Ignoring the President is Healthy for the Republic
President Obama’s immigration speech wasn’t carried live on the four major networks – NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. He never officially requested the time from the networks because initial inquiries suggested the requests would all be denied. The White House is peeved, and its freelance propagandists in the media are none too happy either.
John Nichols of The Nation, for instance, is livid that networks didn’t jump at the opportunity to upend their schedules and force the President’s speechifying down their viewers throats. Inexcusably, networks chose “relentless profiteering” over being dutiful agents of the President’s political apparatus. That, he says, is “one important part of why this great democracy is not working as well as it could.”
Balderdash. The fact that private life goes on largely undistributed by the political machinations of a self-indulgent President is a sign of a restoring vitality in our republic.
A king might expect citizens to drop whatever they are doing to attend to every egotistic whim of the crown. An American president not only needs no such luxury, but ought not seek it. Except in the most serious of emergencies, the proper role of the president is to attend to enforcement of the law. Outside military affairs he is simply a chief executive, a glorified bureaucrat putting the ideas of Congress into practice. Certainly, he has a role in crafting law as well, but more so by exercise of political power than granted authority. But that political power has limits, as President Obama has experienced.
Americans should not have much tolerance for a President who seeks to grab society by the horns and steer it wherever he pleases. That has never been the American way, where individual rights and preferences are held in reverence.
Nichols ties the decision of the networks into what he sees as a broader battle for civic engagement:
Former Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps has repeatedly warned in recent years of the threat posed to democracy by the “diminished and too often dumbed-down civic dialogue” that emerges when those who broadcast on the people’s airwaves fail to serve the people’s interest.
Copps explains, “Our country confronts challenges to its viability in some ways reminiscent of the 1930s, making it a national imperative that every American be empowered with the news and information essential for knowledgeable decision-making. Without that, the challenges go misunderstood, untended, unresolved. When our media, our press and our journalism catch cold, democracy catches pneumonia.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sees the network neglect of a particular presidential address as just one measure of a broader crisis for democracy that results when media are no longer “educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues.”
When these elites worry that Americans are no longer being educated about the “real issues,” what they mean is that they are no longer having their thinking done for them by those who know better. There is more information available than ever before, and it is no longer filtered through a regimented point of view. In a world of cable television and 24/7 news stations, the “network” distinction is all but irrelevant. Those who cared to see the speech easily could do so. What troubles Nichols and his ilk is that there were other choices available at all.
What they see as evidence of some crisis in political engagement, I see as a healthy awareness of the limited importance of collective action. What has always made America great is recognition that the everyday decisions of millions of free and productive people outweigh the preferences of a tiny, centralized few. The private must maintain supremacy over the public. The more that people tune out Washington’s self-indulgent and excessively frequent demands for attention, the more time is available for them to live their lives, exercise their liberty, and pursue their own happiness.