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Sunday, January 09, 2022

Presidential communication

On January 6 in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, President Joe Biden gave the  most remarkable speech of his career, commemorating the insurrection of a year ago and condemning Donald Trump's continuing claims of a stolen election.   Like Lincoln's first inaugural and his Gettysburg Address, and like any number of FDR's speeches just before and during the Second World War, the speech dealt above all with a great threat to democracy and the need to preserve it.  Here was Lincoln on March 4, 1861:

"Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."

Nearly three years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln restated the aim of the war: to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Throughout his first two terms Franklin Roosevelt boasted that the United States was proving that democracy could deal effectively with the Depression, and in his third inaugural in January 1941 he insisted that democracy was still the wave of the future worldwide:

"No, democracy is not dying.

"We know it because we have seen it revive—and grow.

"We know it cannot die—because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise—an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free expression of a free majority.

"We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will.

"We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life.

"We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still spreading on every continent—for it is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society."

President Biden struck a similar note:

"Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history.

"Both at home and abroad, we’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and self- — the self-seeking autocrat. 

"From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered.  They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world.

"And they’re betting — they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us.  They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.

"I do not believe that.  That is not who we are.  That is not who we have ever been.  And that is not who we should ever, ever be."

The rest of Biden's speech, which I urge you all to read in full, fully recognized the extent of the threat to democracy posed by the continuing popularity of Donald Trump--whose name he never mentioned--and the steps Republicans are taking to allow them to alter the results of fair and free elections.  And like the speeches of FDR and Lincoln, it seemed to proclaim a readiness to take whatever steps might be necessary during the next three years to meet that threat. 

Biden, however, labors under an enormous handicap compared to these two great predecessors.  For reasons having very little to do with his personality or ability, his speech did not have 1/10 the impact of theirs, because of changes in the media and the nature of public opinion in the nation that he is trying to hold together.

Virtually every newspaper in the nation in 1861 and most of them in 1863, it is safe to say, printed the full text of Lincoln's inaugural and of the Gettysburg address, and their readers read them because they had little else to do with their free time, and because they, too, were focused on the secession of the South and the war the nation was fighting to try to end it.  Roosevelt's 1941 inaugural was also printed in the nation's leading newspapers in full and broadcast on the radio as well.   In the administration of Harry Truman the president added television to his arsenal of communication weapons, and the televised evening address became the primary means of presidential communication under Nixon.  The extraordinary events of the twentieth century, both abroad and at home, gave the average citizen an sense of investment in the doings of the government, led by the chief executive, and George W. Bush took advantage of that legacy after 9/11--but he used it to set the United States on a disastrous course.  Now the tradition of a generally high level of interest in the president's thoughts and actions seems to be nearly dead.

I did not see President Biden deliver his address. Major networks carried it in full, but he delivered it during the day, when most of us--even writers like myself--were working.  The New York Times, to its great credit, carried it in full, and when I decided to post it on my one social media outlet I found the text on the White House web site, where I linked it above.  I feel confident that a much smaller portion of the population heard or read it than in past eras of crisis.  The White House has already removed the link from its main page, and our attention is now back on the COVID epidemic.  

President Trump, alas, did find a way to command the nation's attention effectively: by tweeting.  His outrageous tweets repeatedly became front page news and the focus of television news stories--just as social media in general have eclipsed newspapers, either in print or online, as the focus of the attention of so many millions of Americans.  Information has become a commodity in the 21st century, and some kinds of information draw more viewers or listeners than others.  We saw a preview of this half a century ago in the first era of television advertising, which featured sound bites and images chosen to arouse emotion, rather than encourage thought.  The tweet  has now replaced the speech or the monthly newsletter as the means by which Senators and Congressmen try to communicate with their constituents.  For the second year in a row, and the second time since 1934, there will be no State of the Union address in January during the week after Congress reconvenes for its second full session.  

Because so many millions of us spend more time with our favorite cable news network, podcasts, or social media platform than we do listening to or reading the words of any elected official, around 40% of the population really does not care what President Biden says--they are Republicans who have written him off.  Nor does he command the kind of loyalty that popular Republican or Democratic presidents have among their own troops--and he has not found a way to secure it.  Regular readers know that I trace the collapse of our politics to the failure of the government to unite us behind some successful foreign or domestic enterprise over the last two decades.  Yet I also wonder whether effective democracy depended on an educated population which, for whatever reason, took the workings of its institutions seriously and took the time necessary to understand what they were doing--as well as a press that took the time to let them know in some detail.  Those ingredients are also lacking, and democracy might not survive without them.

4 comments:

Bozon said...

