The Death and Resurrection of the Public

What is the public? It relates to the idea of the People as démos and the body politic. The basic notion is that shared experience and identity is in some sense real, that we aren’t merely a collection of individuals. But a public sensibility has been on the decline. We’ll avoid a thorough analysis here. Instead, let’s look at a couple of areas.

Common identity most obviously is expressed through common appearance, in what people wear, how they cut their hair, and bodily modifications such as tattoos and earrings. In tribal societies and other small communities, this naturally happens through a common culture. The rise of the modern nation-state undermined this organic expression of communal bond. To satisfy the same need, the popularity of uniforms took hold. This has been done formally as symbols of public service such as the military, although uniforms have also been used in the private sector. Even the business suits common among men have become a kind of uniform that disallows much personal expression. The uniform became popular during the world war era and remained popular through much of the Cold War.

A uniform expressed not only a sense of common identity but solidarity and pride. This was true outside of the military, from postal workers and park rangers to gas station attendants and hotel porters. To be in a uniform signified belonging and meant a basic level of respectability, even for the most lowly worker. Besides police and firefighters, uniforms have receded from the public sphere and remain primarily as a symbol of the military — it might be unsurprising, if depressing, that the military is the only part of the government in the United States that retains public trust.

This shift has accelerated over the past few decades. As late as the 1990s, uniforms were still seen more often, although having had become uncommon. For example, some parking ramp cashiers were still wearing uniforms until the early Aughts, but they had already lost their cultural cache as meaningful symbols. These days, postal workers aren’t always immediately recognizable when walking around, as there is barely any semblance of a uniform remaining, and the symbolic value of postal workers has accordingly declined as private delivery services have increasingly taken over this once public service.

We’ve now reached the point where one might go weeks without seeing anyone in a uniform. That isn’t to say that conformity of appearance has disappeared, but we’ve come to embrace the illusion of individual expression through the conformity of consumerist fashion and corporate branding. This is said without any clear judgment in favor of uniforms, simply a social observation and a rather interesting one at that. It represents a deeper and broader change in society.

We can see how fuzzy has become the category of ‘public’, even in ‘public’ debate. It’s extremely unusual to hear a politician invoke the rhetorical force of the People, much less directly refer to the démos and body politic, almost entirely alien concepts at this point. This muddled state of a non-society society was intentionally created as ideological realism — it was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “there is no such thing as society.” Until the rise of Donald Trump, that is possibly the single most bizarre statement by a modern leader of one of the global superpowers.

The sad fact is that President Donald Trump as the main public leader in the United States does bizarre on a daily basis, often while attacking public authority, public expertise, and public institutions. It has become nearly impossible to speak of the public good, as a hypocognition has taken hold. This is how Trump supporters are able to hold up signs that say “Keep government out of my Medicare” and to argue that it’s better that this pandemic happened under Trump than President Barack Obama because Trump is wealthy enough to write everyone a $1200 check, in both cases not grasping that these are government responses designed to promote the public good.

For most of human existence, the concept and experience of ‘private’ was rare to non-existent. From tribal bands to feudalism, people typically lived cheek-to-jowl. Look at the growing urbanization of the early empires such as in Rome where everything was a social event — going to the bathroom, gymnasium, doctor, work, etc. So, in speaking of the communal experience that dominated for so long, we aren’t only talking about tribes but even for most of the history of advanced civilization, into the modern era.

It was only in colonial times that the Quakers introduced the practice of maintaining privacy with nuclear families and by having separate rooms or at least separate beds for each family member (Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family), sometimes with spare rooms for visitors (Arthur W. Calhoun, The American Family in the Colonial Period), but at the time they were far outside the norm (Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were). In early America, to live in a village meant that your business was everyone’s business and there were no locks on the door.

The notion of privacy and the private sector was slow to take hold. Well into the 1800s, many feudal practices remained in place. There was a lingering belief in the commons and, in some cases, it was enforced by law for generations after the founding of the United States. This was seen in land use where ownership didn’t mean what it means today. A landowner couldn’t deny anyone else use of his land, if he wasn’t using it as defined by what land he specifically had fenced off. So, any open land, owned or not, was free to anyone for camping, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering. This only changed with the abolition of slaves when these laws were eliminated in order to force blacks back into labor.

On a related note, consider corporations. Likewise in early America, they had a very different meaning, as an organization with corporate charter is by definition a public institution. The founding generation made sure that corporate charter were only given in relation to an organized activity that served the public good such as building a bridge and so the charter ended when that public good was achieved. Now the relationship has reversed where corporations have so much power that governments serve them and their private interests. This is also seen in land use, such as how governments subsidize corporations by selling natural resources off public lands at below market prices which basically means giving public wealth away for private gain.

