Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Republic of Disinterest

Kevin Drum has some thoughts on the radio listening habits of conservatives and liberals.  He points to an article showing how NPR has been enormously successful in the past decade.
NPR's listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today's 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News' 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. It has 860 member stations — "boots on the ground in every town" that no newspaper or TV network can claim.
He writes that it basically comes down to taste.
A common question on the left is, "Why is there no liberal talk radio?" That is, no wildly popular liberal version of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Laura Schlesinger. And the answer is: there is. It's called NPR. When lefties listen to the radio, that's what they listen to.

Noticeable absent is figures for Rush Limbaugh's audience.  Clearly the largest conservative draw on radio, the Washington Post puts him at somewhere around 14 million.  What's interesting is that if you combine the numbers for your average conservative and liberal audiences, you're still at under 50 million.

Yet according to the US Census Bureau, about 131 people voted in in the 2008 presidential election.

So the question appears to be: where are people getting their news?  My hunch is that most people aren't all that interested in news.  They have opinions, but they're largely based on vague ideological narratives that thrive in an environment devoid of factual information.  Because they are already uninterested in politics or political philosophy, actively listening to the news would require a critical analysis that would then require more even more listening. 

Modern political philosophy is complex - involving numerous competing premises.  The more one learns, the more one finds out one doesn't know.  And not knowing is uncomfortable, especially if you possess no natural curiosity to begin with.  So the easiest thing to do would be to forget the whole thing entirely.  This sort of political carelessness makes for a much more conciliatory and socially lubricious attitude.  Conflict is kept to a minimum, and happiness ensues.

Interestingly, this dynamic can also apply those who do, for some reason, have an interest in politics.  These people actively consume media, and engage in subsequent discussion with others.  However, the problem remains that political philosophy still rests on a complicated set of premises.  In order to take a particular position on the political spectrum, one must have confidence in their choice. 

It seems this can happen in one of two ways: either one has done the heavy lifting of understanding the array of premises across the spectrum, from which they rationally choose their own opinion, or they simply hew dogmatically to one perspective, and avoid contact with views that might cast doubt on the correctness of their choice.  The former model requires both perseverance and critical thinking.  As the time is taken to digest the entire spectrum of premises upon which competing political philosophies are built, one must also possess the capacity for self-reflection and evaluation, as new information will no doubt present dissonant challenges to one's accepted truths.

The latter model is much easier, and a better fit for those who do not wish to invest the required political intellectual rigor.  There could be any number of reasons for this.  Perhaps they aren't that interested in politics, or intellectualism in general.  Maybe they have difficulty accepting the self-criticism required to properly digest inevitable cognitive dissonance.  Maybe they have strong cultural traditions that dissuade them from making the tough choices that critical reasoning often requires.  In the end though, they will no doubt tend to be much more dogmatic and partisan, as their lack of broad political knowledge puts them at a disadvantage when faced with the prospect of leaving their narrow, scripted narrative.

All of this seems to point towards a depressing portrait of democracy.  A relatively informed electorate is the fundamental premise under-girding its viability as a political ideal.  Yet even if we were to some how get every citizen to some basic level of political and social education, the intellectual work required to grapple with important issues in a serious way seems something only a small minority of voters will ever be capable of performing.  This elite class of individual with have an extraordinarily outsized influence over the rest.

Currently, if we are to assume that barely half of voters consume news media on a regular basis, and of that group, maybe half still are operating from a non-dogmatic, non-partisan perspective in which new information is critically consumed and old premises are challenged, we're down to a quarter of the voting public.  That's about 13 million people, on the left and right who engage the issues with patient and determined objectivity.  There are about 218 million adults in the US.  That's 1 in 4 voters, and about 1 in 16 people.

Now, that may be all it takes to effectively drive public thought.  But I doubt it.  How much influence do these people really have.  Of the 3 in 4 voters, how many are really paying attention - as driven by partisan dogma as they are?  The grim reality is that politics is fumbling blindly forth, with no rational direction.  Is it any wonder then, that so many are outraged by colossal nature of our failings?  This despite the hypocrisy of having no one to blame but ourselves. 

In the end, the question seems to be how we manage to do as well as we do.  Within that small elite of individuals who truly possess the capacity to drive serious discussion, there does exist robust debate.  And our literature is filled with examples of wonderful political thought.  As long as this process is allowed to continue - and in the modern world it thankfully has been enshrined as a human right, we will no doubt continue to prosper.  Yet to the extent that people are not engaged in a serious way in the issues that they vote on, they present an obstacle to progress.

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