In just a few hours the world will finally know who is to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. Will it be Hillary Clinton, as most reputable polls seem to indicate? Or will Donald Trump’s lies, unorthodox strategies and unspeakable lows ultimately pay off?
For many, the answer hinges on a single variable: information. How well informed the average American voter is will determine who their next president will be. For months now media pundits, movies stars, politicians, volunteers and the many more involved in the campaign have appealed to the citizens to seek the “truth” about the two candidates. The mantra of the 2016 race quickly emerged: “The more citizens are informed, the more likely they are to make a better choice”. If only Americans took the time to inform themselves about the candidates, their platforms and their lies, there is no doubt that they will choose well.
Clinton’s supporters believe that access to the “truth” will show the American voters that she is the right choice. Even her critics believe, all things considered, that she is probably the lesser of two evils.
During the presidential debates, Clinton herself made the issue of “being well informed” a critical part of her rebuttal of Donald Trump’s candidacy. She repeatedly invited voters to consult her website or to simply use Google to fact check Trump’s statements. Indeed, immediately after the first debate, nearly 2 million people visited her website within an hour of her request. Her page traffic swelled to 10 times its usual flow.
Trump, on the other hand, has a different approach to truth. He believes truth to be in perpetual flux: malleable, approximate, but always remarkably close to his own version of the facts. He “hears things”. He “reads things”. For Trump, the Internet is the gift that keeps on giving, the bottomless pit of all the truth that we will ever need.
Trump lives in a post-truth world, in which the only facts that count are the ones that align with his own views. Whether he succeeds or fails on November 8, he will be remembered as one of greatest liars in the history of US presidential elections. Politifacts has rated over 70% of his statements as “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire false.” Clinton, however, lies only 26% of the time.
Unsurprisingly, Trump seems dead certain that if voters dig deep enough into Clinton’s past, or if they get access to the right information (for instance the information his campaign provides on Lyingcrookedhillary.com, or even the information provided by dubious sources like Russian hackers), they will finally find out what he has been saying all along: that Hillary Clinton is a crooked politician – not to be trusted and certainly not to be elected. He, Trump, is a much better choice.
Clinton and Trump’s qualitatively divergent, yet normatively similar approaches to truth highlight just how contested the ideal of an active and fully informed citizen is today. The problem is that, despite being a bedrock of the mythology of American democracy for over a century, the faith placed on the “informed citizen” is rather misguided. There are no such things as active and fully informed citizens. Or, to be more precise, though there are many individuals who follow debates, read newspapers and browse the Internet for days on end in search of “information”, the majority of American voters are not so conscientious or, simply, cannot afford to be. There is too much information and too little time to absorb it. A recent PEW Research Centre survey conducted just ahead of the first presidential debate in September found that the majority of Americans didn’t actually know that much about where Trump or Clinton stood on major issues such as climate change, the economy and health care.
People are often uninterested or simply too busy to keep up with a subject as boring as politics. When the US Census asked Americans why they didn’t vote in the 2014 mid-term election, 28% of those who didn’t cast a ballot claimed that they were “too busy”. Others were either “not interested” (16%), or “did not like the candidates or their campaign issues” (8%).
And even if they do take part in the election, it doesn’t necessarily mean that voters are more informed. Many, in fact, are rather uninformed. In his book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, Ilya Somin shows that the majority of the United States is rather ignorant about even the simplest facts of politics. Only a third of the population, for example, are able to name the three branches of the federal government (executive, legislative and judicial). More problematic is the fact that a growing number of these voters (especially in the case of Trump supporters) are misinformed.
For democracy, misinformed citizens are the most dangerous of all. The more they are wrong about facts, the more they are convinced of being, in fact, right. Moreover, this has been a tiring election. Almost 60% of voters began suffering election coverage fatigue in June.
Debunking the myth
The idea that a truly informed citizenry is the key to American democracy is a myth. This ideal is more the product of the self-preservation of the status quo than proof of a strong democratic spirit.
In his 1998 book The Good Citizen – A History of American Civic Life, American scholar Michael Schudson demolishes the idea of the informed citizen by providing the reader with a clear account of its chequered past.
According to Schudson, there have been five different eras of citizenship in America since the 18th century. In each of these eras, to be a citizen meant something entirely different.
The first era was based on the politics of assent: a typical citizen of the 13 colonies was an adult white male property owner who, after casting his vote in the ballot, announced publicly the name of the candidate he had voted for with a clear and loud voice. Voting was a public act that restated and reaffirmed “the leading gentlemen’s right to govern”.