Corporations and governments have become so enmeshed that they are inseparable. The idea of what is public has become conflated with government, and government has increasingly become identified with big biz. When the government is controlled or influenced by private interests in declaring that a company or bank is too big to fail, it is essentially declaring that something private is to be treated as part of government, which further erodes the sense of the public. If the last bastion of the public is government, and if government serves the private sector of a plutocracy, then what meaning does public have left remaining?

Instead of the public as a people determining their own self-governance, we have a private ruling elite who by owning the government control the people, that is to say inverted totalitarianism. Whatever remains of pubic rhetoric becomes a mask to hide authoritarian power, as seen in how the U.S. has become a banana republic. One study has shown U.S. federal politicians rarely do what their supposed constituents want, instead doing the bidding of the wealthiest (Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens), and it can’t be rationalized by a ludicrous claim that the poor want to be ruled over by a plutocracy (Nicholas Carnes & Noam Lupu, Do Voters Dislike Working-Class Candidates? Voter Biases and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class).

Growing concentration and inequality of wealth inevitably coincides with growing concentration and inequality of not only political representation but of power and influence, resources and opportunities. Even the most basic necessities for survival like clean air and water are not evenly distributed, something that would be a human right if we lived in a functioning democracy. When clean air and water don’t fall under the guaranteed protection of the public good, the ideal of a society built on a public has lost all meaning.

It’s unsurprising, under these conditions, that the overt symbols of public good have been particularly under attack. With this comes talk of privatizing Social Security, eliminating welfare, and much else. At one point, the public good was understood to be integral to national security. This is why the U.S. federal government in the past invested so heavily to ensure cheap education, housing, travel, etc — even if we might question some of these investments such as the creation of car culture and suburbia through government funding. My parents’ generation essentially got free college and great jobs in an economy boosted by big gov simply for being born in the post-war period.

The point is that, in an earlier time, the understanding and support of the public good was strongly held across American society and within both of the main political parties. After all, it was President Richard Nixon who, as a Republican passed the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed universal healthcare and universal basic income, the latter policies being now considered as communist by conservatives and too far left-wing by mainstream liberals. How far we’ve fallen.

Right-wing Republicans complain about high taxes while corporatist Democrats seem to agree, but not that long ago both parties supported immensely higher tax rates than we have now, specifically for the upper brackets. When looking at public opinion, Americans do still support taxing the rich far more. The problem is the plutocracy owning our government don’t agree with the public on this issue. Hence, so-called public policy has become disconnected from the reality on the ground of public opinion.

Loss of taxes hasn’t stopped the government from going into permanent debt by pumping immense public wealth and resources into the highly profitable military-industrial complex. This is seen with how Amazon, by way of the Pentagon cronyism Jeff Bezos inherited from his grandfather, has made huge profits from its government contracts while operating its private sector business at a loss for decades (Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires). Then when corporatism crashed the economy in 2008, government bailed out failing banks and corporations because they were too big to fail, which is an argument that they were so essential that they no longer should be allowed to operate according to market forces in a free market. It was another step further into fascism. Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic, most of the relief money once again is going to big biz in conflating private interest with public good.

The role that government used to play was in promoting areas of society that genuinely were for the public good. This included fundamental things like massive investments into education, housing, and infrastructure; but it also went into equally necessary things like basic research. This created immense knowledge that helped with technological invention and innovation. It funded the kind of research that benefits the public but doesn’t directly benefit corporate profit, although it is highly useful for private research companies in using it to build upon in their own research. In the slashing of government funding for research, it’s forced companies to do more of it, even though never to the degree as ween before. For-profit businesses are too conservative to take the risks that lead to new scientific discoveries. It’s a public good that can’t be re-created on the private market. The loss of that funding was also a loss of a mentality of public service, as demonstrated by Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the polio vaccine.

Strangely, even ‘public’ media no longer gets most of its funding from government. NPR, for example, is now primarily supported by corporations and other private organizations. When sponsors of public media are listed, it essentially comes down to another form of advertisement. And anyone with a lick of sense realizes this influences what gets reported and not, along with how it gets reported. Some analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of guests on NPR come from right-wing think tanks (NPR: Liberal Bias?) that often advocate corporatist ideology or else simply presume capitalist realism.

Also, consider how HBO as a private company has bought the rights to the PBS show Sesame Street, one of the greatest shows ever produced by any public media in the world. HBO has also gained exclusive rights in the United States to streaming BBC’s Doctor Who. Or look at how the BBC has partnered with for-profit media: Netflix, AMC, FX Networks, etc; one example is the Hulu-BBC show Normal People. This is a growing trend.

