November 27, 2004

Understanding America

I've got a new essay in the works. The absolutely poor performance of the international media in explaining what goes on in the US is not only risible, it's dangerous. If there was some sort of kit that could be passed along directly, bypassing international media filters, the danger of serious misunderstanding could be ameliorated. So here's a rough draft:

The USA is a country of vast importance in today's world but it is also misunderstood by so many. There are a great deal of parties who are either interested in telling a distorted picture of the US or who are utterly incapable of providing enough or the proper kind of information to provide people with the tools to properly predict what the US will do. If the world is surprised by Lesotho or Burundi, it will easily recover, misunderstanding the most powerful military power, a huge political, economic, and social influence on the world is a great deal more serious.

The US is a democratic republic based upon two parties and five political traditions. The traditions endure far better than the parties and move between the parties, influencing their political platforms. If you do not understand what are the five political traditions and only take in information from one or a few of them, the US will always surprise. For those who are unfamiliar with them, the five traditions are Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Madisonian, Wilsonian, and Jacksonian.

The US is a revolutionary country whose revolutionaries were essentially conservative. This fact of history is especially important today. When challenged, the conservative strain in any country goes back to the founding principles of the nation. For the US, such challenges turn conservatives into a very unusual sort of radical. This unusual political circumstance is generally a footnote in American history. Existential challenges are rare and has happened only twice in the US' history, in the formation of the Republican party and its ascent to power under Lincoln and today in George W Bush's administration with it's War on Terrorism.

Mass media in the US is configured in a very unusual way. Following a decades long period (starting in the 1930s) of center-left dominance, traditional media was predominantly center-left. This led to the center-right having their story told largely by hostile voices, a situation which led the center-right to create it's own counter-institutions in new media outlets of newsmagazines and journals of opinion as well as in dying media backwaters such as AM radio. The international visibility of center-left dominated media is much higher than that of the center-right media for two reasons. First, the center-right has tended to be more concerned with reversing center-left dominance at home than winning converts abroad. Second, the powerful force of AM talk radio programs are technologically unsuited to reach far and only the very few most popular programs are rebroadcast abroad, mostly on armed forces radio and mostly without the benefit of caller feedback which is a large part of what makes such programs so powerful.

The new media construct called the blogosphere is also being used in different ways by the left and the right, ways which directly influence popular opinion in the US. This influence is twofold. First popular blogs are being read directly, influencing political opinion. Second, larger media figures are picking up predigested news stories from the blogs and using them as news, fact checking, and commentary arms. This sort of use is not always attributed and some of the oddest moments in US mainstream media these days come from journalists answering blog charges without ever acknowledging their opposition's existence, a phenomenon that dates back to before the blogosphere when Matt Drudge's Drudge Report website and Rush Limbaugh's EIB radio program suffered this cordon sanitaire for years.

If you (outside the US) depend on getting information about the US from news sources who maintain their own cordon sanitaire and do not read, listen, or react to the alternative media structures of the US center-right, you will be laughably misinformed, even dangerously uninformed, though you do your part and consume your national news media voraciously. Far too many foreigners seem dangerously uninformed about american realities.

If you woke up and neither you, nor anybody you knew, could explain why George W Bush was reelected, it's a strong warning sign. If everybody was depressed over how such a bad man could have possibly been elected, this is a dangerous warning sign that you and your set have not gotten enough information to even come close to predicting the US. It's not a problem of you disagreeing with the US electorate. Diversity is the spice of life. It is that those whose opinions were different were invisible to you and when they made their force felt at the ballot box, you were shocked by their very existence. Your news media had an absolute duty to explain these people to you and they failed to do so. That failure is just one data point in a very busy graph.

Posted by TMLutas at November 27, 2004 01:40 PM