Virginia Tech®home

Political Agency, Personal Responsibility and our Nation’s Governance Crisis

Columnist George Will recently took up the question of whether social media and related forms of technology are to blame for our nation’s often woefully poor, manipulative and indefensibly misleading mass communication patterns and outcomes during the last several years. Here is how he framed the concern:

Many 21st-century Americans are impressed, and distressed, by the supposed power of late-20th-century technologies, especially the Internet and social media, to shape society, and them. Two 19th-century technologies stirred somewhat similar uneasiness: The railroad and the telegraph, which were arguably as socially transformative as digital innovations are said to be, saved the nation from dismemberment, and fertilized the culture of freedom.[1]

Will went on to draw a connection between these communication types and the exercise of political agency, or capacity to act on one’s beliefs and interests and to exercise one’s rights:

Today, the Internet and social media enable instantaneous dissemination of stupidity, thereby creating the sense that there is an increasing quantity of stupidity relative to the population’s size. This might be true, but blame it on animate, hence blameworthy, things — blowhards with big megaphones, incompetent educators, etc. — not technologies. Technologies are giving velocity to stupidity, but are not making people stupid.[2]

Following this exposition, Will noted that such influence does not relieve individuals of responsibility for their choices, however mediated or attenuated by exogenous forces, including systemic discrimination and demagogic lies, nor does that reality augur a need for wholesale government regulation or control of such communication technologies. In the abstract, it is difficult to quibble with either of these propositions, but the proverbial devil inheres in the details. While in principle, individuals cannot and should not be deprived of their agency, in practice, Americans have systematically targeted selected groups with just that aspiration throughout our nation’s history. The most long-lived of such efforts is discrimination in law and social practice against African Americans, including denial of their voting rights, following the Civil War in many states—a national shame that continues de facto under false pretenses in many states today. Our polity also saw fit not to accord the native inhabitants of this continent a right to citizenship until 1924 and the right to vote in all states until 1962. Women were denied the franchise until 1920 and Black women were prevented from exercising that right by law in many states until 1965, and that reality has continued in practice for many to the present day.

Meanwhile, widespread social opprobrium and discrimination prompted the wholesale internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and has resulted in many citizens discriminating against a host of additional groups on the basis of religion, ethnicity, national origin and religion throughout the country’s history. In particular, the nation has witnessed a marked uptick in anti-Semitism during the last few years.  New York City police, for example, were called to investigate six attacks on synagogues recently.[3] President Joseph Biden captured the elemental character of our nation’s ongoing struggle and challenge to ensure political agency and democratic self-governance for all against the proclivity to deny it to some, rooted in the frailties of human nature, in his inaugural address. As he observed:

I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal, that we are all created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism and fear have torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never secure.[4]

Will was correct that ultimately those who use today’s communication technologies to spread hate and lies and to encourage racism are not responsible for other individuals accepting their claims or acting on the fears and smallness of mind and heart to which those efforts appeal. That said, there is little question that promoting such senseless cruelty is now easier than ever due to the ubiquity of those technologies and platforms. President Biden was surely correct in contending that the battle against such appeals to the worst in humanity is as old as humankind and certainly as old as our nation.

Former President Donald Trump sought to harness our species’ most hideous propensities throughout his term in office by offering his supporters scapegoats—namely African Americans and immigrants, among others—for their economic and status anxieties. He also played to his supporters’ willingness to other to establish their sense of superiority. Indeed, Trump lied and encouraged racialized hatred at every turn as a political mobilization device. More, his party not only fell in line with his attacks on the agency of millions of American citizens in such terms, but has continued to encourage its followers in such beliefs since Trump’s departure from office. In addition, Fox “News” has elected to support this tack and has made billions of dollars by adopting and hyping just such tropes each day.

All of this has created a climate in which millions of Americans are daily encouraged and often content to condone the disparagement of a share of their fellow citizens and residents on no grounds other than skin color, religion or national origin. Many have gone further and have accepted Trump and his party’s twisted lies concerning who was responsible for the seditious storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and the alleged undermining of the nation’s 2020 presidential election by corporate actors and the Democratic Party. Most recently, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson has adopted wild white supremacist conspiracy theories that “they” (the Democratic Party) are seeking to “replace” all white citizens in the country with immigrants and that wearing masks to protect against the very deadly COVID-19 pandemic is “really” an exercise of power by the same group that should not be borne.[5] These claims are ridiculous, but are designed to encourage fear and loathing and to concoct an utterly false and equally dangerous sense of self-righteous indignation.

