Semantics, Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page in a 2014 American Political Science Association article:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

I came across this article referenced in a piece by Bruce Levine pointing out that in Stanley Milgram’s experiment dissent as opposed to disobedience was of no use to the experiment’s victims. The study’s conclusion is not new, of course, but today I’ve been thinking about the extent to which the terms in which international news is presented in mass media and discussed by acquaintances shapes the way we see and think about the world.

I find myself marveling at the extent to which media articles persistently quote Donald Trump’s tweets, and carry chains of tweeted replies and comments on the tweets. It occurred to me that at several levels this phenomena seems bizarre. Professional men and women are communicating in sound bites of less than a few hundred characters. The tone of tweets seems often that of exclamations, in keeping with the brevity of the content. This form of dialog appears to be that which might be shouted, rather than of essays or lengthy letters which might be read, pondered over, and then thoughtfully responded to.

In printing the exclamations of Donald Trump mass media is publishing the utterances of a buffoon who is provably utterly dishonest. This is repeatedly remarked upon, and I typically read articles in The Guardian, say, which along with Trump’s tweets or statements at rallies include qualifiers pointing out that what he has said is an outright lie, or that the claim he has made has no basis in empirical reality. What effect is this constant discussion of lies spouted by the US president having on world concepts of public dialog?

If public protest in the US has little or no correspondence to the policy positions taken by figures in power, to what extent is protest accurately described as political activism? For years, for decades in fact, I’ve read announcements of protests worded as calls to “mass action”. If the attendance at a demonstration is reliably numbered in the dozens, what sort of “mass” is this? If the “action” has demonstrably no effect, is this political action, or a public bleating of disconsolate impotence? How might power be contested if actors experienced a more accurate appreciation of their position with respect to the state?

Bookmark the permalink.