Democracy at the Watercooler?



Kevin Mattson




A Review of David Thelen, Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television: How Americans Challenged the Media and Seized Political Initiative during the Iran-Contra Debate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 246 pp. $14.95.


he political historian, David Thelen, has written an important book. Committing himself to a model of scholarship concerned more with public issues than with academia's "jargon" and "self-referentiality," Thelen has pored through letters written to members of the United States Senate and Congress around the Iran-Contra hearings. He has found what American citizens really thought about the hearings and has related their concerns to the state of American democracy in the late twentieth century. In essence, he has gotten to the bottom of issues that concern many American citizens.

The letters that Thelen searched through tell a story different from the one told by the media about the Iran-Contra hearings. The media never stopped harping on "Olliemania," treating the hearings like an entertainment spectacle and playing down the more important issues of public accountability and foreign policy. Journalists wrote as if citizens simply believed everything Oliver North said. The letters Thelen examined illustrate that citizens were not so mindless. Nor were they led around by the nose by orchestrated performances of politicians and military leaders which played across their television sets. Citizens, no matter what their political leaning, engaged in more thoughtful debate about the issues than the media provided. In their letters, Americans drew from experiences in everyday life -- not the reporting of the media -- to judge their political leaders. For instance, one teacher wrote in her letter, "I was caught up in the North mania until I started to explain it to my second graders." It's this disjunction between the media's treatment of the issue and the content of letters written to Senators and Congress people by average citizens that provides the core of Thelen's argument.

But Thelen does more than just show this disjunction, he provides an important history of the opinion management industries in America -- showing why journalists and public relations elites are so out of touch with regular American citizens. This is fascinating history. He argues that since the printing press revolution of the 16th century, those who dreamed of directing public opinion have conceptualized people less as distinct individuals with their own histories than as a mass, faceless audience. With the consolidation of a consumer culture during the 1920s in America, advertisers took this one step further as they tried to channel demand for the increasing number of products churned out by corporations. At the same time, intellectuals adopted "the Freudian belief that people were not even conscious of why they said what they did," thereby conceiving of the masses as perpetually irrational. Since they could not be trusted with their own ideas, pre-selected choices were set out for citizens when leaders wanted to find out what they thought. Polling and statistical analysis became the new means of understanding the mass, faceless audience. Following suit, political leaders adopted these means to learn where citizens stood in terms of political choices and candidates, and in the process, made these public choices akin to consumer purchases. Thelen argues that polling -- the only time, besides voting, when citizens' voices enter into the public forum -- "freezes conversation" and forces people into pre-conceived categories (i.e., yes, no, undecided). By tracing out history and interviewing key leaders of the opinion management industry (including David Gergen and James Carville), Thelen stands on solid ground when he claims that the world of opinion managers is divorced from that of average citizens.

Thelen overdraws his conclusions a bit when he states that there has been a "popular insurgency to reclaim the right to define the meaning and experience of citizenship." He is right in saying (and he says this very well) is that public opinion forms out of the discussions citizens have in primary groups. Thelen cites "intimate conversations around family dinner tables, at office watercoolers, across seats on an airplane or pews in a church, places that [are] invisible" to many media pundits but "places where life [matters] most to the participants." Citizens are not dupes of the media, because people still talk to their neighbors and friends about political issues and the media's messages. This is Thelen's most important argument. It holds important lessons but worrisome political prescriptions.

For too long, social critics have believed that citizens are conned into believing whatever the mass media presents. This tendency begins with Walter Lippmann, a political conservative, but it was adopted by left-leaning social critics when the Frankfurt School developed the concept of the "culture industry" after World War II. Though the Frankfurt School thinkers (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse) provided a thoughtful critique of the mass media, their ideas were appropriated in simplistic terms by more recent social critics. Soon, it became popular to ridicule the supposedly reactionary and stupid American masses as dupes of media "hegemony." Many social critics forgot that just because the messages of the media are vapid and manipulative does not mean that American citizens buy into them. Countering these intellectual tendencies, Thelen shows that citizens still possess a great deal of common sense and thoughtfulness.

But when Thelen spells out ways to revive the "public forum" necessary for democracy, his ideas become unsettling. He suggests that "politics could more nearly resemble primary relationships." A central feature of primary groups is their intimacy, and citizens drew upon this intimacy when corresponding with politicians. Thelen explains, "With their letters -- by writing the individual they saw within the congressman -- they drew legislators into their intimate worlds." Often, citizens treated politicians like their friends, stressing their "personal connection" to politicians. Thelen sees nothing wrong with this. But just as pollsters "freeze conversations" by locking citizens into preconceived choices, citizens can "freeze" their own conversations and roles in politics by conceiving their relations to politicians as personal and intimate. The values of primary relationships -- especially intimacy -- are not appropriate for relationships between citizens and those who hold political power. Politicians are not "pals" but public figures accountable to the court of critical judgment -- a judgment of their positions and policies, not their personalities. A political world resembling the intimacy appropriate for primary relationships is a recipe for disaster.

Ironically, Thelen does not see how his case study -- citizen responses to nationally televised hearings -- sets limits for his reform proposals. When thinking about ways to involve citizens in public debate, he writes, "The most obvious place to start is with the arena described in this book: televised congressional hearings on critical incidents that bring underlying doubts and interests into view and then into conflict with each other." But does this model really foster citizen participation in political discussion? After all, citizens don't set the terms of debate when they respond to hearings, they only react. Besides, hearings about foreign policy may not be the appropriate area in which to revive the "public forum." How much control will citizens ever gain over military policy? Why not encourage citizens to take part in discussions about local issues like education and crime -- issues over which citizens can, in fact, take some control and ownership over. Thelen's analysis is limited by the model of political engagement televised hearings can offer citizens.

With this said, Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television provides important and crucial insights into many of the problems American democracy faces. Until our political leaders and institutions find ways to integrate citizen deliberation into public decision making, America will fail to live up to its democratic promise. Thelen clarifies what impediments stand in the way of creating a democratic public sphere -- an elitist media culture and misconceptions of the ways citizens understand politics. For that, Thelen is to be commended.