04 May 2012

Plutocracy + Mediacracy = Bipolarchy?

In the lead article of this month's American Conservative publisher Ron Unz challenges readers' complacency regarding the superiority of the U.S. political system to China's. From noting greater responsiveness to public opinion than Chinese leaders are usually given credit for to observing that China's political class consists mostly of engineers and thus know how to build things, Unz wants readers to stop taking automatic American superiority for granted. He also wants them to take American decline seriously. He blames it on a decline in democracy as the U.S. becomes something closer to a one-party state despite the persistence of superficial competition.

When times are hard and government policies are widely unpopular, but voters are only offered a choice between the rival slick marketing campaigns of Coke and Pepsi, cynicism can reach extreme proportions....But if our government policies are so broadly unpopular, why are we unable to change them through the sacred power of the vote? The answer is that America's system of government has increasingly morphed from being a representative democracy to becoming something closer to a mixture of plutocracy and mediacracy, with elections almost entirely determined by money and media, not necessarily in that order. Political leaders are made or broken depending on whether they receive the cash and visibility needed to win office.

"Mediacracy" emerges as Unz's particular target. He is one conservative unconvinced by partisan denunciations of "liberal media." For him, it's the media's for-profit nature that keeps it from playing its proper role in a democratic society. He presents the news media's under-reporting (by his standard) of the Vioxx recall and the drug's possible linkage to thousands of fatalities, compared to what he describes as the American media's hysterical coverage of the Chinese tainted-milk scandal, as a prime example of the corporate media's abdication of responsibility -- a failure blamed implicitly on the news network's desire to retain the Merck pharmaceutical company as a major advertiser. He concludes:

A media and academy that are highly corrupt or dishonest constitute a deadly national peril. And although the political leadership in China might dearly wish to hide all its major mistakes, its crude propaganda machinery often fails at this self-destructive task. But America's own societal information system is vastly more skilled in shaping reality to meet the needs of business and government leaders, and this very success does tremendous damage to our country.

Proposing a remedy to the problem of mediacracy might challenge the readers and editors of an ostensibly "conservative" magazine even more, since the only alternative to moral suasion (e.g. "Don't be evil") is greater state regulation or direction of the media. But at least Unz recognizes that unless something changes, "the torch of human progress and world leadership will inevitably pass into Chinese hands." It's nice to be reminded that some self-styled conservatives actually believe in progress -- but that always depends on what you want to conserve. That's a reason to judge people like Unz by what they actually say instead of by the labels they wear, even those they choose themselves.

No comments: