Reading time: 11min.

by Hans Crusim

The modern marketplace of ideas

In the current political landscape, no idea is more important than that of the “marketplace of ideas”. This concept, echoed in Al Gore’s wonderfully enlightened book Assault on Reason, is the idea that with a laissez-faire approach in the regulation of freedom of speech and expression, meaning with little interference from governments, ideas presented by the people should be allowed to run its course and succeed or fail under their own merits. Trusting that bad ideas will eventually be overturned by good ideas.

Al Gore states in his book that the democracy of the United States, crafted by the Founding Fathers with the idea of the freedom of speech, expression and the press in mind, works best if the concept of “well informed citizenry” is respected and nurtured by those who have been given the consent of the governed. The ex-vice president (in position at the time of the Clinton administration) was, and is, very supportive of that concept as evident by his writings.

The marketplace of ideas is manifested in the form of public forums, of any variety. It is a platform in which of those in the US, and those beyond, have the ability to voice their opinion and then debate the validity of the decisions made by those who govern them. An interactive platform where citizens can speak their mind has often, in the words of the person Laurie Penny has dubbed “orange Ultron”, drained the sludge out of government and in turn the political landscape overall. Political accountability has frequently been the result of the appropriate use of public forums, preventing the consent of the governed to be manufactured through free and transparent discourse. Collective intellectualism is often hard to fool, even harder to hide secrets from, which in turn keeps those who represent the people in a democratic country do no more than just that; represent the collective wishes of the people and not personal agenda alone. These ideas, until the US elections of last year, have kept “the land of the free” off the path of totalitarianism.

Today public forums take social media as the dominant platform for political discourse – believe it or not. With the Trump administration tearing down the once trusted and dominant platform for discourse, the news outlets, by blurring the line between news and fake news, citizens now do not know what established institutions to trust for their information so that they can make informed political decisions – now they rely on each other. The reputation of news outlets was not improved, as I mentioned in my article The Achilles Heel of the Trump Administration, with Buzzefeed’s irresponsible actions in the #WaterSportsGate controversy – publishing an unverified dossier about Trumps alleged illicit activities.

As much as I want to stand and defend the credibility of journalists, the well of trust they once had and their buckets full of good will is drying up. It would be easy to point the blame at the current administration and it would be partly true, but some of the blame must also go to journalists themselves as this loss of trust between them and the public is partly self-inflicted.

Back in the “good ol’ days” of the Bush administration, Al Gore prophesised the rise of the internet, creating new dominant public forums where:

“…Individuals…reassert their historic role in American democracy…”

In his previously mentioned book Assault on Reason Mr Gore writes that he suffered in a time of politics when power struggles and important political events, such as elections, were fought on television. He goes on to state:

“[It was] A very different kind of public forum – one in which individuals are consistently flattered but [citizens] rarely listened to…”

Television is a passive platform for political discourse and its biggest flaw, exponentiated by its passive nature, is that the highest bidders get the maximum coverage. Those with the financial capabilities can buy their time and space – in turn having more access to the ears of the voters. This flaw allowed the rich to stay in power and manufacture the consent of citizens, planning and launching one-sided campaigns that convinced the governed to let those in power to do what they want. In the process using their wealth to block out other voices and took advantage of the passive experience of consuming information through a television – not involving critical thinking or mass discussion. Propaganda was shoved down your throat – which allowed the Bush administration to push something as un-American as the Patriot Act (2001). An Act that was basically: if the government had a suspicion, even the tinsy-itty-bitty slightest, that you were part of a terrorist affiliation – search and seizure without a court order was legal.

Fortunately, we’ve all learned from the mistakes of the past. Government manipulation through fear mongering, which was what the Bush administration acted on straight after 9/11, is something we’re not as easily susceptible to. I say “not as” because, as Trumps campaign rhetoric and Brexit proves, it still works but we’ve caught on it faster.

But public forums such as Twitter and Facebook have lessened our susceptibility to the manufacturing of our consent, by Government propaganda. The one thing social networking sites eliminate in the political landscape, or at least lessens the effectiveness of, is the smokescreen of political theatre. Like I previously stated, an interactive public forum is key to, and especially to a capitalist country such as the US, a representative democracy. With the individuals ability to easily create a profile on a website like Twitter, that individual now has access to the ears of not only other millions of voters, but also those who represent the governed. Unlike television, unlike newspapers – this kind of public forum gives the ability of a direct, two-way communication instantaneously. It is a constant, twenty-four hour live platform of discourse where any idea can be shared and go viral. The eyes, ears and ideas of a nation, or even the world, are connected expanding the ever growing number and capability of collective intellectualism.

Even with the capitalist structure of America’s democracy, with the combination of the first Amendment and Net Neutrality (The principle that internet service providers and governments keeping the internet in check are non-discriminatory to the movement of data packets – essentially a free network.) social media, and the internet as a whole, makes for the most freeing kind of public forum. In which all ideas and opinions, even those who you disagree with, can be seen, heard or read by anybody. But this is of course a double edge sword as some “unnamed” news outlets and individuals abuse this level of freedom by releasing what is essentially #fakenews. Poisoning the well of information provided to us, and although this is true, like with every kind of public forum, we have the ability as citizens to think critically and this is where debating in a civilized manner comes useful.

This global network, that is instantaneous, allows for the flow and content of most information to be uncensored and unadulterated. We have the ability to discuss with all kinds of people around the around the world, about all kinds of topics – especially political ones. The validity of information given to us by those in power can be debated, making sure politicians are checked and their stances are balanced, as much as it can be. This liberation from a one-way line of communication that connects us to those who govern us to voters dilutes the effectiveness of propaganda and political theatre creating a healthier representative democracy in the United States- ish.

It continues to do so, as proven by the movement of the women’s march. That movement started out as a post on Facebook by a retired lawyer: Teresa Shook. Then, with time and the inauguration of a sexist pig, saying colourful things like “Grab them by the pussy”, as the most powerful world leader, that post on Facebook led to one of the biggest global movements in history. Outnumbering Trump’s inauguration crowd in Washington alone.