Attitudes changed in the early 19th century. During this second era voters were still adult white males, but their right to vote no longer required property ownership. The good citizen’s politics was no longer one of assent, but rather tied to an affiliation with a political party. Political campaigns and the act of voting in this era were expressions of party loyalty and rituals of solidarity towards a particular political coalition. For the voter, receiving a few dollars from his party, along with a pre-printed ticket bearing the name of the party candidate he must vote for, was not seen as bribery, just encouragement.
However, towards the end of the 19th century, reformers decided to halt what they regarded as a corrupt voting system. This was the beginning of the third era dominated by the ideal of the “informed citizen”. The era witnessed many changes: the Australian secret ballot was introduced, campaigning near polling stations was forbidden and the rewards that parties could give to voters were strictly limited. Most importantly, the reformers transformed political campaigning from an act based on emotions, to one based on education.
During this era, voting was (at least ideally) a rational, educated choice performed by a citizen who was well informed on public affairs. Political campaigns were no longer public parades, and instead rested on the ideas discussed in written pamphlets. As such, voters needed to know how to read in order to decide who to vote for. To vote was no longer a public act, but rather a private right. It was no longer bound to any social obligation towards the party, but more to “civic obligation or abstract loyalty, enforceable only by private conscience”.
Schudson debunks the myth of the informed citizen as a pillar for democracy and democratic accountability by showing his readers that the push for a new and more informed, literate citizen came with a new legal framework for disenfranchising African-Americans and immigrants (who were the less likely to know how to read and write). It didn’t reinforce democracy; it merely allocated electoral power to a select class of people.
The evolution of the concept of citizenship in America didn’t stop at the end of the 19th century. The civil rights movement of the 1960s gave way to a new model of citizenship: the “rights-bearing citizen”. Schudson notes that the rise of this fourth type of citizenship did not reduce the value that the ideal of the ‘informed citizen’ held in the eye of the public. However, the “rights-bearing citizen” succeeded in broadening the space of politics. The polling station was no longer the centre of civic participation, only one of the many locations where citizenship could be exercised and enacted. Homes, classrooms, courtrooms and interest groups all became equal repositories for political activity.
The Monitorial Citizen
At the end of his book, Schudson argues good citizens do not need to be fully informed. In fact, neither the informed citizen, nor any of the other three models of citizenship, could “suffice for the tasks of the present”. Almost three decades later, his argument is still valid.
The issue, Schudson highlights, is not the citizens’ lack of will to civic commitment, but rather the practical impossibility for the majority of citizens to commit more fully to politics. In America, as in any other complex democratic systems, to be well informed – even on a single issue concerning local politics – requires full time dedication and months of preparation. The average citizen simply cannot afford such a luxury. Even more so when a campaign is as fraught with lies and complicated strategies as in 2016. For the average citizen is almost impossible to make sense of it.
Because citizens can never be fully informed or committed to politics, their role is mostly in monitoring. For Schudson, in fact, we live in the age of “the monitorial citizen”, in which citizens often appear politically apathetic but, in reality, they are monitoring the situation and scanning the informational environment that surrounds them. The lack of knowledge, time and will in the daily routines of average people means that active participation in politics often takes place through proxies and representatives.
Subsequently, we often trust others to make important decisions that shape the quality of our lives on our behalf. When we buy food in the supermarket, we don’t run tests to personally check if the quality of our food meets legal requirements. Instead, we trust that the food quality controllers have done their job on our behalf. The ideal of monitorial citizens, Schudson suggests, is similar to having parents at the pool who “should be informed enough and alert enough to identify danger to their personal good and danger to the public good”. And when any danger does appear (by way of a child’s scream for instance) action should follow, meaning that monitorial citizens should have access to adequate resources to “jump into the political fray and make a lot of noise”.
The idea of the monitorial citizen is not without its flaws. As a professor of journalism, Schudson places too much importance on the role of the mainstream media. The Internet is obviously absent from his 1998 book, but even when later he returns to the concept, he includes the Internet within the bulk of available media. At first sight, his “monitorial citizens” seem too withdrawn from society, almost decadent. Some critics have even accused him of proposing a Californian laid-back description of what it means to be a citizen. The concept nevertheless has important implications to understand how American citizens behave. It gives us a blueprint to assess the US election results.
So, in a few hours, the real question is not whether citizens are really “fully informed” about who is the best candidate to choose; what will matter is whether the majority of them have heard the many “screams” of the past 12 months and are now willing to act and do something. At this late stage they are not asked to do anything dramatic. It might just be about enduring a few hours in line to cast a ballot; or as simple as making that last telephone call to an undecided friend. True, these are small steps, yet they might make a big difference at the end.
But if in the early hours of November 9 Americans wake up to find out that Donald Trump is the new tenant of the White House, they will know for certain that the age of the monitorial citizen is over and a new much darker era of democracy has just begun, in which the misinformed citizen will reign supreme. President-elect Trump will probably be the first one to tweet about it.