Like so many others, I am watching the presidential election campaign unfold with a gathering sense of dread. And, I must say, a certain sense of shame. Thomas Jefferson famously told us that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” And, "...if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” Whence we derive our faith that an educated citizenry will, more often than not, do the right thing.
But now it appears that on the order of 35 percent of the citizenry is not interested in the facts or expert analysis based on the facts, and is eager to elect to the highest office in the land a man whose contempt not only for the facts, but also for the constitution, is obvious. How did this happen in a country that practically invented mass education and which was a leader in extending the franchise broadly precisely because it was confident that those who exercised the franchise would do so with more knowledge about the issues than any other people on earth?
In a recent blog, I offered the view that this has happened in part because the experts have consistently recommended policies that have resulted in profound hurt among a growing number of poorly educated people who can no longer compete in what has become a global market for labor or against intelligent machines that can do what workers with only the basic skills can do, but faster, less expensively and more reliably than they can. They are understandably angry with both the experts and their facts.
But a recent article in the New York Times, while not inconsistent with my thesis, raises the possibility that Donald Trump’s triumph over the facts and the experts who bear them was made possible not just by unwise policies, but by a very deliberate and sophisticated effort to produce exactly that result by Roger Ailes and Fox News, in a propaganda campaign designed to subvert the kind of democracy Jefferson had in mind.
Ailes was a TV guy who persuaded Richard Nixon that TV would be the key to victory in his 1968 campaign after he was blindsided by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election in the first televised debate. Later, after Bill Clinton’s first term, he teamed up with Rupert Murdock to create Fox News. Ailes saw Fox not just as a grand business opportunity, but as a way to place himself in the catbird seat of Republican politics, choosing candidates to back and oppose, creating the issues on which the party would run and making Fox and himself the arbiters of Republican politics.
Prior to Ailes, the tone for TV news had been set by the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite—sober, objective, based on the facts and sound analysis, middle of the road, responsible. Its producers and anchors treated the news as a public trust. The networks knew they would lose money on the news but hoped that the news would attract viewers to their other, moneymaking shows. That was not Ailes’ idea of TV news. He threw out all the rules. Balance was replaced with conservative voices alone. Defending that choice, he pronounced all the other news programs as having a liberal bias, so he alone would create “balance” by presenting only conservative views. Network news had always had a cool aesthetic. Ailes pumped it up, to get the blood flowing, with martial music and wooshing visual effects. He filled his panels with people shouting at each other.
But the main thing, the one that is of most importance here, was his decision to use every weapon at his disposal to whip up a fever of grievance among his viewers, to grab them by the lapels and persuade them that the liberals were out to get them and only Fox was going to tell them the truth; all the others were liars. He was going to run Fox on a menu of “resentment politics” for an audience of people who increasingly felt that they were being left behind by the elites. That was how Roger Ailes would become Republican kingmaker and in the process, make Fox and himself very, very rich.
To make this model work, Ailes needed to constantly stoke the sense of grievance that was key to the model. Whatever you used to have that made you great—the special place of your religion, your race, your values, your work, whatever—was being taken away from you by them, and only Fox knew what was going on, only Fox understood you, only Fox could be trusted to tell it like it really is. None of this was done casually. Ailes’ team dreamed up these grievances, but did not use them on Fox News until they were carefully field-tested with their audience, so they knew they would work. This is how “anchor babies,” “birtherism” and “ground zero mosque” came into the public square.
The facts did not matter. The views of experts did not matter. In fact, Ailes painted the facts and experts as tools used by the other side to fool the people. What mattered were emotions and Ailes became a master of the art of playing on peoples’ emotions. Grievance after grievance was cooked up, field-tested and then launched on Fox. And, all the while, a firewall was being built against the facts, against analysis, against expertise.
Enter Donald Trump onto this carefully prepared ground. Thomas Jefferson’s worst fear personified: loud, angry, ignorant and beautifully attuned to the fears and grievances that Fox had so carefully identified and nurtured.
This should never have happened. It should not have been possible in the country that pioneered mass education. This is exactly what mass education was supposed to inoculate us against. What went wrong?
This question ought to be at the top of the agenda for the next annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, the school principals associations and the school boards associations. It ought to be addressed in the lead articles in Education Next, American Educator and other leading education journals and in the commentary columns of Education Week. But it won’t be.
I submit that there is no more important function of American education than to give American students the tools they need to preserve this incredibly important democracy and the freedoms and liberty with which we are blessed. How do we do that? It may be difficult, but it is not complicated. Our students need to understand the origins of freedom, liberty and constitutional government, from their beginnings in ancient Greece to their revival in the Scottish enlightenment and their expression in the cauldron of the American Revolution. They need to understand how fragile democracy is and they need not least to study how freedom and democracy and constitutional government was undermined in the interwar years in Weimer Germany. They need to know how our government was designed to work and how various forces over the years have compromised that design and have been reversed.
But, at the root of it all, our students need to develop a respect for the facts, for empiricism, for reasoned argument, and for one another. There is no doubt, Roger Ailes should have been brought down because of the appalling way he treated women at Fox. But what price should he pay for paving the way for Donald Trump, for deliberately creating an electorate that deeply distrusts the facts and anyone who has expertise, for creating a world in which voters are willing to suspend reason in favor of turning their lives over to people whose expertise consists entirely of knowing how to press their emotional buttons?
I hope that American educators will seize the opportunity to ask themselves what went wrong here and to consider what changes need to be made in the curriculum and how it is taught in order to develop a citizenry that is not so easily led by their emotions rather than clear thinking. The aim should be to ensure that this never happens again.
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