Ideals, the Communications Revolution, and Consumerism

Once I’d spent time as a political staffer and then as an administration appointee in the federal government, it became more than clear to me that, for the most part, what passes for leadership in the federal government is nothing of the sort. It’s more like followership.

Even the Founding Fathers were responding to their background and education, but that wasn’t entirely bad because they at least knew history and had thought over what government did well and what it did poorly, and they also, as best they could, tried to craft a governmental structure they hoped would survive despite human greed, stupidity, and unbridled ambition. In doing so, they only had to hammer things out between themselves, and even that was dicey.

Also, they didn’t have to deal with the continuous pressure of public opinion and pressure created by the modern electronic media. Yes, there were totally scurrilous newspapers, and false and misleading broadsheets, but it took time, effort, and money to use them, at a time when money was limited, and when writing letters was severely limited by lack of time, money, and education.

Government was limited, by funds and the necessity of the times, to more basic aspects of governance, such as a system of laws, national defense, trade and foreign policy, including tariffs, and providing an overarching structure for often squabbling states.

Today, anyone who wants to know can find out what happened in government within hours, if not minutes, and can make their feelings known. Part of the great communications revolution we’ve undergone in the last generation means that media pundits and media idiots can frame issues and positions and broadcast them everywhere, drowning out more thoughtful voices, simply because, in our world, nothing is as simple as it seems, and simple appeals to people more than thoughtful, because thoughtful considerations of volatile issues usually require more complexity and time for reflection and analysis.

On top of that is that as technology has advanced, human abilities have increased, and that means that any action has more repercussions than in a simpler society. Those repercussions can’t always be foreseen, and even when they are most people who don’t like the forecast oppose any action to mitigate future problems. That means society and government become more and more reactive because it’s difficult to get a consensus to act until after the problems surface, and while government is dealing with the old problems, advancing technology is creating more.

Then add in the fact that the United States has become a consumer nation. Everything is a consumer good. News certainly is; it’s become entertainment for ratings, pandering to the views of various segments of the population, with fewer and fewer real facts.

A college education isn’t about learning to consider and think; it’s considered a vocational passport to a higher-paying job. Most college students, no matter what they say, think of education as an entitlement, and one that they deserve in order to get into a higher paying job or, sometimes, into the profession they want to enter, whether they’re qualified or not. This also means that a great number of supposedly educated people can’t or won’t really think. But all the communications technology and systems we have allow them to bombard their elected representatives with their views… and heaven help the representative who disagrees with the majority of his or her constituents, even if what they believe is at odds with the facts.

Today, a great many “idealistic” issues aren’t about ideals at all. They’re about political promises of goods and services, and there’s little substantive or realistic discussion about how to actually pay for and implement such promises.

Healthcare for everyone? It can’t exist. What they really mean is a certain level of basic medical care for everyone, that level being decided by the system, because potential healthcare costs are unlimited. For those who have effectively no healthcare, it’s a great improvement. Everyone else will pay, one way or another. Those who are wealthy, regardless, will have more. Is any politician really saying this? Hell, no. They’d be crucified.

Free college isn’t about education, it’s about a good. If you want better college education, limit admission to the top 20% of students [after finding a way to eliminate wealth/family structure bias] and make it free for all of that group. But that won’t happen because it will be viewed as discrimination. Instead, all the liberals are clamoring to give higher education to everyone who wants it, even though it can’t work financially.

At the same time, there’s very little discussion about supporting training in practical computer use, electronics, electrical work, heating and air conditioning, and all the skilled trades and fields that require specialized training (and often pay more than “college-educated” fields). Who is actually addressing this shortage?

Maybe the best way to address all this would be to ban all media news programs and political commentary, and limit the airwaves and the internet to either pure entertainment or verified facts, but that’s a “solution” worse than the problem, besides which, then people would find a way around that as well, most likely using verified facts in misleading ways.

