after Trump’s improbable 2016 election win, commercial incentives continued to lead the mainstream media astray. Trump’s repeated and vicious attacks on journalism laid a trap for mainstream outlets, daring them to fight back and reveal themselves as just another group of partisans. And into that trap they bounded enthusiastically; star reporters put themselves forward as self-appointed leaders of the opposition, and their employers enjoyed big surges in readership and viewership by catering to the progressive audience’s desire for an Anti-Fox News. Assuming this role while still claiming the mantle of old-style objective journalism couldn’t possibly work, and so it didn’t. The mainstream media’s authority as a reliable source of facts for both sides was wrecked: According to Gallup last October, 70 percent of Democrats continue to trust newspapers, radio, and TV to report the news accurately and fairly, but they are joined by only 27 percent of independents and 14 percent of Republicans. Only 7 percent of Americans of whatever partisan affiliation now report “a great deal of” trust in the news media, dwarfed by the 38 percent who say they have no trust at all. 

Such are the wages of unchecked competition in the news media. But as I mentioned above, there are other key developments in the evolution of our informational environment that have contributed to today’s “post-truth” epistemic anarchy. One of them is the ongoing progress of communications technologies – in particular, the advent of television and the internet. It’s hard to overstate the impact that these technologies have had on our lives – I mean, the average person now spends nearly half their waking hours staring at screens. So of course we should expect to see a major impact on our political lives. Most profound, I believe, is the effect on our attentional and cognitive culture – our ability to absorb and assimilate knowledge about public affairs and engage in reasoned, empirically grounded discussions of social problems. In short, while TV and the internet have vastly expanded the theoretical ability to learn about and make sense of our world, their practical effect has been to seriously degrade the public’s attention span and reasoning ability.

Not long ago I finally got around to reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, now nearly 40 years old, and it would be hard to improve on his analysis of the transformation from a culture based on the printed word to one based on the visual image. Now, Postman was in some respects an insufferable fuddy-duddy: His claim that TV is at its most dangerous when it’s trying to be educational and uplifting is totally wrongheaded in my view. But his insight, following Marshall McLuhan, into the powerful effects of communications media on the way we see the world and the way we think was spot-on. A written text challenges us – forces us to pay sustained attention, think logically, and follow complex chains of exposition and argument. TV, by contrast, lulls us – encourages us to be passive, intellectually lazy, content to be carried along by the dancing images into whatever emotional states they arouse. Postman’s verdict on the transition from written to visual culture was unsparing: “Under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now – generally coherent, serious and rational; … under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.” 

Postman’s discussion of 19th century political oratory captures vividly what has been lost. In the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, throngs of ordinary people would listen attentively for hours as speakers delivered written addresses filled with ornate and circuitous sentences woven into complex patterns of argumentation (one early debate between Lincoln and Douglas went on for seven hours of speechifying, broken by an intermission so people could go home and have dinner). Today, on the other hand, we get the 30 second TV spot – which now seems positively ponderous compared to its internet successor, the meme.

Postman, of course, was writing a decade before the internet came on the scene. Whereas a book focuses and disciplines one’s attention, and the TV captures and anesthetizes it, staring at a computer or tablet or phone screen leaves our attention fractured, scattered, and fleeting. Even the most bookish among us – and I assume that readers of this blog are on the right tail of the bibliophile spectrum – can attest to the damage that web surfing has done to our attention spans.

My friend Adam Garfinkle wrote about the combined effect of the internet and TV in an essay a couple years back on the decline of “deep literacy,” or the ability to maintain sustained engagement with long and complex texts. It’s a difficult piece to summarize, but I’ll quote a few illustrative snippets (by the way, Adam is currently working on developing these ideas at book length – see here for a discussion of the project):

Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read — or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned — typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention … on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it….

If you do not deep read, you do not cultivate a capacity to think, imagine, and create; you therefore may not realize that anything more satisfying than a video game even exists. Fully immerse yourself in digital “life,” and timelines will flatten into unconnected dots, rendering a person present-oriented and unable to either remember or plan well. That permanently “zoned out” person will become easy prey for the next demagogue with an attractive promise and a mesmerizing spectacle….

The deep-reading brain excels at making connections among analogical, inferential, and empathetic modes of reasoning, and knows how to associate them all with accumulated background knowledge. That constellation of sources and connections is what enables not just strategic thinking, but original thinking more broadly. So could it be that the failures of the American political class to fashion useful solutions to public- and foreign-policy challenges turn not just on polarization and hyper-partisanship, but also on the strong possibility that many of these non-deep readers are no longer able to think below the surface tension of a tweet?…

The capacity for abstract reasoning, too, is integral to liberal-democratic politics: The concepts of representation; the virtues of doubt, dissent, and humility; and the concept of a depersonalized constitutional order are all very abstract ideas. Is it possible that an emotionally more volatile post-deep-literate society may at a certain tipping point regress to accommodate, and even to prefer, less-refined and -earned forms of governance?

