American Democracy?

Many scholars, activists, pundits, and even a few politicians agree that American democracy is in trouble. Many reasons are given–the raw punch of money in elections, a distracted, apathetic, or misinformed population, the absence of civic education, the specter of blind patriotism, the penal threat and painful reality of police brutality. The signs of collapsing democracy are obvious: the debt ceiling debacle, the recent Supercommittee failure, Citizen United v Federal Elections Commission, a US Congress with 9% approval ratings. Our Occupy mobilizations, and our “deeply democratic” (Appadurai 2001) methodology of the General Assembly inspired as it is by the anthropological knowledge translated through our colleague David Graeber, are reactions to the failure of the present incarnation of American democracy while exclaiming our desire, voice to voice, for a more humane social democracy.

Non-fiction information, knowledge, and “the news” are essential for citizens to make wise decisions regarding the future of a democratic state. The right to media is a human right and a public resource for democratic communication. But the media is a finite resource, limited in radio, television, and the internet and limited by the amount of subjective mental bandwidth we can personally process. In the United States this media resource was allocated by the state to corporations. These America corporations were given the right and responsibility to use the “airwaves.” Part of the bargain the government struck with these companies was that they could make massive profits if they worked in the public interest by informing and educating the citizens. This responsibility they have slowly neglected and we are today left with fiction parading as fact on television news. Citizen involvement in this corporately consolidated public sphere was promised but subtly ignored. The abused or misused power of corporate media is a significant reason why democracy is failing.

Deep Democracy or Digital Democracy?
Deep Democracy or Digital Democracy? Dr. West arrested on October 21, 2011.

Many hopeful individuals cite internet-based social media as a networked communications system capable of improving democracy by routing around the corporate “noise” and towards a vibrant non-market public sphere. The internet has produced new conditions for peer-to-peer and disintermediated communication, it is true. But what the cynical scholars and activists are saying might be true as well. Democracies require explicitly engaged citizens that demand civically minded, accessible, and participatory media systems to thrive. Are these pre-conditions for democracy being met in America?

To answer this question it is necessary to empirically describe some of the major socio-cultural attributes of the contemporary American public sphere. Scholars estimating the public sphere in the age of information opulence, telecommunications convergence, and interactive media must discuss these issues:


1) Media Ecology: observe interactive social media, static consolidated television networks, and grassroots activists as working within the socio-technical boundaries of a media ecology (Srinivasan and Fish 2011)

2) Political Diversity: examine the relative balance of political ideological diversity of constituents, activists, and voices on American television news networks and social media networks within the media ecology (Hindman 2005)

3) Cultural Silos: acknowledge that grassroots activism networks, as well as social media and television news consumption and production communities tend towards ‘silos,’ ‘filter bubbles,’ or personalized spaces of homogeneity; recognize that digital democracy is likely a myth (Pariser 2011, Boczkowski 2010, Hindman 2009)

4) Neoliberal Governmentality: see both social media and cable television news companies as impacted by neoliberal governmentality–state regulation and market ideology (Foucault 1978-1979)

5) Media Reform Movements: acknowledge the impact of neoliberal resistance, ideological diversity, and non-market actors (Klinenberg 2009, McChesney and Pickard 2011).


This model of the public sphere is for today. Habermas addressed 18th century bourgeois society and the emergence of free market mercantilism. Foucault, when designing his theory of a strong state at the center of governmentality late in his life, had seen the emergence of the 1970s welfare states across North American and Europe just before the dawn of Reagan, Thatcher, and neoliberalism. The criteria for a public sphere I outline above are specific to the age of technological convergence and a period of heightened neoliberal and counter-neoliberal activity. The criterion includes the actions of grassroots movements, demographical considerations, consumption practices, network theories, and globalized political economy. Few theoretical orientations address such human, technological, practical, and economic diversity. Like Bourdieu’s field theory, these research criteria identify competitive realms of production. Like Latour’s actor network theory, this approach articulates non-human actors as influential elements. Like Castells’s theory of networked communication power, filters and nodes control media flow through the public sphere. Like Ortner’s practice theory, agency and structuration exist at the level of the individual, the institution, the state, and the corporation.