So, despite accusations to the contrary, not only is public media not always clearly public but not even particularly liberal in a meaningful sense, except maybe in the historical sense. I’m thinking of how American liberals were some of the strongest Cold Warriors during the McCarthy oppression with red-baiting and blacklisting, not to mention the liberal fear of the likes of Martin Luther King jr. It’s similar to how German liberals supported the Nazis in their opposition to left-wingers. Liberalism, in practice, too often becomes yet another variety of reactionary.

The casualty in this has been the public — the public as the people and as the common good; the public as a guiding concept, principle and vision. This allowed public rhetoric to be usurped by authoritarians who use it to great effect, maybe for the simple reason that the public is so hungry for someone, anyone to powerfully invoke a public message, however distorted. That could be taken as a positive sign. This moment of national and global crisis is ripe for a re-awakening of the public sensibility as a genuine force of inspiration and political will toward reform. This might be a new age of rebuilding public institutions and shoring up public authority. The public might begin to remember they are a public, that they are the majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). Government as self-governance is an important part of what defines the public, but the two should never be conflated. It is we the people who are the public.

 

We get what we pay for.

“Switzerland had the highest rate of return for empty wallets and Denmark for wallets with money in them. European countries overall, including Russia, got high marks for honesty.

“China had the lowest rate of return for empty wallets and Peru for wallets with money. I am disappointed that the United States is so far down on the list.”

I don’t feel disappointed about the US ranking. Or at least I don’t feel surprised. On many measures, the US often ranks around the middle. We are a middling country. Yes, above average, but middling. We lead the pack among the mediocre countries.

You see this with measures of culture of trust, democracy, freedom of press, health outcomes, education quality, etc. We tend to be far above the worst countries and well below the best (although specific US states often rank near the bottom in international comparisons). This has been the state of the nation for many decades now. It’s not exactly a new trend, this slipping down the international rankings.

But when older Americans were younger, the US was often the top ranking country in the world on numerous measures. Hence, the disappointment some Americans experience in remembering the country that once was. Sadly, that country hasn’t existed for a while now. We took American ‘greatness’ for granted and lost our sense of aspiration. Without the Soviet Union to compete against, Americans became morally and physically flabby.

Consider height. Americans used to be the tallest population on the planet. Now we share a ranking of 32nd with Israel, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, French Polynesia, Grenada, and Tonga. Height is one of those indicators of the general health of a society and correlates with such things as inequality (and, by the way, high inequality in turn correlates with worse outcomes even for the wealthy, compared to the wealthy in low inequality countries). Trust also falls as inequality rises.

Still, we Americans on average are taller than 82 other countries. So, not bad. But still a major drop compared to the past. We are a declining society in many ways, specifically relative to other countries that are advancing. It’s a sign of the times. It’s also unsurprising that the United States is declining as a global superpower as well. A government’s power is built on the health of the population and the success of the society.

Anyone who dismisses the public good is naive. This is why the most effective social democracies that massively invest the in the public good now lead the world in nearly every ranking. The United States has chosen the opposite path, shifting wealth to the top for short term gains for a minority of the population, not to mention wasting our resources on military adventurism and imperial expansionism. We get what we pay for.

A ranking of countries by civic honesty

Trust in an age of cynicism

Here is an awesome discussion about an important topic: public trust.

There is an increase of trust combined with gullibility caused by a fragmentation of trust. People trust others like themselves which is a reaction to modern multiculturalism and conflict of identity groups. Also, mistrust has increased because knowledge has increased. The national media informs people of all the bad things all over the world like never before… which has happened simultaneously as local media reporting on communities has decreased.

Many people (especially the older generations) would like to return to the simplicity and ignorance of the past, but the younger generations are more embracing of a complex world. I’ve seen polls that show younger people are less mistrusting of the media and the government. The younger generations are used to dealing with diverse sources of info and used to determining which info is trustworthy.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/a-portrait-of-generation-next/

One possible solution is finding a new shared culture that will allow for social cohesion that will bridge the diversity between cultures, between communities, between generations. Et Cetera.

There was a central factor not brought up by anyone in this video. High wealth disparity correlates to high rates of social problems (including growing mistrust). Wealth disparity has been increasing in the US for decades and is at a high point not seen for a century. Accordingly, the US rate of social problems has increased above other countries with lower wealth disparity.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/study-bosses-getting-meaner/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/10-states-with-ridiculously-low-unemployment-and-why/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/the-united-states-of-inequality/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/income-inequality-krugman-dalai-lama/

I just thought of another possible factor: Mean World Syndrome. One example of this is research showing most people (specifically in crowded cities) will walk past someone who is injured or unconscious. People don’t trust others and they realize others don’t trust them. In such mistrust, it’s a major risk to get involved in someone else’s problems or to take responsibility for public problems.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/mean-world-syndrome/

This relates to something brought up in the above video. One of the panelists said that when everyone is seeking to blame the other side neither side is willing to take responsibility.

