By Lukus Berber
The University of Chicago
American democracy has never been easy. Americans today have evolved since the days of duels and outright assaults on the House floor. Unfortunately for Alexander Hamilton and Charles Sumner, the maturation process took a couple centuries. Given the 242 years of tumultuous and, at times, bloody democracy, how has the American experiment endured? Many democratic theorists posit that the free press is the bulwark against tyranny, but is it? Historically, not always.
Maja Adena, co-author of “Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany”**, provided the world with an analysis of how media can be weaponized on behalf of the state. Adena made clear in the piece that, after the Nazis secured enough seats after the 1933 election, the media(mostly radio) was utilized to: increase the NSDAP national vote share, consolidate NSDAP control of the state apparatus and mold public opinion around new NSDAP policy initiatives. The Nazis acquired control of the state apparatus, and pursued a litany of policy initiates, through democratic institutions. In other words, the Nazis took power in Germany legally. The next few years saw the dissolution of the Bundestag, limitations of civil liberties and, as most know, the beginning of the mass genocide known as the Holocaust.
What does any of this have to do with the United States? The case of prewar Germany is a warning and, in my opinion, should be a wakeup call for America. At the present moment, the media is divided on very obvious ideological lines. The following charts outline both distrust in the national media and, one can infer, why most distrust the media.
Left-wing bias, shown below, seems to be one of the factors that is driving a deep distrust in the American media. Why does this matter? The American media, at least in most of the past, held both parties accountable and reported the news objectively. According to the masses, the media is not fulfilling their purpose any longer. As it pertains to American democracy, media bias could be damning. “How Democracies Die”***, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, outlines how important mutual toleration is to the health of democracy. Mutual toleration is the idea that political opposites of ourselves are not evil, they just happen to disagree on policy. Levitsky and Ziblatt go on to say that, when mutual toleration is lost, the costs of losing elections become prohibitive. This is where a party may choose to dissolve democratic institutions and consolidate control of the state apparatus – in other words, democratic erosion. With blatant ideological divisions within the media, who is to say that a liberal or conservative news organization would not join an anti-democratic coalition? Even if they did not, the media has lost the respect and trust of the American public and may not be able to adequately push back against an anti-democratic coalition should one materialize.
The American media is an institution that is deeply sick with partisanship, hyperbole and deceit. Moreover, the national political mood is such that a large portion of the country is certain that they are not being misled one way or another. Americans are largely split on either side of a boxing ring, salivating at the prospect of landing a right hook. Every. Single. Day. At the present moment, the American media is the foe of democracy as they chip away at mutual toleration. America is not at the point of state owned media, but would it be much different if it was? Both ideological sides claim to know the facts and breathlessly spew it at their audience in favor of one party or the other. We are not Weimar Germany, but we could be. Now more than ever, Americans must tune-out the chatter and do their own research.
**Adena, Maja. Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany. Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2013.
***Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin, 2019.