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Al Gore's New Theory

Editor's Note: In the current issue, Ryan Lizza speaks with Al Gore about his new book, The Assault on Reason, and the former vice president explains what went wrong with democracy. The following is a transcript of the interview, which was conducted on May 30.

Ryan Lizza: Explain what the book is about. Who did you write the book for? Who is the audience for the book?

Al Gore: Principally Americans, although it's selling well in England as well, and there is interest in translations. But it's mainly an American book, and it is about some fairly dramatic changes in the way our democracy now operates that have in my opinion received far too little attention, much less concern.

Democracy is a conversation, and the way any conversation unfolds has implications for what kind of conversation it is, what results or conclusions are reached, and how they're reached. And American democracy was intended to be a robust and vigorous multi-way conversation that individual citizens could join freely without any significant barriers.

The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government, freedom of assembly, were all aimed at protecting the freedom and integrity of that conversation which our founders felt was at the heart of representative democracy.

To an extent not appreciated at the time of our founding, that conversation was based on a particular kind of expression, the printed word, that was then completely dominant and which had led to the Enlightenment and the enshrinement of a new source of sovereign authority--the rule of reason--which displaced the monarchy and the medieval church. And it was in service to that new sovereign that the United States of America was established.

Just as the printing press had overturned the medieval information monopoly that supported feudalism, so a half century ago the printing press was itself replaced as the dominant medium in America by electronic broadcasting and now the particular form of television--over the air, over cable, over satellite--is so dominant that the average American now watches television four hours and thirty-five minutes a day, and that time continues to rise, year-by-year. Even with the rise of the internet and it's growing strength, television is now so dominant that, just to take one example, in the last elections in the contested races candidates in both parties spent an average of 80% of their campaign budget not on the internet or on pamphlets or newspaper or magazine ads but on thirty second TV ads. That's what works now, and the way it works is troubling. It's not a multi-way conversation. It's not even a two-way conversation. It is often a manipulative exercise utilizing the tools of persuasion that were developed by advertisers of commercial products in cooperation with psychologists and researchers who plumbed the inner workings of our thought processes in order to devise ways to deemphasize facts and logic and reason.

And there was never a golden age when reason alone reigned supreme, of course not, but the relative importance of reason in the design of America's democracy was much greater than it has become in this new mass electronic culture.

One thing that struck me reading the book is that we are at a moment when the internet seems to be on the cusp of reigning supreme. So I was struck by the pessimism and the focus on television. It seems like you are not as optimistic about the potential of the internet. [Gore motions for a copy of the book] Is it that you think it's the future but we're just not there yet?

Well the internet is growing in significance and power. And if it is protected and if its freedom and accessibility is protected than I think that we will see it used as a source of strength and renewal for American democracy. But I did want to read you this sentence: I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail and that the American people are rising to the challenge of reinvigorating self government. We are by nature a courageous and adaptive people. Our forebears overcame great challenges and so will we. We are already seeing the emergence of new and innovative defenses against the assault on reason. It's my greatest hope that those who read this book will choose to become part of a new movement to rekindle the true spirit of America.

I do think, as I say elsewhere, we are already beginning to see signs of renewal. Quoting from another part of the book: Broadband interconnection is supporting decentralized processes that reinvigorate democracy. We can see it happening before out eyes. As a society we are getting smarter. Network democracy is taking hold. You can feel it.

But I do feel that the same forces that have found ways to exercise control over television and radio, for the same economic reasons, have an incentive to extend their control over the delivery of the internet, to control over the content that flows over the internet. And that's a battle in the Congress right now.

So you don't think it's a given that it will remain open?

No, I don't think it's a given but I am genuinely optimistic. I think that it holds the promise of a renewal for democracy to take participation to much higher levels than we've ever seen.

In the book the role of television has a lot of explanatory power. Television has been around for quite a while. What changed? Is it something that changed in the Bush era that was fundamentally different? What changed in the last few years that wasn't present before that made television so powerful and led to some of the abuses of the Bush era, as you see them?

Well that is an excellent and thoughtful question. And the changes I describe in the book are not ones that changed with the flip of a switch. We crossed successive thresholds. Before television, the first broadcast technology was radio, and when it was introduced in the 1920s the defenders of democracy were immediately apprehensive. That's why we had the Equal Time Provision and the Fairness Doctrine and the Public Interest Standard. When the picture was added, the potential of electronic broadcasting was expanded dramatically. And by the early 1960s another threshold had been crossed. That is the time, in 1962 specifically, when more American began to get their information from television than from newspapers.

