Can the camera do democracy?

by Ryan Rafaty

A recent article in POLITICO considers the commonplace complaints about low-quality political discourse on Twitter and social media—the “trolls, flame wars and the lack of nuance inherent in 140-character statements”—and arrives at a possible culprit: it’s us. We’re the problem. “We say that we want more civil, thoughtful dialogue. But do we really?”

The author, Emily Parker, is a former chief strategy officer at Parlio, an online platform whose chief purpose is to host “civil, thoughtful discussions” as an alternative to the spitfire and twaddle of anonymous hate speech and truncated conversation. Parlio succeeded in building a small community of engaged readers, but in the process Parker grew disenchanted and took home a few cynical lessons: “we’re addicted to the promise of going viral”; “thoughtful engagement takes too much time”; “civility can be boring”.

“You could write something *very* similar about cable news”, responded Chris Hayes, MSNBC host, on Twitter.

Hayes’s comment invites reflection, not least because he is one of the few cable news hosts who has tried time and again to transcend the typical limits of prime time. From his reporting on unemployment and economic decline in the oft-forgotten towns of Appalachia, to his Emmy-winning reporting on the changing face of poverty in America, Hayes knows a thing or two about thoughtfully engaging those whom the ratings-driven media, with snooty precision, routinely excludes from scheduled programming to make way for product placements and the pontifications of the well-adjusted. Last month, Hayes hosted a remarkable hour-long town hall meeting in Kenosha, Wisconsin with Bernie Sanders, a panel of outspoken Trump voters, and an audience ostensibly mixed of all political persuasions. It was the kind of cable news event with highly intermittent moments of bankable content, in between drawn out segments of messy, back-and-forth opining and debate; the kind of thoughtful engagement that takes ‘too much time’ and is therefore an exception, rather than the rule, of our political news hours.

The video is worth watching. It serves as an example of how the camera can do democracy, if given the chance. It is fascinating to watch Sanders gradually convert several Trump supporters who were remarkably unaware that Republicans, under the guise of ‘saving’ government programmes, have for years been determined to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, or who had not apparently considered that perhaps knowingly voting for a mendacious, shamelessly self-glorifying plutocrat is a degradation of citizenry.

Democracy here in Kenosha is loudmouthed, partisan, and televised in all its dirtiness. Its citizens are on full display, flaws and all, as if it were worth knowing what they say and do. Here we catch a glimpse of what the camera can do for democracy when it’s not following the pecuniary dictates of TV news, which Lewis Lapham aptly described early on in the Trump campaign:

The camera sees but doesn’t think, makes no meaningful distinction between a bubble bath in Santa Monica staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath on a beach in Libya staffed by headless corpses. The return on investment in both instances is the flow of bankable emotion, in unlimited and anonymous amounts, drawn from the dark and bottomless pools of human wish and dream. The cameras following Trump’s political campaign aren’t covering a set or a play of ideas; like flies to death and honey, they’re attracted to the sweet, decaying smell of big-name celebrity. It doesn’t matter what Trump says or doesn’t say, whether he is cute and pink or headless; what matters is that Trump is a profitable return on investment in idols of the marketplace, up there in lights with Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga.

The camera doesn’t do democracy because democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens, and therefore worth the knowing what they say and do. Blind to muddy boots on common ground, the camera gazes adoringly at polished boots on horseback.

Watching Kenosha’s town hall with Hayes, Sanders, and fellow citizens, I think of Lapham’s words and remember all the folks with whom I’ve avoided voicing political disagreements for sake of being ‘pleasant’, for sake of avoiding acrimony with Trump supporters at the dinner table. It wasn’t the fear of voicing my partisanship so much as disinterest in my fellow citizens. If the camera doesn’t do democracy, it’s not from incapacity but from neglect.

About the author

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Ryan Rafaty (PhD, University of Cambridge) is writing a comparative history of political initiatives to mitigate climate change and reduce fossil fuel dependence in the advanced industrial countries.
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