So… I really don’t see any true leadership, not so long as the media and social climate reward followership more than realistic leadership, and government is regarded more and more as a provider of goods and services rather than a structure setting the rules for others to provide the goods and services.

3 thoughts on “Ideals, the Communications Revolution, and Consumerism”

  1. Tom says:

    But perhaps the problem is … us.

    It appears that Thomas L. Friedman concurs with at least some of your opinion.

    What interested me was his concurrence with Heather McGowan’s proposed solution to our problem in dealing with the frenetic world we live in.

    …. In today’s digital information age, “you have multiple changes in the nature of work within a generation,” McGowan says. This dramatically increases the need for lifelong learning. “The old model was that you learned once in order to work, and now we must work in order to learn continuously,” she contends. So we’re going from a model of “learn, work, retire” to a model of “learn, work, learn, work, learn, work.” ….

    I have heard many people imply that we have a progressively dumber population. So most of those who are educated seem to think that we can change our voting tendencies through education. Perhaps what they really mean is this concept of lifelong learning.

    This Fourth of July a family member groused about the difficulty in finding 20, 30, 40, (year olds) who were interested in working so that he could find some reliable employees … “They are just not interested in working”! Americans not interested in working?! We have heard this before. May be that would mean that Mr. Friedman’s and Heather McGowan’s solution for what ails the USA cannot succeed. Or the leadership from where-ever should concentrate on instilling in our citizens this lifelong learning characteristic (which I always thought to be part of the American character).

  2. Daze says:

    Charles Handy, in The Empty Raincoat (1995), talked about the death of the 40,000 hour career, and envisaged the need for multiple careers in any one person’s life – what I just yesterday heard my daughter refer to as ‘multi-hyphenated’, as in ‘I’m a photographer-painter & decorator-musician’. It does follow, I think, unless one of the hyphens is always shelf-stacker or ‘do you want fries with that?’, that you need to keep learning new hyphens to add to your CV.

  3. Hanneke says:

    There was an article in The Atlantic recently ( about research in Italy showing a clear correllation betwee the rise of the consumption of entertainment tv promoting a populist, and the increase of people voting for a populist.
    The populist “consistently “adopted a much simpler communication style than other parties and leaders.” As a result, he performed much better among less educated citizens.”
    After two decades of unfulfilled promises by Berlusconi (the original populist promoted by his entertainment tv company Mediaset), his disappointed voters finally turned to someone who was equally populist, and communicated equally simplistically, though not promoted on Berlusconi’s tv imperium.
    The article concludes:
    “Since Mediaset never hyped Grillo in the way it had Berlusconi, direct propaganda can’t explain the voting pattern. Perhaps, though, Mediaset had primed viewers to prefer simplistic, populist appeals. Here, then, is evidence that low-quality television can coarsen political discourse —and favor populist movements— even decades after it is first introduced.”

    That being constantly exposed to populist rhetoric might in the end influence people to start believing the rhetoric does seem a believable scenario to me – after all, a lot of advertising and campaigning is based on that. And that it would prime people to accept that kind of rhetoric, and those kinds of simplistic solutions and unrealistic promises, even from a competing source, seems quite humanly possible.

    This correllates with stories I hear from the USA, where children whose parents moved to the south talk about how constantly listening to people like Rush Limbough on talk radio, and watching a lot of Fox News, changed their parents’ viewpoints and voting behaviour out of all recognition, and (in their view) radicalised them.

    I do not see enough evidence for the other conclusion in the article, that excessive consumption of entertainment tv lessens the cognitive skills (of young people? The 2 groups mentioned are children below 10 years of age, and Italian army conscripts, both of whom watched a lot of entertainment tv), and that this played a part in making young people more likely to vote for a populist who promises unrealistically simple solutions.
    I personally don’t think that listening to populists and entertainment tv makes you stupid, but I do think it can prime your mind to prefer simple and quick solutions, black-and-white dichotomies, rather than complicated shades-of-gray reasoning.

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