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November 20, 2015

My daughter’s English class read Jonathan Swift’s satirical classic “A Modest Proposal” and were assigned the task of writing their own satirical proposal for curing a serious social malady.I thought the assignment timely, but a bit tricky.The line between serious and satire in our national political conversation is definitely not as clear as it used to be. The line between comedy and the race for the GOP 2016 presidential nomination appears to have been completely erased.

Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Live appearance included skits that while understood by the SNL cast members as comedy, were nonetheless undistorted representations of Donald Trump’s actual campaign promises. Ted Cruz responded to President Obama’s condemnation of GOP candidate’s calling for the acceptance only of Christian refugees from Syria by daring the president to insult him to his face, followed by challenges to debate the President mano-a-mano on the issue complete with a cartoon depiction of Cruz as a sort of comic book hero in the ring ready to square off with the President.

Looking for serious suggestions about dealing with serious issues like how to combat terrorism and what to do about refugees?The Onion has got you covered.In the wake of the Paris attacks and the controversy over how to deal with Syrian refugees an Onion article from 2011 has resurfaced in social media titled “Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In The Past Before Making Any Big Decisions.”

How did we get here? Why are so many Americans willing to take deeply unserious ideas seriously?

At one level, we know that two groups of Americans have become particularly upset about the direction of the culture. White evangelical Christians and white working class men do not feel that the political or cultural establishment in America represent their values and interests.Bill Galston writes eloquently about the latter group in an excellent Wall Street Journal column out today. It is these two demographics that are presently fueling the two candidates who most personify the know-nothingism that is blurring the line between satire and seriousness, Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

Trump and Carson may be powerful effects of this surreal development, but the causes are much deeper. The causes surely include the replacement of what social scientists call “intermediary institutions” in American life.Noted political scientist Nelson Polsby suggested that strong political parties have served as effective intermediaries, “managing relationships between political leaders and the rest of us.” He also noticed that increasingly the intermediating role of parties was being transferred to the media, interest groups, and even the internet.These new intermediaries perform the role very differently that did political parties. The explosion of both media outlets and interest groups, thanks in part to the internet, has rendered these new intermediary institutions far less effective in aggregating and organizing the ideas, opinions, and interests of Americans in ways that facilitate responsive and responsible democratic government.

Robert Putnam’s iconic study of social capital called “Bowling Alone” argues that Americans no longer enjoy the regular comradery of friends and neighbors as they did in previous eras, leaving people isolated and alienated from their communities.Regular physical contact with friends and neighbors in sports leagues, civic and fraternal organizations, and at community events allowed Americans to develop social and even intellectual skills essential to collective problem solving and civil debate.

The fragmentation of the media in the age of 24/7/365 news coverage has clearly contributed to both the weakening of what political scientists call “parties-in-the-electorate” and to the loss of crucial opportunities to develop social capital. Journalists in 2015 can no longer practice their profession the way it’s taught at journalism schools. Efforts to insure that what is being reported is actually true are a very rare luxury in the hyper-competitive and fragmented media marketplace of 2016. Now journalists have to put a premium on getting it out quickly and packaging it for maximum exposure. The burden of determining what’s true and what’s not has been radically democratized. Now that key role is performed by the consumers of the news, not the producers. This seemingly backward development is best and most concisely expressed by the (in)famous tag line of none other than the Fox News Channel, which proudly proclaims “We report, You Decide.”

In other words, Americans are now encouraged to have both their own opinions AND their own truths; their own facts.This arrangement is a virtual business necessity in a media industry where consumers have way too many choices for media outlets to be able to get away with properly explaining the news. Objective reporting and analysis of issues and events is too risky in such a fragmented marketplace.Success in the present commercial media environment requires “narrowcasting” to a clearly identifiable news consumer demographic.This is the only way media outlets can provide advertisers with reasonable certainty that their products and services will get pitched to receptive audiences.“Knowing your audience” has become even more important in the 21st Century for just about everybody.

While Trump and Carson will eventually lose their fights for the presidency, the frustration and ignorance of the folks they represent isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, unless we can figure out a way to replace the hyper-competitive and highly fragmented commercial media as our primary intermediary institution in American politics.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you what my daughter came up with for her Jonathan Swift-like “modest proposal.” She chose the problem of teen pregnancy and proposed that we encourage homosexuality in children and teen-agers to both reduce teen pregnancy and defuse political conflict over women’s reproductive choices. Luv that kid.

Ted Cruz, Carson, A Modest Proposal, Trump

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