But for a long time the television networks mimicked the older medium of newspapers. And men in suites and ties sitting behind desks reading printed words from a teleprompter--that is still the dominant form in the big three broadcast networks.

You mean it is still like that now?

Sure. They find ways to break that form apart, but it's still the dominant form for ABC, CBS, NBC. It's no longer only men in suits and ties. Katie Couric now does the same thing for NBC [sic], but she's reading from a teleprompter in the main. And I'm not criticizing that. I'm saying that it is part of the evolution of television news out of the newspaper routines. And in fact in the early days NBC and CBS were accused of taking the priority of their stories directly from the front page of The New York Times. I believe there was a lawsuit at one point about that.

But as television became more and more dominant, the inherent possibilities in this new form began to be explored. And during President Reagan's term--well, first of all, an actor was elected president, which is not to demean him for the profession he held before he got into politics, but the very fact that performance skills were valued more highly was partly an outgrowth of the prominence of television. Nothing mysterious about that, it's just a fact.

But during his term, the Equal Time Provision and the Fairness Doctrine were repealed, and the Public Interest Standard was so weakened that it was more often honored in the breach. One year after those legal changes were made, Rush Limbaugh began his radio program and then the imitators followed in his wake. And every single year since then, the amount of time every day that Americans devote to watching television has continued to increase.

In a single generation we went from being a nation of readers, primarily, to a nation where the average American spent 35 hours a week, almost as much as a full work week, sitting in front of a box with flickering lights. That's an astonishing change in a single generation. And it's increased from there. And the majority of the people who are using the internet now are watching television while they're using the internet.

I plead guilty.

Well, me too at times. And of course the point of the book is not to induce guilt over that at all, but rather to inspire some reflection and analysis of what the overall impact on our democracy has been. But it's not just that. It's also the short-term horizons, the demand for immediate gratification. That's true in politics and entertainment and business. The quarterly reports are now dominant. The day traders have enormous influence. And so this is a values shift that has affected the entire society. But when it comes to how we as Americans make decisions about important matters, one of the unwelcome consequences has been the de-emphasis of reason, facts, and logic.

Here in this city just before the US Senate voted to invade Iraq, there was precious little debate about the pros and cons. The senate was largely silent on the question. And the facts that should have led our nation to oppose this ill-considered invasion which predictably has left our troops caught in a civil war, during those weeks there were hundreds of millions of person hours spent watching stories about Russell Crowe throwing a telephone at a hotel concierge or Brittney Spears shaving her head, or Lindsay Lohan's latest brush with the law, or Anna Nicole Smith's embalming, or the latest celebrity trial. And that and sports trivia and much else crowds the public square to sell products and attract advertisers at the expense of what used to play a more significant role in the public square--that is, democracy.

During the Bush years the Democratic Party did not respond as it should have, or as you think it should have. You open with Robert Byrd's speech on the Senate floor. Could you trace the evolution and the changes in the role that the Democratic Party played once you left office? What were the structural problems among the Democrats that led them to be silent on the day of Byrd's speech? What is your analysis of the party during that period?

Well I think both parties failed the country, and in contrast to other periods of American history, the majority party, then the Republicans, had virtually no one willing top break ranks and commit candor even though more than a few of them should have known what was involved here.

But the Democratic Party, as you pointed out, did not distinguish itself, to say the least. And why were they silent? Well, the book offers a set of answers to that question, and I don't point fingers at individual senators or members of Congress or party leaders for their personal failure to speak up. I focus in this book on the structural changes that made it more likely than not that they could get away with being silent, and the incentives that reward going along to get along. I think that one reason the senate was silent is that the senators no longer feel that what's said on the floor of the senate matters to anyone anymore. Not to their colleagues because their colleagues are almost never there. And why aren't they there? One reason is that they are under pressure to go out and attend fundraisers every night, often several of them the same night. And why? Because access to the public forum that counts at election time has to be purchased in the form of paying for these thirty second TV commercials. And in order to buy them, and the candidate who buys the most usually wins. In order to buy them you have to collect X number of thousands of dollars every single day throughout the term. And the reliable sources of that money year in and year out are more likely than not to be special interests or people connected to special interests who have a direct interest in specific legislative policies and votes and outcomes.

