One sign that our society is undergoing a transformation of its identity is the way that programs and policies produce the opposite of their original intentions. Democracy is gradually undercut by programs designed to strengthen it. Social legislation is introduced with the avowed aim of improving the health and well-being of citizens; it brings instead a system of dependence and powerlessness which enables the bureaucracy to discipline and control the poor. The same effects could not be accomplished if the rulers of our society had decided to institute dictatorial control. The same phenomenon, of democratic intentions recoiling to produce antidemocratic results, has occurred in education. It is now making itself felt in the Carter presidency: the democratic relationship between presidential power and the popular will is best suppressed by a president who describes himself as a “populist” and who, without intending it, becomes a public caricature of plain, democratic virtues.
Thus Jimmy Carter had to boast that he would never lie in order to confirm the idea that the populist mentality—which was a media code word for democracy—is ignorant of political realities. Carter, as a presidential candidate, had to promise that he would develop “clearly defined goals” for “energy,…health care, land use, economic development, waste disposal, and housing” so that as president he could deflate the hopes he had mobilized.
Perhaps the most instructive example of how pseudodemocratic ideas and practices are preparing the social consciousness for change is provided by the press and television. The media present a democratic image: the vehicle for making culture accessible to all without appearing to impose any elitist standards. Television is particularly beguiling. It conveys the impression of offering something of value at no cost to the viewer and with no visible gain to the purveyor. Thus no transaction is immediately evident; there is no symmetrical exchange of things, no reciprocal satisfactions, no self-interest, no power transferred. Instead of the suspicions that normally accompany most exchanges, caveat emptor, the viewer feels grateful for what seems to be a free lunch served to him by an attractive and accommodating presence. The media appear, in short, to be everything but what they are. They are, first and foremost, an industry which rests on an enormous investment of resources and skills; and as in all modern enterprises, decisions are taken on a highly self-conscious basis with a studied regard for their implications and effects. Second, the media are dispensing a commodity (news, entertainment) which is produced not so much to be consumed or used but to have an effect on what people do …
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