Many other citizens, including elected GOP party leaders, have consistently embraced the power of white police to kill Black citizens with near or complete impunity. The Republican Party, especially, has embraced this particular evocation of a climate of hatred in its quest to curry and maintain power, which has consequences almost daily with the deaths of African Americans, often during otherwise routine traffic stops. Writer Leonard Pitts, Jr. captured this bitter reality as he reflected on the recent and too rare finding by a jury in Minnesota of wanton police murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin. Pitts wondered whether this time, finally, an atypical outcome would bring millions to view the common imposition of injustice on African American citizens by police differently:  

But did it lead to change? Did something heavy just shift in the psyche of a nation? Will African Americans henceforth know a new form of justice, one that is not spotty or hit-and-miss, but that, in the words of the prophet Amos, rolls down like waters? It would be nice to believe that. But if one is not innocent or ignorant of America, one cannot help but recall all the times belief has gone begging, all the times promise has lied. … Maybe that sounds cynical to you. But these last years have been traumatizing and besides, I am a Black man in America.[6]

I have written numerous essays in the past exploring the reasons many Americans and the GOP offer to “justify” their willingness to embrace discrimination against a share of their fellow citizens. Now I find myself reflecting on the fact that whatever those supposed rationales, none needed to assume the discriminatory guise they have taken. Instead, as Will pointed out while considering the role of communications technology relative to the exercise of political agency, the citizens who have embraced outrageous conspiracies and lies rooted in racism, nativism and religious intolerance have chosen to do so. They possess agency and can exercise it by opting not to accept the inane malice to which many have now elected to be party instead. These individuals have willingly and often, knowingly, embraced intolerance and hatred as ways to address the challenges of their lives. This story, this trope of unjust assignment of responsibility, undermines freedom, equality and the human and civil rights of those it marks. Notably, too, it does nothing meaningful to address the concerns of those who adopt it. Instead, it lends those who embrace it a false and empty sense of superiority, and it now constitutes the principal and dangerous path that the Republican Party has chosen to pursue and maintain political power.

President Biden, like President Abraham Lincoln before him, has consistently appealed to what Lincoln dubbed the “better angels” of Americans’ natures in his First Inaugural Address:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[7]

Like his Civil War predecessor, Biden has appealed often to hope as the mechanism by which the nation can overcome the stain of millions now willing to embrace demagoguery, intolerance and worse while refusing to play their part in actually governing the nation as it seeks to craft efforts to realize freedom and opportunity for all of its residents. This country’s ongoing governance crisis is both a pitiless and pitiable situation. Those embracing hatred as a mobilization or profit strategy, willing to descend to virtually any immorality in their quest for power and profit, are perhaps symbolized most concretely by the cynical posturing of Tucker Carlson, irrespective of the consequences of those actions for democratic possibility and freedom.

In the long run, I am struck that Biden’s rhetoric and the principles and deep belief in self-governance that underpin it is vital, but hardly a guarantee to shift the minds and hearts of those citizens willing to condone the unforgivable, especially as those individuals are daily pressed not to change their views lest that reduce the power of those propounding the fearful, hate-filled and discriminatory narrative now fueling the viewership or votes of those targeted.  One must hope, therefore, that those elected leaders now in government at all scales of both parties, and our nation’s many other interested citizens and stakeholders not now willing to succumb to hatred for its own sake, can continue to press for the civil and human rights of all of the nation’s citizens. One must hope, too, that their sustained efforts will prove sufficient to beat back the anti-democratic forces now threatening the nation. In the long run, one must place faith in the prudence and reasonableness of the American people and in their devotion to freedom as Lincoln did, a prospect both bracing and parlous, given our country’s checkered history on the question. Like Leonard Pitts, Jr., I struggle to believe in the promise that possibility represents amidst the uninformed hatred daily on offer by so many in our public square. Like Presidents Biden and Lincoln, I remain hopeful it will come to pass.

Notes

[1] Will, George. “Technologies give velocity to stupidity, but they don’t make people stupid,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/technologies-give-velocity-to-stupidity-but-they-dont-make-people-stupid/2021/04/13/bf857f10-9c74-11eb-b7a8-014b14aeb9e4_story.html, Accessed April 14, 2021. 

[2] Will, “Technologies give velocity to stupidity.”

[3] Hayes, Christal. “‘Simply inacceptable’: New York police investigate 6 synagogue attacks in 3 days as possible hate crimes,” USA Today, April 26, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/04/26/new-york-synagogue-attacks-nypd-hate-crime-investigation/7384864002/, Accessed April 26, 2021. 

[4] Biden, Joseph. “Full transcript of Joe Biden’s inauguration speech,” BBC News, January 20, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55656824, Accessed April 19, 2021.

[5] Relman, Eliza, “Tucker Carlson embraces white-supremacist conspiracy theory, claiming Democrats are ‘importing’ immigrants to ‘dilute’ American voters,” Business Insider, April 9, 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/tucker-carlson-endorses-white-supremacist-replacement-conspiracy-theory-2021-4, Accessed April 26, 2021; Bade, Rachel, Ryan Lizza, Tara Palmeri and Eugene Daniels, “Is Tucker Carlson Losing his Mind?” Politico Playbook, April 27, 2021, https://www.politico.com/playbook, Accessed April 27, 2021. 

[6] Pitts, Leonard, Jr. “‘An American court did right by an African-American man. For a Change,’” The Miami Herald, April 21, 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article250823519.html, Accessed April 21, 2021. 

[7] Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861, Bartleby.com, https://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html, Accessed April 27, 2021.  

Tags