It may seem unanthropological to argue for monolithic “America,” “democracy,” “public sphere”, and “media ecology.” These notions are all problematic for cultural anthropologists who focus on the relativity and plurality of publics and counter-publics (Warner 2002), deconstruct the singular state, and observe diversity everywhere. However, this is an American problem. It is American policy regarding spectrum allocation to specific American corporations that is influencing the development of American audiences. It is Silicon Valley and Wall Street that are creating the conditions for techno-neoliberalism. Media justice resistance movements justify these seemingly totalizing statements by addressing these state-based issues. In this conceptualization, and for specific groups of media moguls and activists there is an America, imagined in some instances, and legally defined in others, but real nonetheless.

It is important to note that this theory of the public sphere is primarily focused on the public-market relationship ala Dewey, Habermas, and Weber as opposed to the private-market relationship ala Marx and Smith in political theory. Thus, the telephone, a socio-technical tool of private-market relationships is an important element of the public sphere but as a private and personnel tool is not considered in this theory. Here I am more concerned with sociality than subjectivity. I focus on the public-market socio-technical conditions for the public sphere.

Another clarification is important. The public sphere is distinct from a media ecology. The primary distinction is that the public sphere is constituted by voices while the media ecology designates the relationship of technologies. When I discuss the public sphere I am referring to the contested space of discursivity shared by various actors and voices. A media ecology, on the other hand, designates the relationships of technologies that deliver the voices that constitute the public sphere. Sharing the same relational dynamics amongst various parts as does a public sphere, the media ecology is one amongst other criteria for a public sphere.

The five research criteria reveal that despite the media ecology including both democratized social media citizens and hierarchical television news producers, the tendency is towards neoliberal consolidation of media companies, leading to a weakening of diversity and a siloing of audiences, which is threatening American democracy. However, media justice movements and independent television news networks do exist and despite their absence of hard political and economic power they struggle to contribute their voices to the public sphere that exists as a result of the interactions of elements of the media ecology which includes the internet, television, and grassroots orations and performances. In the instances where movements and independent broadcasters do not have access to power or the best technology–culture, imagination, and hacker practices become key assets to the success of improving the diversity, access, and voice in the American public sphere.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

4 thoughts on “American Democracy?

  1. Media justice movements, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are also siloed. I mean, it is not like any of my non-friends on Facebook ever hears what EFF have to say.

    We have to realize, that however much we want everyone to know everything about everyone all the time, that is a physical and social impossibility.

    I would say, it is the libertarianist discourse that creates the myth that this would be possible at all. It is in the libertarianist interest that consumers think that they can make a conscious decision.

    Maybe if someone creates a social website which would be based on the “reverse” criteria of some dating websites. Like if people communicated more with non-friends and strangers than friends and strangers. Maybe then, we could break free of the siloing. Atleast a little bit. A total distancing from siloing is impossible, since we are social animals. But there is always the choice of not-choosing the pro-active and conscious siloing.

  2. Good points, Robin. One other strategy, my own, is to spread my interests and ramble a bit. Family, art, anthropology, advertising, tech, markets, history and philosophy of science, politics, social network analysis, mathematical models….It isn’t, of course, more than a fraction of the whole world. I do, however, find it more more interesting and more educational than sticking in one silo all the time. I’m enjoying Zite and Flipbook on my iPad because as long as I keep the parameters wide, a lot of interesting stuff turns up that can then be fed to Facebook or used in other conversations.

  3. Can we pack some of the radicalized assumptions of the term ‘American democracy’?:

  4. My head hurts after reading your piece. But here is a question where has democracy worked well and been durable at least few a while in any nation or time in history that is substantially multicultural? It works best in largely monocultural societies and even then there is usually a gradual slide into some form of effective aristocracy oligarchy or tyrany. In this case those who have the most resources money media cabability.

    The best thing we can hope for is seperation of the major institutions of government, a independent and honest judicuary and the protection of a well drawn up constitution. Oh and to vote follow politics and hold our elected representatives accountable. In other words care.



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