Summary: A blistering, brilliant counterattack on the forces that have conspired to undermine American democracy.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is a passionate, scathing book that paints a clear picture of where America has gone wrong. Our democracy is far from dead, but as events of recent years have shown, it is ill – perhaps gravely so. The appalling levels of ignorance of basic scientific and political facts among the voting public; our heedless and disastrous rush into war with Iraq; a political class that considers voter consent something to be bought and sold; a shallow, sensationalist for-profit media; an increasingly corrupt, secretive and authoritarian government – all of these are symptoms indicating that something has gone fundamentally wrong with the process of rational deliberation that America’s founders considered to be necessary for the long-term health of our democracy. Simply put, facts, logic and reason no longer play the crucial role in our national conversation that they once did. What has gone wrong, and how can we fix it? These are the questions that Gore takes up and attempts to answer.
In the opening chapters of his book, Gore identifies one factor as playing a major, central role in this decay. His choice may be surprising to some readers, but I think he builds a strong case for it: not religion, not conservative politics, not excessively wealthy and self-interested corporations, but television.
Television is not the chief villain behind the assault on reason because it panders to the public with frivolous, titillating spectacle (although it does do that, and Gore does castigate it appropriately; this must be the first book ever written by an American vice president that contains the phrase “Britney and KFed”). Instead, there is a more fundamental problem: unlike print and the Internet, television is a time- and space-limited medium with high barriers to entry, making it in its essence a medium of the rich and powerful. It is not a place where people can have a two-way conversation; rather, it turns people into passive receivers of information, unable to respond as they see fit. Worse, television is not a meritocracy. One’s ability to participate in the medium is not based on the merit of one’s ideas, but rather on how much money one can afford to spend to purchase airtime for them.
The overwhelming reliance on television as a source of information means that the average elected official’s most pressing task is raising money to purchase the thirty-second TV advertisements that have become the major means of communicating with constituents. Again, this has diminished the meritocracy of ideas and in its place raised up a system where excessive flattery and attention to the wealthy have become a politician’s primary requirement for remaining in office.
With television has come advertising, which has resulted in the growth of a system where the effort to convince people through reason and evidence has taken a backseat to discovering the most effective means of manipulating them. This is what Gore calls “the manufacture of consent”, and though it began as a commercial effort, it has spread into politics. Unlike print, television can present vivid, visceral images that bypass the faculties of reasoning and trigger emotional responses – especially fearful responses – far more directly, overwhelming the faculties of deliberation.
The creation of a silenced, disconnected public whose consent can be manufactured for a price has led directly to the destructive rise of conservative politics. This movement is summed up by its standard-bearer, George W. Bush, whom history will without a doubt judge as one of America’s worst presidents of all time. In a set of searing chapters, Gore lists the sins of the Bush administration: their obsessively secretive nature that deprives the public of information it needs to make reasoned decisions; their systemic and sustained campaign of deception to drum up support for their agenda; their disregard for evidence and expertise whenever those things clashed with the decisions they had already arrived at; the authorization of torture and deliberate attempts to create legal ambiguity surrounding the treatment of prisoners; and their authoritarian view of unlimited executive power which leads Bush to conclude that he has the right to seize and imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial, to wiretap and search without warrants, to preemptively attack any country he decides may become a threat, or to disregard inconvenient laws via “signing statements”.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fierceness of Gore’s critique, which is one of the most comprehensive indictments of the Bush administration I’ve ever seen. After all this time, it seems he’s finally grasped the tactics being used against the progressive movement and what is at stake. His call for a rebirth of reason in politics and a return to evidence-based argument is dead on target, and it was a refreshing change to see a politician speak out with such candor, away from the sterile and overscripted world of campaigning. There are a few awkward passages and parts of the book that could have stood some more editing (in particular, his occasional references to religion as a motivation for progressive action felt clumsy and forced). But overall, this was a stellar book, argued with clarity and passion, and Gore’s diagnosis of the problem cannot be denied. Manufactured consent and stifling mass media are poisoning our democracy, and to counter it, we badly need a return to reason and a willingness to embrace a principle of decision-making based on facts and evidence.