And if the people--if the debates on the senate floor are not covered in the news media, if their colleagues are not paying any attention to them, why have a debate? Well, the answer is, often, there is no debate. There's a shadowboxing pantomime debate that does not really feed the needs of our democracy or allow the people to hold the elected officials accountable. And if the people are shut out--you know, all of those people who are primarily getting their information from television have no means of joining that conversation. They can speak as they want to but nobody hears them. It's not a two-way conversation. And it's like putting them in soundproof rooms with one-way mirrors, and that's no way to run a democracy.

If the people are cut off from a vigorous discussion of ideas and choices, then those who dominate that constant flow of information over the airwaves are going to effectively be able to purchase the consent of the governed. And remember, the E = MC² of American democracy was John Locke's equation: All just power derives from the consent of the governed. And the way in which consent is derived is crucial here. It was assumed by our Founders that consent of the governed would be derived through a free and open exchange of ideas in which the merits of proposals and ideas would be tested against the rule of reason, and although it was never a perfect system, and was always mixed with emotion and instinct and passion, nevertheless, reason played the prominent role, the most prominent role. And if that's gone, if reason is taken away, it creates a vacuum that is filled by extreme partisanship, fundamentalism, extreme nationalism, corruption and special interest manipulations, and all of those things are now bedeviling our democracy.

One criticism of the book is that your argument is overly scientistic. David Brooks caricatured your argument as that of a radical technological determinist. What's the response to that? The Times review also mentioned that your discussion of radio and fascism in Europe was too--


--reductive. What's your response to that criticism?

I have over the years respected Michiko Kakutani's reviews and have so often relied on her judgment. I was thrilled to get such a strong and enthusiastic and favorable review.

Where Brooks is concerned, I'm not really sure that he's talking about the same book [laughs], but to give him credit for a moment, there is a legitimate question about what role one should assign to the influence of sweeping new technologies that have a pervasive influence. And it would be a mistake, had I done so, to adopt a technological determinant point of view. Because of course it's all mediated by the way we react to it, all the other influences that are involved. But just to take one example. Most scholars of the Enlightenment are completely in support of the proposition that the printing press was the dominant force in bringing it into being.

Which he just sort of dismisses...

Correct. There's a complex analogy in the book between A) the way the printing press led to the Enlightenment, and B) the way the current dominance of television in a complex communications environment that includes pagers, cell phones, television, PDAs, SMS, text messaging, computers, games, and all of the rest. What that has created in the space that used to be filled by this exchange of ideas and printed words, is in my opinion, potentially as sweeping as the changes that unfolded during the decades and centuries following the printing press.

But the change is accelerated now. And I think that it's foolish--it would be foolish for us not to look at the pervasive nature of these changes. Newspapers are physically shrinking. The New Republic has gone from one week to two weeks, a shift that I think is wise, but driven by the same phenomenon. Printed publications have greater challenges holding on to readers in this new environment. And when campaigns are organized, whether for candidates or for commercial products, they look at this complex messaging environment and they look at the research that show how to--to use Walter Lippman's phrase, "manufacture consent."

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in the '50s about his initial recognition of the power of this new electronic apparatus had literally changed the laws of supply and demand by giving large and wealthy producers a new ability to create demand for products that never existed before the advertising campaigns were launched. And then in extreme forms, we saw the creation of advertising campaigns before the product was even manufactured to find out what would work in the sales area before the product was actually created to conform to the effective advertising campaign. Now that is unfortunately an accurate description of American politics today. So many candidates in both parties go out and conduct the in-depth research on what's going to work to move people's opinions, and then configure their positions and policies and platforms and presentations to that advertising campaign. And that drains the integrity out of the process by which the consent of the governed is granted. And what Walter Lippmann said was "manufacturing of consent" is now a commoditized process.

I'm going to take you at your word about everything you've said about running for president--

It wouldn't be you if you didn't ask some of these questions, Ryan.

Here's another way to ask it. If you were running for president, or if you were advising someone, as someone who has been through this process and written a pretty meaty critique of what's wrong with the process, how would you do it differently or advise someone to do it differently? What would you tell someone like Obama or someone who's fresh and new and just entering this process and is in danger of getting sucked into the whole consultant culture and the fundraising race and all the things that you're critical of? How would you recommend they go about this process?

