On Wednesday, Nov. 1, writer Todd Gitlin delivered a lecture on the state of American democracy in the Charles B. Wang Center, focusing on populism and fake news.
“He’s been an intellectual force, a political force, a literary force and an academic force,” School of Journalism Dean Howard Schneider said when introducing Gitlin, who serves as chair of Columbia University’s Ph.D. program in communications. “But for me and for lots of other people, perhaps his greatest contribution has been as a very trenchant and insightful observer of the cultural and political wars that have wracked our country since the 1960s and continue to wrack this country.”
With more than 50 years in the public eye, Gitlin has established himself as a prominent intellectual and social critic. As president of Students for a Democratic Society from 1963 to 1964, Gitlin helped organize some of the earliest mass protests against the Vietnam War. He has written extensively about politics and culture, and his articles on the subjects have been featured in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Gitlin opened by quoting Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin to highlight the severity of what he deemed a “crisis in democracy.”
“Democracy is not simply a political system in which elections take place and majorities rule,” Gitlin said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport, it requires alert, thoughtful and engaged citizens, and they are scarce.”
Gitlin elaborated on the rise of what journalist and bestselling author Fareed Zakaria deemed “illiberal democracy” – democracy that does not respect civil liberties or adhere to the rule of law. By Zakaria’s 1997 estimate, around one-third of the world’s democratic governments were illiberal. Gitlin said the number of illiberal democracies has risen over the past two decades, citing Israel and the rise of ultranationalist parties in Europe as evidence.
The United States, Gitlin warned, may be headed down that same path as well.
“I would argue that within the last year, we have made some grave lurches in the direction of illiberal democracy here,” Gitlin said. “So there is a movement toward illiberal democracy, it’s a grave distortion of what actual democracy requires.”
But to Gitlin, the most significant threat to American democracy today is the rise of populism, which he went on to define in his own terms.
“The people are conceived as a singular body, a block, usually around a single leader,” Gitlin said. “Unanimity is the ideal and disagreement or plurality of opinion is considered a disgrace… in other words, to use a 19th-century term, populism reflects and embodies a herd mentality.”
Gitlin called the media the “products and igniters” of American populism, claiming that media moguls like Newscorp CEO Rupert Murdoch and Robert Mercer, CEO of Renaissance Technologies and major funder for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, falsely present themselves as the voices of the people while pursuing their own agendas. Donald Trump, he argued, could never have won the presidency without being the beneficiary of this media-driven populism.
“Donald Trump is a media-made man since his earliest days as a wealthy real-estate heir moving his operations from Queens to Manhattan,” Gitlin said. “Trump was already a star, he could not have been a plausible political candidate had he not already established himself and been taken seriously as a celebrity.”
President Trump’s celebrity status made anything he did on the campaign trail inherently newsworthy, Gitlin argued, giving him billions of dollars of free media exposure on his way to the White House. Even after the election, Gitlin noted how differently outlets owned by Murdoch have covered stories that could potentially harm the president when compared to other media organizations.
Gitlin went one step further with his criticism of media moguls, calling Fox News’ website an “alternate universe” and blaming tycoons like Murdoch and Mercer for spreading misinformation and fake news through the public.
“There’s nothing new about fake news,” Gitlin said. “What’s new is that the media ecology has changed so that now a promoter of fake news, a propaganda channel, has a presence in most American living rooms, that’s the difference… Robert Mercer and Rupert Murdoch are the panderers to the false populism which has become the guiding insight of this stupendously corrupt and dishonest political administration.”
A fractured mainstream press coupled with an easily manipulated social media landscape, Gitlin believes, has pushed the United States into what he calls the “era of fake news.” He ended with a call for action, imploring Facebook and individual citizens to more scrupulously review where they get their information.
“This is a grave situation,” Gitlin said. “I think it is now generally recognized by many, including some honorable Republicans, that a would-be democratic society in which the lifeblood has been commandeered by fabricators is on its way out of the status of democracy and republic.”
After the lecture, Stony Brook English professor Andrew Flescher praised Gitlin’s insight into both the rise of President Trump and the machinations of the media.
“I think that we learned a lot about how Trump was created,” Flescher said. “And a lot about how, during desperate times, the media or other institutions that find themselves under assault, are willing to do things they may not have done in a less desperate era.”