For over a decade, I have been plagued by different versions of the same question: Why aren’t more people outraged?
This question originally arose for me when I learned that the United States was torturing people, and it seemed that nobody cared. Even worse, it seemed a lot of people were actually getting off on it. How could that be? In the United States of America, how could that be?
I was asked to write an article on the collapse of the progressive movement, which brought me to my reality television project that investigated ways in which corporate-produced “popular” culture instills in people anti-democratic attitudes. My article, “Real Housewives and the Decline of Civic Virtue” (2011) began as follows:
Why has support for progressive politics seemingly collapsed? While there are clearly many reasons, this essay focuses on the role commercial culture plays in the production of anti-progressive, anti-republican values. Using the “Real Housewives” franchise as an example, I argue that trash television shows undermine the possibility of collective action and government for the common good, by encouraging selfishness, glorifying wealth and status, and exacerbating in people feelings of superiority over and resentment towards others – sentiments more appropriate for an aristocratic hierarchy or corporate oligarchy than for an egalitarian republic. The more such sentiments spread through the population, the easier it is for right-wing forces to dismantle programs that benefit the public at large.
Yet while reality television and other “popular” cultural products do stimulate anti-democratic sentiments, that is not what really needs explanation. Being anti-democratic is easy. Indeed, it may be the default position. What really needs explanation is why people ever embrace democratic values in the first place. Indeed, democratic self-government is the exception, not the rule.
Democracy cannot exist without civic institutions and a civic culture.
This brings me to Donald Trump and my latest version of the same old question: How can anybody, much less the white working class, support Donald Trump? Trump supporters are worse than anti-democratic. They are racist. They are violent. They are fascist.
When I was in graduate school, one of my professors used to say that it was precisely the mediocrity of the American political system — its slowness to act, its proneness to gridlock, its push towards centrism — that prevented the rise of grand ideologies, such as Communism and Fascism. The supposed virtue of the two party system is its push towards the center, as each party tries to capture the middle of the bell curve of public opinion.
But we don’t have that push to the middle anymore. Instead, we have a two party system that polarizes the population, egged on by the corporate-owned media that thrives on conflict.
When I was growing up, less than half a century ago, we had a more civic culture. During the Cold War, the schools taught civics, which at my high school was really a course on anti-Communism and the greatness of American democracy, but still. We were taught that voting is a civic duty that people died to defend. We were taught the value of freedom of speech and the “loyal opposition.” We were taught that we could disagree without being disagreeable or disrespectful. We were taught to respect the office of the President, even if we disagreed with him.
But now that’s all gone. Our civic culture has withered. We don’t teach civics in high school anymore. We have one political party that wants to prevent people from voting. We impugn the character of those who hold dissenting opinions. We indulge in incivility. We even demean and heckle the President of the United States and spread lies about his motivations and character. We question his patriotism and even his citizenship.
In that context, is it any surprise that Donald Trump and his supporters openly demean people, spew hatred towards minorities, advocate violence, and hope for the creation of a massive police state?