January 29, 2021

I was briefly trapped, once, in Walter Cronkite’s closet. It was 2007, a couple of years before he died. The grand news anchor had been given an office for life at the top of the CBS building in New York, and I had gone to talk to him about the fate of the media. It was not terribly interesting — a bit like interviewing a Prussian cavalry officer about drone warfare.

But we parted on good company and I withdrew, with suitable obsequiousness, through what I thought was the door. Straight into his walk-in closet. When I sheepishly emerged, he was asleep.

Back then there was certainly a somnolence about the mainstream US media, a resting-on-laurels patrician grandeur — walk-in closets for the anchors, self-regarding “journalism studies” courses for the youngsters. It all suggested that, in the internet age, they didn’t know what was about to hit them.

Well, it’s hit them now. Right between the eyes. Both the Fox and CNN news channels are about to be displaced by Newsmax (to the right) and MSNBC (to the left). Not that it matters too much. Today, the traditional networks are largely watched by people whose hands shake too much to change the channel when the adverts come on for Viagra or dentures.

In fact, according to Pew research, more than half of Americans get some or most of their news from social media, mainly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And as Pew points out, this new-age media isn’t particularly helpful: Americans who turn to social media for political news are not only “less aware and knowledgeable about a wide range of events and issues”, but they are also “more likely than other Americans to have heard about a number of false or unproven claims”.

Perhaps the biggest of those claims is that Donald Trump won the election. Certainly large numbers of Americans believe it: around 32% according to a recent CNN poll. Meanwhile, YouGov reports that one in five voters — and 45% of Republicans — supported the storming of the Capitol.

What are we supposed to do with them? In the new age of Biden, the call goes out, let the values of pluralism that he would have recognised as a young man — the values of Walter Cronkite in his pomp — be the lodestone for the healing nation.  Blitz the dotty folk with real news, regulate social media, tell the truth in White House press briefings and, most importantly, respect facts. Breathe in. Respect truth. Breathe out.

It’s a seductive suggestion. But the philosopher kings and queens are wary. They wonder if the answer to ignorance is something other than knowledge, something even more difficult to pin down. In a recent column for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum wondered what we should do with the “seditionists” who stormed the capital. Her conclusion: “Drop the argument and change the subject.”

Don’t bother with fact-checking. Don’t harangue people about Democracy and Freedom and the American Way. In fact, stay right off these subjects.

There is a growing body of academic research that supports this view — a body added to recently by the Cambridge philosophy research fellow, Daniel Williams. In a blog published by the LSE, Williams introduces us to the idea of “rational motivated ignorance”.

“For a typical citizen,” Williams says, “political knowledge is just as often a liability as a source of power. Ignorance protects us from painful truths, insulates us from responsibility for our actions, and sustains the relationships that we depend upon for meaning and belonging. To understand and address societal ignorance, we must come to terms with such benefits.”

Here we return to Applebaum’s solution of simply changing the subject. As Williams puts it: “When societal ignorance is rational motivated ignorance, the solution cannot be ordinary forms of knowledge dissemination, persuasion, and fact checkers. Instead, our solutions must be much more targeted towards the interests and incentives that make knowledge costly for individuals.”

To which Joe Biden might reply: Huh? What does this actually mean? What should I do?

“Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting,” is Anne Applebaum’s suggestion. “’Who won the 2020 election?’ is, for these purposes, a bad topic. ‘How do we fix the potholes in our roads?’ is, in contrast, superb.” What this suggests — both for those who want to reclaim the Republican party and for those who want to press ahead with the Democratic agenda — is a move that is neither left nor right, but down.

It may not take the Democrats in the comfortable direction of the middle way. In fact, Biden’s unity agenda — some kind of bipartisan fudge that brings the nation together — might be a mirage best avoided. Instead, say a number of Democrats, what America needs is something far more radical.

They agree with Applebaum that the only way to forward is to simply get on and fix things. No doubt they’ll point to Obama’s first term, which was stuffed with serious misjudgements: they fruitlessly waited in vain for Republican support before spending money on infrastructure; they abandoned radical plans to create something like the NHS for all Americans, when in fact even the watered-down Obamacare was fought against tooth and nail by the Congressional GOP and still is.

David Sirota, an advisor to Bernie Sanders, wrote recently that the healthcare woes of the Obama administration “should be a harrowing cautionary tale for Biden on both the policy and the politics.” But Biden should know better: “He had a front-row seat in watching a bad-faith Republican opposition kill a much-needed initiative, and then use Democrats’ failure to deliver to win at the polls. He of all people should know that this story never ends well.”

And so America’s new President faces a paradox. In order to win back the middle ground, perhaps Biden needs to be radical. Certainly, he needs to reorder America — to actually provide solutions in a way that Donald Trump mainly failed to do.

As for where Biden should start, he could do worse than return to the musings of Donald Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon. Following the 2016 election, he called for a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and tax increases on the rich, boasting that “if we deliver, we’ll get 60% of the white vote and 40% of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years”.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad for the Biden team; the philosophers and the party radicals leading the way. Perhaps, as Walter Cronkite used to say, “that’s the way it is”.