I still haven’t adjusted, I must confess. Watching President Trump do “Trumpy” things, I feel like a man at sea who lost his country. The broad cultural parameters of a political community I am proud to be part of seem to be unraveling.
I can’t say I didn’t see the Trump phenomenon coming. I study politics for a living.
There were signs — skyrocketing economic inequality, decades of declining standards of living and more. Somehow, I assumed America’s middle and working classes had largely learned to live with the diminished prospects. Not that I wished it.
Although President Trump is not the response I hoped for, on an emotional level, watching him offers some satisfaction. The small sense of glee I get seeing a political establishment that has grown out of touch getting its comeuppance. The way, at least rhetorically, Trump is willing to violate assumptions that protect special interests; and also, standards of political correctness that limit American’s view of political leadership to the special few only. But the joke is on me, I realize, as the costs of the Trump agenda in human terms are likely to be staggering.
Perhaps the cruelest twist of all in the Trump strategy is the way he gets the support of working-class Americans, his base, for an agenda that largely benefits wealthy interests, and the way he exploits race in the process (not just rhetorically, but also in policy), which is so damaging.
The response to the modern reality that I had hoped for is a populist politics of the left-wing, not the reactionary right-wing kind practiced by President Trump. Left-wing populism has been described as radical republicanism and includes among its practitioners American political figures from the past, such as Thomas Jefferson and Booker T. Washington. The tradition is an orphan to both parties in American politics today, even though one, the Republican Party, takes it as a namesake. Teddy Roosevelt, the trust buster, was perhaps the last left-wing populist in the party’s history, but that might be a stretch.
Frankly, I dismissed the possibility of this political tradition becoming a reality in our time. As someone who believes in an inclusive (not intolerant) tradition of strong community as the foundation for democracy (i.e., radical republicanism), what I take from President Trump is the hope that a new politics is possible.
In this quest for a new politics, an important insight from the Trump playbook bears mentioning. It has to do with a media that has grown out of touch and that leaves "the people" vulnerable. Citizens are charged with the great responsibility: figure out the best thing to do to help build a shared future, then vote accordingly. Modern media practices — namely, the media’s commitment to superficial notions of objectivity — leave citizens less capable of holding those who would lead them accountable than practices reflecting ideas that make people who they are as members of a community. The dynamic is counterintuitive, I know.
This insight about the media is based on a specific understanding of democratic politics. One that treats communities with their media organizations as organic cultural whole systems, or political cultures, with traditions that are worth preserving. The commitment recasts the role of the media from watchdog to skillful public advocate, one that doesn’t necessarily ask whether a story accurately reflects what is going on, but rather whether the media helps people make sense of events that challenge who they are as members of a community in the context of a future that is always unfolding.
Meaningful interpretive frames that reflect the people’s basic commitments — biases even of the kind that are supposed to be provided by mediating institutions (including media organizations) — are key to the successful functioning of democratic societies. They help create a shared consensus among community members. The consensus, in turn, makes it harder for political figures to deceive the public, should they try, by saying one thing during an election to gain the support of voters and then doing something different when it comes to governing, or by making wild claims about the future that are inconsistent or unrealistic within the context of shared norms and institutions.
The media cannot represent a people it does not understand. The people will turn their backs and undermine their own capacity to hold accountable those who would lead them.
Americans want and need a new politics, and media organizations play an important role in its founding. The media should drop its superficial pretense to objectivity and take up its role as a mediating institution in the great American tradition of radical republicanism.
The comments expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of Huston-Tillotson University.
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