Whether in politics or daily life, humans make decisions based less on a rational analysis of a situation than internal psychological drives and emotions. This does not mean humans are not rational, only that rationality exists within a framework defined by a set of beliefs and desires which are not rationally chosen but have been acquired. A snow boarder might rationally practice and train to win a race, but the desire to snow board itself and undertake the particular risks of that sport cannot come from rational reflection alone, or from an innate quality of the person.
Sigmund Freud, in introducing the concept of the subconscious, had a profound impact on how we study and understand both politics and the media. Liberal democracies were founded on the idea that citizens should have a role in making decisions. The existence and power of the subconscious reinforces Thomas Hobbes’ concerns about democracy, namely that the passions of the people, unleashed, could cause ungovernability. It also brings to mind Montesquieu’s story of the Troglodytes. In a Republic prosperity and stability can give way to greed, selfishness and avarice. People become lazy, apathetic, and thus lose their virtue. This leads to corruption in government and ultimately a desire for renewed despotism. For Montesquieu this is the danger for republics.
Simply, western enlightenment ideals of rational governance are confounded by the existence of the subconscious, and the desires/drives of what Freud called the “id.” Democratic theorists have tackled this problem by focusing on the role of the Democratic process to mitigate the impact of human nature in order to try to develop a secular, rational approach to politics. Corresponding to what Max Weber called Entzauberung (disenchantment), or the positing of a secular world view above the traditional/religious notion of how the world works, traditions slowly were replaced by institutions designed to operate with legal/rational legitimacy. Though individuals may give in to greed, avarice and emotion, institutions set up with proper rules and procedures can presumably overcome that and provide rational governance.
Faith in this sort of approach was called into question by a Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Marx’s theory of Communism was an enlightenment project at its core – a theory using reason to unravel the laws of history and chart a path towards what Marx believed would be human liberation. The rise of fascism in Italy puzzled Gramsci, who recognized that rational self-interest was not guiding the masses, but rather they were being manipulated into believing the hegemonic fascist discourse. Culture and psychology can matter as much if not more than economic structures. During and after WWII the Frankfurt school wrestled with the question of why Germany, the land of poets of philosophers, could embrace an anti-rational anti-intellectual ideology such as Nazism. Adorno and Horkheimer pointed both to the history of myth, and the modern culture industry to show the flaws of enlightenment thought. Tradition not only provides political legitimacy and creates social norms to reign in possible negative effects of human nature, it also provides a story of reality which gives people meaning. Culture in that sense does more than help a polity function properly; it also gives people life meanings, which in turn create what people perceive as self-interest, personal preferences, ambitions, etc. Pure rationality or enlightenment ideology cannot do that, it only provides a tool to determine actions once interests and preferences are socially/culturally acquired.
In traditional societies, meanings and culture are transmitted through family and community. Modern societies see those forms of cultural socialization weakened in favor of mass media. Just as the printing press helped spread ideas that fueled the reformation, modern media creates narratives that shape how people view their world and understand who they are, what they want, and how they should think. Humans are prone to suggestion; hypnotists use this to get people to perceive their reality differently, want different things and engage in behaviors they normally would not. Socialization into a culture is really a process of creating suggestions from an early age to yield a person with a particular world view and set of values. Mass media of all sorts provide a constant bombardment of suggestions to people from a very early age, making the media a primary shaper of modern culture – and therefore how people understand their world and define their own preferences and values.
Perhaps the most consequential aspect of modernism, beyond its ability to provide material well being, is the way traditional socialization has shifted to become a function of the mass media. Perhaps the greatest illusion of modernism is the belief that once freed of tradition humans would then be liberated – that reason would guide autonomous action and self-actualization. If socialization and core values get passed to people from various forms of mass media, then it’s really just a change in the source of socialization. If the media is controlled by a single entity, like the Communist or Nazi party, the result is totalitarianism, understood as an attempt by the state to control every aspect of society, to socialize people to a particular world view.
In open societies, disagreement and contestation is supposed to lead to better decisions. This is the “market place of ideas,” and people can compare claims with reality (cite). Yet, that assumes rational, engaged citizens looking at reality with an unbiased lens. Such citizens do not exist. Bias permeates all of society, as people learn to see reality through image, emotion and cultural beliefs. Advertisers understand this. You can use bias to appeal to emotion over reason.
In his classic The Selling of the President Joe McGinnis quoted Nixon campaign consultant Raymond Price: ” ‘Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we’re talking about…,’ Price wrote. ‘Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand…When we argue with him we demand that he make the effort of replying. We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.'”
The hard part is stepping back and wondering how much of how we think is just a result of buying into the cultural “conventional wisdoms” of the day? How much are we programmed by society? How much of who we are depends on where we were born (determining religion, traditions, food preferences, etc.) and when we were born? What kind of man would I be if I had been born in Cairo, or in 1648? And, if media is a major source for constructing our identities and sense of meaning, who controls the media? What are their interests?
It seems to me that a lot of people concerned about freedom and liberty are so focused on the government as a potential denier of freedom, that they don’t see the influence of the media on the very way they think. So focused on overt control and constraint, people miss the powerful way subtle suggestions shape who we are and what we believe. Moreover, whether it be the selling of Barack Obama, or FOX new’s efforts to push a “tea party” movement, how much of our politics is shaped by myth rather than reason? Could this be what ultimately puts our Republic in danger — not the “id” and human nature’s dark side, but our ability to be manipulated by the media?