Professor
Let me put your mind at rest.
No worries about democracy not surviving, on this score:

"...Yet I also wonder whether effective democracy depended on an educated population which, for whatever reason, took the workings of its institutions seriously and took the time necessary to understand what they were doing--as well as a press that took the time to let them know in some detail. Those ingredients are also lacking, and democracy might not survive without them..." DK

Democracy never was based on these, or on intellectuals, however one defines them; least of all on a free and quite unfettered and shamelessly factional and ideological press.

It really never depended on them (in fact on the opposite), and can survive perfectly well without them, all other things on the political horizon being equal(which they never ever are).

Have no fear.

All the best

Energyflow said...

"The medium is the message". I read that Joe Rogan eclipses by far all other news, having 190 million downloads per month. Various influencers have several hundred million followers on instagram. Youtube, I have found is a great form of independent research or journalism on any topic. Tip O' Neill said famously " All politics is local". In new age esoteric talk they say " as above, so below". Events and issues mirror themselves at all levels. The country started small, like all countries, and has had a momentum sustaining its growth and its centralization of power. Centripetal forces however often threaten centrifugal ones, hoping tounwind what many see as inefficient, corrupt, unwieldy structures of state, without attention to the individual needs. A country of two million, mostly rural with local governance has become hundreds of times more populous and complicated in technology, bureaucracy. We have seen how in Europe, in our lifetimes, a centralized bureaucracy has grown self important above the needs of the various peoples, who, due to millenial lasting cultural differences and the lack of a centralized military are rightly and effectively rebelling against usurpation of local autonomy. In China a common ethnicity, language and geographic isolation have led in a similar direction to that of the USA. I suspect a similar outcome in America due to these factors in the long term as in China. States rights and a federation were accepted in the first 80 years of the republic. This constitutional interpretation was overcome by military force. FDR further utilized such national unity to make America a juggernaut, much as cenntralized France under Napoleon or unified Germany in the 19th century. Once centralization is acheived, patriotism becomes its own goal. In the first generations one remains a zealot in this respect, as are many religious converts. Americans conquered themselves in civil war and then the world, now they continue to seek enemies to destroy to justify their identity, a virgin continent peopled by many. This is an obvious threat to older, more settled peoples. America' s power and promise must be integrated into the global culture in a balanced manner long term. Raytheon lobbyists, WaPo, etc cannot dictate global reality. People llose all interest where they have no influence. No taxation without representation is the catchword. Better to opt out if the system is fixed beforehand by the banks, military, apparatchik in the background. I read that social media sales could replace big platforms like Amazon and Joe Rogan the likes of CNN and Fox. If being cancelled for having an unpopular opinion on social media is not autocratic then what is? Every time the word " regime" is used in the MSM it is clear that arbitrary definitions are being used by people with an agenda based on hidden motives. An oil field is discovered for example by our previous good friend in dictatorship " X" and suddenly longstanding evil regime must be toppled due to repression. We came , we saw, we killed to quote a former presidential candidate. People who live in glass houses should not throw rocks.

Energyflow said...

continued
Tens of thousands torched our cities in riots in 2020 with few arrests. Later a few rag tag protestors storm the capitol and this is made into a cause celebré. The MSM , FBI, CIA are biased towards the left leaning urban democratic base. Russiagate was an internal color revolution cooked up out of thin air. Trump was and remains an incompetent ass. However in a system of conformity( extreme case of North Korea or even Japan) it takes a nonconformist to even discuss obvious problems. In earlier days one would not tell a patient of their cancer, letting them die, as there was no hope. If Trump is not there then Musk or Rogan will speak the truth. It gains them popularity to laugh at hidebound apparatchik living in a self referencing bubble. Why else does everyone ignore a doddering near octogenarian place holder for TPTB in Pennsylvania Avenue. Brezhnev in the late 70s is the classic example. 50 years of zero net income gains for the masses compared to all wealth going to the top is the real world. Opioid deaths, lowest job market participation rates in decades and massive fertility decline and soon absolute population decline stand before us. Repeating old mantras from grade school text books which died at Kennedy's murder and endless CIA shenanigans in the 70s brings us no further. Greenspan' s put started in 1987, Reagan destroyed unions starting with air traffic controllers. Nixon made the USD into fiat monopoly money in 1971. The statue has feet of clay. Mene mene tekel.

Bozon said...

Professor

This passage is emblematic:
"Here was Lincoln on March 4, 1861:

"Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left." Dk

Anarchism is far from secessionism.
Lincoln was a not very good sophist lawyer.

I have seldom read so much nonsensical drivel disguised as political exegesis in my life.

The best place to look for the "real" Lincoln is in the 1850s Lincoln Douglas Debates, The Unexpurgated text, by harold Holzer, taken from both parties' dueling contemporary newspapers.

All the best