There are necessary myths in every society, and there is always a group whose role is to maintain those myths at all times.
Real power resides elsewhere, with wealth, but the people who assume these functionary, propagandist roles have some power, so long as they say the right things. With this power comes prestige, which, once attained, is difficult to give up. It’s very easy for these propagandists to convince themselves that they deserve that power and that they’re smarter than the rest, and they use it to legitimize a system that flatters them.
Europe in the Middle Ages had its priesthood, for instance. Nazi Germany had its ministers of public enlightenment and propaganda, and the Soviet Union had its apparatchiks. The United States, some say, has the “free press.”
In the U.S. some media critics say that the media will suppress information that could damage the credibility of our system of government or economy, and when the media doesn’t suppress this information it will shape it to minimize potential damage. In the media there will never be a fundamental critique of the status quo, and the answer to any problem will be to “get the right guy in office.” We can elect ourselves out of any problem because in a democratic society, things work just fine.
According to a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) released last week, U.S. citizens are somewhat skeptical of that most basic national myth, the myth of “American democracy.” But in accordance with the media critics’ theory, the free press didn’t report it that way.
The headline of the poll’s press release is “Public Rejects Using Military Force to Promote Democracy.” The sub-head said people in the U.S. reject both democratization as a justification for war and the theory that democracy makes the world safe from terrorism. U.S. citizens also favor cooperative and diplomatic methods for promoting democracy (rather than the unilateral, dictatorial U.S. approach to spreading democracy). The press release focuses on these results. Its most interesting results, however, come at the very end.
The media ignored these results. The New York Times, like most papers, didn’t mention the poll at all. The Washington Post did run an Associated Press article but focused on the first half of the press release, about public’s doubts of President Bush’s current policies.
The Post reported that people in the U.S. disagree that the president’s stated goals are attainable. It informed us that the “American public has doubts about whether the Bush administration policy of promoting democracy internationally will make the world a safer place.” Bush says democracy is his goal regardless of what he does. It turns the president into an idealist and visionary whose hopes and dreams for a better, more peaceful, more prosperous world for all. These ideals are impractical according to a cynical U.S. public, and await a radical change in humanity, when the rest of the world will reach his level of compassion and tender loving kindness.
The Post report ignored the end of the poll, where PIPA asked, on a scale of 0-10, “How much influence do you think the views of the majority of Americans have on the decisions of elected officials in Washington?” Two out of three said the majority’s influence on government policy is five (neutral) or below, with 10 percent saying the majority has zero influence. Twelve percent said the majority’s influence is eight and above, and one percent said the U.S. is completely democratic and giving it a 10.
When asked how things should be, using the same scale, 15 percent said the majority’s influence should be five or below, while 73 percent said the majority’s influence should be eight and above.
The poll also asked how often decisions by members of Congress are in accord with the decisions their constituents would make. The mean was 39 percent, which the poll’s authors noted is “less than chance.”
PIPA is one of the most respected and most cited polling organizations in the world. The U.S. is supposedly the supreme democracy, and with all the government efforts at "democracy promotion" and "democracy enhancement" in faraway places, one might think that these results, which show that people in the U.S. think so little of American democracy, would be front-page news.
Instead, when offered to the public, the results of this poll were marginalized to protect our national mythology. Most people in the United States think a coin toss would be more democratic than what we call “American democracy.” You wouldn’t know it from reading the “free press.”