Let me offer a couple of thoughts to flesh out Adam’s analysis. Regarding the quality of governance in a post-literate culture, I recommend Philip Zelikow’s superb article “To Regain Policy Competence” on the sharp decline over the years in the quality of American policymaking. In discussing the golden age of American state capacity during World War II and the decades that followed, he stresses “the significance of an organizational culture that prizes written staff work of the quality that used to be routine but has now degraded into bureaucratic or opinionated dross.” The quality of policy outputs, in Zelikow’s view, is a function of the quality of policy analysis and deliberation; since the latter has fallen off sharply, it’s unsurprising that the former has followed suit.

As to the effect of post-literacy on the quality of our democracy, I can sum that up in two words: Donald Trump. A former star of “reality TV” who won the presidency with his Twitter account: He’s such a perfect embodiment of our degraded informational environment that, were he a fictional character, he would be dismissed as excessively contrived. It is simply inconceivable that a creature like Trump could have risen to the summit of American political life in an earlier media age.

The third factor shaping today’s epistemic environment is the advent of information abundance – thanks mostly to the internet and social media, but jump-started and still assisted by cable news. For those of you too young to remember life before the information deluge, it’s hard to imagine a world where you have a question about something and … you can’t just look it up on your phone. A world where you had to go hunting in the encyclopedia, or the almanac, or head down to the library for the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and old publications stored on microfiche. As a kid during moon missions, I’d wait expectantly for the top of the hour for the CBS radio newscasts – a 30 second update would keep me going for another 60 minutes. In college, a roommate and I stayed up all night long desperately trying to remember the name of the drummer for Kiss – I can still remember the unbridled joy when Peter Criss finally popped into my head.

Back then, governments and other large, established institutions enjoyed this huge advantage: They controlled access to important but scarce information. Those were the days of “the official story,” when governments could carefully manage information flows and keep pesky details out of public view. When most people had no idea that FDR was paralyzed from the waist down, or that JFK was anything but. Where millions could die in forced famines in Ukraine and China and the fact that it was happening could be successfully obscured.

Obviously there are tremendous upsides to the new information abundance – at the beginning, we thought it was all upside. Over the past decade or so, though, the dark side has come into view. We have discovered that information abundance isn’t just a problem for authoritarians; it’s a problem for authority, period, including democratic authority. 

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public has become the standard reference here. In his telling, information abundance combined with the frictionless networking possibilities of social media allow various “publics” to coalesce almost instantaneously and make their presence felt – online or on the streets. Alas, political action by these instant pop-up publics is almost totally restricted to the performative: groups assembled so effortlessly, with none of the slow, laborious work of actually getting to know your fellow partisans and going to meetings and building organizations, lack the structure and coherence to develop a common agenda and push it towards enactment. In autocratic settings, purely performative public action can be consequential, even revolutionary: The public performance of dissent can shatter the government’s appearance of unquestioned control and with it the legitimacy of the regime (i.e., the willingness of the people with the guns to back it against the crowd). But in democracies, the viral anti-government protests that now occur from time to time (the gilet jaunes in France, the indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in the U.S.) are generally just empty theatrics. Allergic to institutional authority and attracted to opportunities for self-aggrandizing performance, these movements are usually distinguished by the lack of any coherent agenda or demands. This rolling populist discontent can be effective at negating – that is, undermining those currently in power. But it has nothing positive to offer, no alternate direction to propose and pursue. 

In democracies, then, the revolt of the public leads nowhere. The social trust needed for effective governance leaches away in the acid bath of widespread frustration and discontent; the ensuing missteps of the hobbled government, invariably exposed and publicized, serve to deepen the frustration and discontent even further. Society looks increasingly ungovernable; democracy looks feeble and exhausted. Longing for a strong man who can cut the Gordian knot steadily waxes…

Our democratic constitution rests on an epistemic foundation: “the constitution of knowledge,” as my friend Jonathan Rauch put it in his brilliant book by that name. Democratic government relies on persuasion, which means its ability to function depends on the extent to which citizens and their leaders share a common set of facts relating to whatever matter is under consideration. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “but not his own facts.” Some degree of consensus on the facts is necessary before a useful clash of opinions can occur. 

According to Jonathan, the constitution of knowledge consists of the values, principles, and institutions of the “reality-based community” – all those people in society whose job it is to add to society’s storehouse of knowledge. The news media is that part of the reality-based community most responsible for informing the public of the facts relevant to political debate. 

But the news media, taken as a whole, is not living up to that responsibility. Frenzied competition for increasingly scarce attention incentivizes telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to know, and those incentives are increasingly winning out over fidelity to the principles of objectivity and impartiality. 

Meanwhile, the technologies employed by the news media are not neutral conduits of information. On the contrary, the medium of communication has a big impact on what actually gets communicated. And the newest, most powerful communication technologies – TV and the internet, which now dominate the overall informational environment – tend to undermine the epistemic virtues of the viewing public, rendering us less capable of analytical rigor and intellectual seriousness. 

Finally, the power of the new communications technologies has delivered us to the strange new world of information abundance – a world with great advantages but also serious risks. As to the latter, we have discovered that the social and political trust that democratic governments require to function is difficult to maintain inside our new global Panopticon. 

At the end of that old Star Trek episode, Kirk and the Klingon commander confront the alien intruder and let it know they refuse to be its pawns. The Klingon gets the best line: “Only a fool fights in a burning house!” Good advice, to be sure, but it leads us to a question with no clear answer: How do we put out the fire?