Politics & Prose May 2007

Television or Democracy?

Al Gore suggests that we cannot have both.

 "Television is American politics."
        —Theodore White

Among the questions raised by Al Gore in this mindful book on the Bush Administration’s assault on reason, truth, civil liberties, the separation of powers, the environment, and world order is this: Should TV be abolished? We can have television or we can have democracy. The evidence Gore adduces suggests that we cannot have both. Democracy depends on reason and a well-informed citizenry; television on the sub-rational manipulation of wants. TV not only treats citizens as consumers; it corrupts politics. Politicians sell out to organized money to pay for TV ads.

Americans watch television four hours and 30 minutes a day—90 minutes more than the world average. According to a study in this month’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the habit starts at birth: 40% of three-month-olds are regular TV viewers, and 90% of two-year-olds watch an average of 90 minutes a day. As the "empire of television" has colonized more and more of our waking hours, so has civic ignorance. One survey found that after a recent election only 4% could name both candidates in their congressional district. Only 43% of Americans can name a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. A 2006 poll revealed that "more than a third of the respondents believed the executive branch has the final say on all issues and can override the legislative and judicial branches." If you ask a college student where the line "we hold these truths to be self-evident…" comes from, odds are he or she won’t know. A terrifying 35% of high school students believe the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Television is not the only cause of civic ignorance, just the greatest one.

The corporate, centralized, top-down, one-way, flow of information from television not only models authoritarianism, habituating Americans to what Tocqueville called "soft despotism"; it makes democracy vulnerable to infections of fear. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the mantra of local news." (To which, Gore comments, "some disheartened journalists add, ‘If it thinks, it stinks.’")

In a brilliant chapter, "The Politics of Fear," Gore cites brain research showing  that moving images on television trigger primitive adaptive behaviors, inducing a trance-like state that "immobilizes viewers." "It’s almost as though we have a receptor for television in our brains," he writes. Into that receptor George W. Bush poured vials of fear.

The Bush administration’s propaganda campaign for war with Iraq could not have been put over in print because "the parts of the human brain that are central to the reasoning process are continually activated by the very act of reading words"; the selling of an unnecessary war needed the fear-inducing "vividness" of TV, which can "trigger instinctual responses similar to those triggered by reality itself—and without being modulated by logic, reason, and reflective thought." Bush terrorized the American public into war with lies about Iraq’s nuclear threat to America. For this reason, "George W. Bush reminds me more of Nixon than any other president."  The Nixon who once said: "People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true."

Gore weaves science, history, and philosophy into his assault on Bush’s assault on reason. Fresh insights result. For example: "Bush’s view of policies in the context of a fateful spiritual conflict between good and evil does not really represent Christian doctrine," he notes. " It actually more closely resembles an ancient Christian heresy called Manichaeism—rejected by Christianity more than a thousand years ago—that sought to divide all of reality into …absolute good and absolute evil."

Gore quotes James Madison’s warning that "a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction," adding: "Now with the radical Right, we have a political faction disguised as a religious sect, and the president of the United States is heading it." Unfortunately, a fog of prolixity and repetition often muffles such trenchant bursts.

Rather than detail additional counts of his comprehensive and unanswerable indictment, let’s end with Al Gore, visionary statesman.

Over the Bush-darkened horizon, he sees the opportunity to forge "a new agenda for national and global security." The environmental crisis, the "looming water crisis," the "global challenge presented by terrorism," the threat of new pandemics … these all represent to Gore

one of those precious few moments in all of human history when we have a chance to cause the change we wish to see in the world—by seeking common agreement to openly recognize a powerful new truth that has been growing just beneath the surface of every human heart: It is time to change the nature of the way we live together on this planet… We have everything we need—save perhaps political will. And in our democracy, political will is a renewable resource.

But in television’s empire of fear—where 70% supported the invasion of Iraq, where nearly half still believe Saddam played a role in 9/11, where a man "unfit to run a hardware store," in Philip Roth’s words, was reelected president in 2004—don’t bet on it.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In