One last point. Distinctions should be made. Even though the (possible) loss of trust has impacted everyone, it’s impact has been different in kind and degree for various demographics.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/trust-compromise-science-religion/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/republicans-support-big-government-just-as-long-as-republicans-are-in-power/

Trust & Compromise, Science & Religion

I noticed several different sets of data about trust in terms of public opinion. (My thoughts here are somewhat a continuation of my thoughts in one of my other recent posts: .)

The first piece of data was something I’ve come across before. Basically, Democrats tend to trust government whether or not they’re in power and Republicans only trust government when they’re in power.

Imbalance of Trust
By Charles M. Blow

Is it partly the utter gullibility of some people? Sure. Is it partly deep-seated resentment of the black man in the White House? No doubt. But it’s also about something more fundamental: fluctuations of basic trust in the federal government.

These fluctuations highlight a peculiar quirk of recent American politics — according to an analysis of The New York Times/CBS News polls from the past 33 years, Americans seem to trust the government substantially more after a Republican president is elected than they do after a Democratic one is elected — at least at the outset.

Since 1976, the polls have occasionally included the following question: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right — just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?”

The first poll taken in which this question was asked after Ronald Reagan assumed office found that 51 percent trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. For George H.W. Bush, it was 44 percent, and for George W. Bush it was 55 percent. Now compare that with the Democrats. In Jimmy Carter’s first poll, it was 35 percent. In Bill Clinton’s, it was 24 percent, and for Barack Obama’s, it was only 20 percent. (It should be noted that the first poll conducted during George W. Bush’s presidency came on the heels of 9/11.)

Surprisingly, Democrats’ trust in government was the same or higher after a Republican was elected than it was after a Democrat was elected. That in spite of the fact that all three Democratic presidents came into office at the same time that their party had won control of both chambers of Congress.

There are two parts to this data.

First, Republican administrations are trusted more for the very reason that Democrats trust government in general. Democratic administrations can’t win because Republicans won’t trust them from the moment they take power, no matter what they promise or accomplish.

Second, Democrats are seemingly more open to being self-critical. Maybe this is because Democrat voters have high expectations of Democratic politicians. Or it could be that the Democratic Party is big tent and the Republican Party is small tent. It’s easier for the GOP to keep it’s narrow base satisfied. The diversity of Democrats, on the other hand, will always contain much disagreement.

This relates to another poll which shows the differing views on compromise. Unsurprisingly, the small tent Republican Party dislikes compromise and the big tent Democratic Party likes compromise. Independents are halfway between the two parties, but what is interesting in that same poll Independents identify more with the Democratic Party than with the Tea Party which would seem to imply that Independents realize a party that compromises (however imperfectly) is more likely to represent them. The Tea Party likes compromise even less than the Republican party which corresponds with data showing the average Tea Party supporter is more conservative than the average Republican.

Many Say Ending Tax Cuts for Wealthy Would Hurt Economy
The Pew Research Center

There is little agreement among the public about compromise in politics. About half (49%) say they most admire political leaders who stick to their positions without compromising, while slightly fewer (42%) say that they most admire political leaders who make compromises with people they disagree with.

The latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection poll, sponsored by SHRM, conducted September 16-19 among 1,005 adults, finds that Republicans, in particular, admire politicians who stick to their positions (62%) over those who compromise (33%). Although independents are more divided on the question, a majority (53%) says they favor leaders who do not compromise; four-in-ten independents (40%) say they most admire leaders who compromise. The balance of opinion is reversed among Democrats; 54% of Democrats say they prefer politicians who compromise with those they disagree with, while 39% say they prefer politicians who stick to their positions without compromising.

The next poll I came across (The AP-National Constitution Center Poll) dissected how much trust people had in various institutions and news sources. The data shows a split between what is trusted and who trusts it. There wasn’t a majority trust any of them, but here is the order of most trusted (least mistrusted) to least trusted (most mistrusted):

  1. Military
  2. Small and Local Business leaders
  3. Scientific Community
  4. Organized Religion
  5. Broadcast News Media
  6. Print Media
  7. US Supreme Court
  8. Local Government
  9. Public Schools
  10. State Courts
  11. Organized Labor
  12. State Government
  13. Federal Government
  14. Independent or Citizen Media
  15. US Congress
  16. Banks and Financial Institutions
  17. Major Companies

AP-NCC Poll: Not Much Trust in Major Institutions
By Alan Fram and Jennifer Agiesta

Republicans most trust the military, followed by small business and religion. Democrats prefer science, small business, then the military. Just one in five Republicans expressed strong confidence in science, about the same proportion of Democrats who said so about religion.

