Niall Ferguson’s recent publication of an article attacking Obama in Newsweek generated a lot of useful data on the nature of political thought. Consider, for example, the hundreds of comments left on liberal and conservative political blogs and websites. They’re easy enough to find on Google. On the former, the commenters are typically furious because of their conviction that Ferguson’s article is nothing but a pack of lies, and on the latter they are triumphant because of their conviction that Ferguson not only answered but demolished the charges of deception, and exposed his opponents as the real liars. For the most part, the comments are morally charged, and seem to fully vindicate Jonathan Haidt’s point about the emotional dog with a rational tail. To the extent that any of the commenters attempt to use reason at all, it is to vindicate intuitions about whether Ferguson is “good” or “evil” that are entirely predictable depending on whether they dwell on the right or left of the political spectrum. There are virtually no instances of the apparent use of reason to weigh and balance the evidence before forming an opinion. The more obsessed an individual is with politics, the more predictable his opinions become on any politically loaded issue. If there is any good news in all this, it is that both sides are well-represented in the social media, at least in the United States. The rare individual who is inclined to weigh the evidence on both sides and attempt to formulate an opinion informed by reason at least has easy access to both points of view. The result is a salutary restraint on the ardent partisans of both sides that encourages them to occasionally temper their ideal worldview with doses of reality. If only one point of view were represented, there would be an opposite tendency to replace reality with fantasy.
The German media provides a good example of how this works in practice. As in the U.S., the social media in that country has powerful voices on both the “left” and the “right.” There are pronounced differences among the partisans of both sides, particularly regarding issues of local interest. However, as regards, the U.S., the message from both sides is remarkably similar. This was very evident in the most recent of the periodic eruptions of anti-American hate in Europe that reached its climax during the final years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush Administrations. Coverage of the United States, whether in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the right or Der Spiegel magazine on the left, was uniformly anti-American and quasi-racist. For example, Americans were universally stereotyped as prudish, religious fanatics, gun nuts, etc. Occasionally the bitter attacks on the U.S. took up so much space on Der Spiegel’s website that it was difficult to find any news about Germany. The anti-American wave only subsided when a few people on the other side of the Atlantic began to notice (and be shocked) by what they were seeing. Apparently the big dogs in the German media concluded that, profitable though it undoubtedly was, they would have to tone down what had become blatant hate mongering if they wanted to preserve some chance of continuing to win prestigious international prizes for “objectivity.”
Today things are significantly more subdued although the media still throws a chunk of red meat to the Amerika haters now and then. However, the one-sided nature of the reporting is still the same. Consider, for example, the recent coverage of the Republican National Convention. Whereas, after a brief honeymoon, the Obama Administration is now generally portrayed in the German media as merely ineffectual, the Republicans are decidedly bad guys who are typically described as “radical,” “extreme,” and “crazy.” They are, of course, “racist” as well. Thus, for example, there was heavy coverage of incident in which two unknown individuals threw nuts at a black CNN correspondent and told her that was how they “fed the animals,” but no mention of the seemingly more egregious racism behind the defacing of Republican Mia Love’s Wikipedia entry, and little, if any, notice of the fact that persons of color were prominent speakers at the convention at all.
Paul Ryan is described as an “extremist” in both the “rightist” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (“Ryan is known as a proponent of budget slashing and massive cuts in the area of social welfare”) and the “leftist” Der Spiegel (“Romney’s choice for Vice President has prepared a plan of battle that includes more explosive for America’s democracy than all (Sarah) Palin’s vices – nothing less than a declaration of war on America’s social solidarity”), based on either grossly distorted and one-sided portrayals of his record, or, more commonly, no evidence at all. In spite of the fact that the federal budget proposed by Ryan calls for increased spending every year for the next decade and beyond, he supposedly wants a “skeleton state.” In condemning Ryan, Der Spiegel goes so far as to provide its readers with a fairy tale version of “history” that would never pass the “ho ho” test if there were anyone around with an interest in bothering to challenge it:
Ryan sees himself as a tribune of the people. He likes to quote Ronald Reagan’s remarks to the effect that, if the rich had more, their riches would “trickle down” to the rest of the citizens. The result of this experiment is well known: Reagan had to massively increase taxes in 1982, because the U.S. budget deficit had become gigantic.
In fact, Ryan couldn’t quote Reagan’s remarks about “trickle down” economics, because the term is a straw man used by his enemies. English speakers can easily Google the facts about economics in the Reagan years, and see for themselves that the 1982 tax increase was not “massive” by any reasonable definition of the term, and particularly not when compared with the tax cut of 1981, that it represented a compromise in return for spending cuts, that there was a net overall decline, not increase, in the tax rate during the Reagan years. Furthermore, in spite of tax cuts, as noted by economist M. T. Griffith,
As a result of the Reagan tax cuts, tax payments and the share of income taxes paid by the top 1% climbed sharply. For example, in 1981 the top 1% paid 17.6% of all personal income taxes, but by 1988 their share had jumped to 27.5%, a 10 percentage point increase. The share of the income tax burden borne by the top 10% of taxpayers increased from 48.0% in 1981 to 57.2% in 1988. Meanwhile, the share of income taxes paid by the bottom 50% of taxpayers dropped from 7.5% in 1981 to 5.7% in 1988.
The “gigantic” U.S. budget deficit of 1982 was only about half what it is today as a percent of GDP. The arguments and interpretations of the legacy of the Reagan years continue in the U.S. to this day, with lots of spin on both sides. The point is that the version in the German media is generally a great deal more crudely one-sided than one typically finds in the U.S., even among the most ardent partisans on either side. Only one point of view speaks with a significant voice in the social media. “Fact checking” by the other side is not a concern, because there is no other side, other than a few brave but insignificant bloggers.
The Eastwood speech was another prominent feature of the convention that was portrayed one way by the Right, and an entirely different way by the Left. In Germany, it was portrayed only one way, more or less in lockstep with the version you’re likely to find in the New York Times or Washington Post. Which version you happen to prefer is beside the point. The point is that, on this as on so many other complex issues dealing with the U.S., in Germany, you only get one version, and it’s usually a great deal cruder and tendentious than its equivalent here.
According to Marx, a monopoly of the social means of production in the hands of a single economic class is a bad thing. In practice, it seems to me that a monopoly of the social means of communication on behalf of a single point of view may be a good deal worse. That was the state of affairs that prevailed in the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s. With respect to “news” about the United States, it is a state of affairs that prevails in Germany, and probably a good number of other countries to this day. Where such monopolies exist, formal “freedom of the press” is meaningless. Keep that in mind the next time you feel like whining about Rush Limbaugh, Foxnews, and the many influential U.S. bloggers and websites of the right, or about George Soros, MSNBC, and the many influential U.S. bloggers and websites of the left. As long as both of them exist, it’s a good thing. They keep each other honest.