This semester I have been deep in thought about the role that information policy—or the absence of it—plays in contemporary politics. While the course I am teaching at the Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University covers many important academic issues and there is a subtext: technology in the context of public policy. How have polarizing forces leveraged technology? And a call to action: beware the false gods of an autocratic or even fascistic bent.
The reading this week is Donovan, et al., Memes. It is about the use of a “piece of media,” remixed and redistributed through internet resources that carries meaning, aligns membership in groups often ideological and political in nature. It identifies allies and enemies. This book points to the use of memes in right-wing extremist group activities that led to the events of Jan. 6. It analyzes how pieces of media became a seriously disruptive aspect of American culture.
Earlier in the semester students read Jill Lepore. Therefore, I did not need to rehearse how we got to a troubled place politically. Both major political parties are guilty of having left so many people behind in the last half century through outsourcing; the decline in real wages since the 1970s and the further distancing of social and economic classes; how the 0.1 percent control 17 percent of our total national wealth; the social policy of poverty (brilliantly exposed by Matthew Desmond in his new book, Poverty, by America); our global military failures; our ruinous approach to both legal and illegal drugs and addiction; our greed-ridden health care and housing policies; fears about COVID and anxieties about vaccines reconfigured in a “paranoid style of American politics”; and the proliferation of guns in this country that makes virtually any move a person makes in the wrong place and at the wrong time dangerous.
Strengthening national defense, improving social relations among different classes, and enhancing economic effectiveness through information policy are my stated goals. And yet, there is another theme: to expose the potential for an alternative to our democratic way of life found in the autocratic if not outright fascist impulses that course through our body politic.
Lawrence Britt’s “The 14 Characteristics of Fascism” enumerates the criteria:
- Powerful and Continuing Nationalism. Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
- Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights. Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
- Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause. The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
- Supremacy of the Military. Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
- Rampant Sexism. The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and antigay legislation and national policy.
- Controlled Mass Media. Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.
- Obsession With National Security. Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
- Religion and Government Are Intertwined. Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.
- Corporate Power Is Protected. The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
- Labor Power Is Suppressed. Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.
- Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts. Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.
- Obsession With Crime and Punishment. Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forgo civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
- Rampant Cronyism and Corruption. Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.
- Fraudulent Elections. Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.
Academic colleagues might want to debate specific points. I, for one, wonder why this list does not emphasize mass, populous demagoguery more. But a perfect definition of fascism is not my focus. This list appears good enough to set an understanding for undergraduates who may know not too much more about fascism than it was a 20th-century political phenomenon that undergirded the Second World War. What I hoped to achieve with this list is to ask, first, do these characteristics ring a bell in contemporary U.S. politics? What role have memes or other forms of culture played in it? Why have memes and internet subcultures been such a power force? What is the relationship between culture and politics? How do concepts of information policy fit into this political landscape?
The structure of our government—separation of power into three branches with checks and balances—and the integrity many public servants keep the United States from a full plunge into this chasm. A free press continues to be a great bulwark against those forces. A truly free market requires distance from government. Culturally, a growing awareness of what is at stake makes a difference. Still, it is alarming to note how many bells ring. Particularly startling is how the two front-runners for the Republican nomination for president, former president Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, resonate with so many of these concepts.
What can information policy do about these developments? The authors used in this course (Braman, Zuboff, Donovan, Gillespie, Solove and Hertzog) approach various aspects of information policy to support democracy. What they have in common is a concern that the exploitation of individuals, or information inequality, handicaps us internationally in terms of national defense and in economic, social and political confusion at home. Information policy, or the lack of it, weaves through other material factors that plague us. It contributes to distrust, disaffection and in some cases a full rejection of our government. It spurs the hand of violence.
In tandem with the corruption that money in politics creates, is the perilous assumption that democracy will always be here. Democracy, it is thought, is a permanent situation for our country. American exceptionalism immunizes us against autocracy or fascism. Magically, it would seem, we rise above human nature and the course of human events. We automatically will always come back to democratic stasis, however imperfect.
I don’t share that view of American exceptionalism. We have a distinctive history, yes, but so do other cultures and countries. In this more realistic light, we should observe how vulnerable we are to the hollow promises of popular demagoguery and even fascism. Instead of taking a hard look at what we, the people, need to change in this county, it might be easier to trust a strong man and his cronies to fix it. Reputable surveys consistently show that more and more people distrust government and science and are suspicious of elites and higher education. There are conflicting reports about the political predilections of young people. Republicans who seek to end voting on college campuses must be concerned about a leftward tilt of youth, and yet some statistics report that increasing percentages of the young do not believe in democracy as a useful form of government. The divide between those with certification or degrees and those without may explain that difference.
In this larger context, information policy may seem not much more than a flourish. That is why I teach a course not on information policy as if it were an already existing monolith, but on the culture, law and politics that frame it. Informational inequality between the individual and both government and corporations is representative of precisely what drives us in directions that are not consistent with the values of openness and transparency that define a democratic republic. Foreign interference in our elections is evidence of its ill effects. Memes are another manifestation. Mis-/disinformation challenges speaks the loudest. More and more, we should be aware that to be confused about the role that information plays in international affairs as well as at home is neither a strategic nor competitive approach to a sound society. Certainly not in a global information political economy.
We must recognize the dangers that persist in the form of tough-guy personality worship and the promise quick fixes. A democracy requires that citizens work for their chosen government. The inherent fairness of a rule of law, equality of opportunity and social and economic justice. Democracy holds out genuine hope and possibility, not rank anger and resentment. We have not achieved perfection in those efforts against prejudicial violence and hate, to be sure. We still have work to address the most obvious microcosms of power abuses in our own history and culture, i.e., genocide and containment of Indigenous peoples, slave societies and segregation, domestic violence and the exploitation of women and children. But we must move forward, not back. There is no future in that past. As a democratic republic, we often compare ourselves to the ancients. Rome was not built in a day, they say, but we often overlook the fact that in the centuries after it became an empire Rome politically became what we would now call an autocratic, fascist state. At the end of that reign, the western part of it disintegrated into chaos. I will be long gone by the time a full flowering of this possibility could ever take shape in the United States, but still, I can’t stand the thought. A friend of mine asked me recently, aren’t you ever going to retire? No, not while I still have the fight in me. The privilege of addressing these critical issues with young people who have something to lose in the next many decades means more to me than a paycheck, and I am ever so thankful for the chance to be among them to discuss it.