Only 10 percent of Republicans expressed strong confidence in state governments, despite frequent GOP demands that Washington cede more power to the states.

Just 10 percent of Democrats voiced strong trust in Congress, even though their party controls it.

The print and broadcast media were strongly trusted by just 13 percent, only slightly more than the 8 percent with faith in blogs. Those under age 30 were far likelier than older people to voice confidence in what they read.

I would criticize one part of this poll, especially as it was described above. The poll lumped the professional New Media with the blogosphere. Some blogs are good and some aren’t. Some blogs are written by professional journalists and some aren’t. Anyway, the New Media isn’t limited to blogs. Cenk Uygur has been running an online news show for years and has been a guest on the mainstream media. Of course, most people don’t trust blogs written by often anonymous people. But I’m willing to bet that if New Media would be higher on the trust ranking if it were categorized separately from the blogosphere.

This seems indicated by the fact that the younger generation has more trust in non-traditional media. The reason for this is probably because the younger generation is able to distinguish the New Media from the general blogosphere. Older people don’t trust anything on the internet because older people know less about how to vet sources. As a side note, liberals are the demographic that gets more news from the internet than any other demographic and this goes along with the present younger generation being more liberal than other generations at the same age. This younger, liberal generation is also more trusting in general of big government and big business. So, public trust will probably be increasing in the coming decades.

What some might find surprising is that both Republicans and Democrats trust small businesses. Republicans are always trying to portray Democrats as anti-capitalist, but other data (Beyond Red vs Blue) shows Liberals have high rates of small business ownership and high rates of trading in stocks and bonds.

Not surprising is that Democrats trust science more than religion and Republicans trust religion more than science. I was glad to see that Americans in general trust science more than religion (or at least organized religion). So, on this issue, Democrats are in line with the majority position.

This issue of public opinion about science is what got me started on this whole line of thought and the research that ensued. I heard on NPR about a global poll about science. The global data should offer clear context for where US public opinion stands and how Democrats and Republicans respectively compare to people in other parts of the world.

Scientific beliefs vary by culture, says global poll
By Margaret Munro

Americans are far more pronuclear and willing to trust flu experts than Europeans, and much less concerned about genetically modified crops, according to a survey by Scientific American and the journal Nature.

But the most notable difference was between East Asia and the rest of the world. The survey found 35 per cent of Japanese and 49 per cent of Chinese respondents agreed there is “reason for doubt” that evolution can explain the incredible variety of species on Earth. That view was shared by about 10 per cent of respondents from the rest of the world.

Japanese and Chinese respondents were also less likely to say that they trust scientific explanations of the origins of the universe. And almost one-third of Chinese respondents said that scientists should stay out of politics, compared with about 10 per cent of respondents from other countries.

That would seem to put US conservatives more in line with Asians and US liberals more in line with Europeans. I don’t know what that means, but it’s interesting. I was glad to see that the world’s overall trust in science is strong and growing stronger. And liberals would seem to be in line with people worldwide in trusting scientists more than religious authorities.

The survey did find some common ground. Worldwide, respondents agreed that scientists are more trustworthy than other public figures. Religious authorities were deemed least trustworthy, followed by politicians and company officials.

And more than 70 per cent of respondents agreed science funding should be spared in tough economic times. When asked what should be cut instead, defence spending was the overwhelming choice — 82 per cent of Canadian respondents favouring cuts to defence over cuts to education or social-welfare programs.

And despite a recent controversy over leaked emails by climate researchers and the UN’s climate panel, the survey found climate change denial is in decline. Among Canadian respondents 41 per cent said that over the past year, they’ve become more certain that humans are changing the climate, compared with 12 per cent of respondents who have grown more doubtful.

In conclusion… well, actually I don’t know if I have any conclusion. I just found the data interesting and even more interesting when compared. The closest to a conclusion I could offer you is that there are distinct demographics (such as those belonging to the two parties) which have consistently distinct positions and attitudes. Most significantly: among Democrats, there is a correlation between trusting the government and trusting science; and, among Republicans, there is a correlation between being against compromise and being in favor of religion. Maybe that doesn’t provide any grand insight, but it does provide data to back up what many would suspect to be true.