I really admire the formulation of this question. Rather than asking me, as others occasionally have, "Are you a candidate?" or "Under what circumstances would you be a candidate?" you just simply scoot past that and say, "Let's assume that you were a candidate, now speak as if you are a candidate."[laughs]

I'm not trying to play gotcha here.

I understand, but I'm uncomfortable speaking as a candidate when I'm not one. And I don't really think I'm very good at politics--I've said that before, but it's a constraint in my response to questions about advice for those who are candidates. I don't hold myself out as an authority or a source of any expertise on campaigns. I'm not trying to be falsely modest. I mean I had some successes in electoral politics, but I truly don't think that I'm particularly good at some of the things that the system requires now.

If I were a candidate--I'll do justice to your question to this extent: If I were a candidate, I would seek to engage people in a robust exchange of ideas on all these questions and find ways to use the new tools effectively. I know that some of the candidates who are out there are trying to do precisely that, and I give them credit for it and I wish them well.

Did you endorse Dean primarily because you agreed with his position on the war or was it that you admired the kind of campaign he was running?

Well I felt that the use of the internet to raise money in small denominations from large numbers of small donors offered a pathway into a different kind of campaign financing, and I think that has to a limited degree turned out to be the case, because that way of fundraising is now a feature of the system. I think it's a healthy development.

But special interest money is still dominant, and K Street is still dominant. And the explosion of the number of lobbyists in this town just in the last 6 years is really astonishing. But money now plays a bigger role in the passage of laws and the shaping of policy than it ever has in the worst periods of American history--during the Gilded Age, and the other ages when money had an unhealthy influence. This is the worst of all. And we really have to address it and correct it. And money is in direct competition with reason. I mean, what America was all about was an opportunity for individual citizens to use knowledge as a source of influence and mediate between wealth and privilege. That's part of the promise of America.

Is there any way for this campaign to unfold without the candidates getting trapped in that process? Or does it require some fundamental structural changes before that happens?

Probably the latter. Probably the latter, but hope springs eternal. And I do think we're in a process of change that could accelerate, and we could see the more rapid emergence of new forms of politics that redeem the process of American democracy. I don't see it happening quickly right now, but it could happen.

People are fed up. People in both parties are fed up with the way the system is operating. They feel their votes don't count, their opinions don't matter, that their lives aren't understood, that they're not listened to. They have no meaningful way of participating in the system, and too often they're right about all that. We have to change that to the point where people do feel invited back into the conversation of democracy.

One way to read your book is that this is a case for impeachment. You say the president has broken the law repeatedly. You come close to accusing him of criminal negligence for not responding aggressively after the famous presidential daily briefing about bin Laden. There are the faintest murmurs of the I-word in this town, and obviously it's not going very far, but what's your opinion of that?

Well the only murmurs I've heard have been those embedded in hypothetical questions from journalists, and I've gotten it several times from journalists, but not from anyone else. And I don't think that with a year and a half left in this presidency and such little appetite for the high drama that would be involved, that it's a practical possibility. So I don't see anybody in a position of authority who is seriously thinking about that at all.

But on the merits, is there a case for it?

Only the Congress could make that determination.

But you're not willing to--

I've recently begun to fear that I'm losing my objectivity on Bush and Cheney. [laughs] Were it up to me he would not be president, but that won't surprise your readers.

Tell me about the debate within the Democratic party ...

Is there one?

Is there not?

What is it?

That's why I'm trying to figure out--

If you find out, let me know.

Are you being serious?


You think there's no real debate?

Well, no, it's kinda--

Do you think it's that bad?

I don't want to be critical of the candidates, that's not my intention. But I don't think the modern campaign process facilitates a genuine exchange of ideas. It's multiple overlapping games of gotcha and who can read the polls and the focus groups most skillfully and discern some new manipulative option that can be quickly parlayed into a couple of percentage points in the next poll and parlay that into greater fundraising totals by the end of the next reporting period, and so it goes.

And I don't mean to sound overly cynical about it. I'm an idealist and I'm an optimist. But I have to tell you that I don't find the campaigns particularly uplifting. And I know having run for national campaigns how dispiriting it can be to hear some outsider who's not in the fray give some dour judgment on the state of play. And again I emphasize it's not a criticism of the individual candidates, but yet another way of describing the structural changes that have led these good people to be trapped in a bad system ... .

One of the things that you seem to be doing is trying to get these candidates to care about the issues you care about. Are you having success? Are you impressed with the way that any of the Democratic candidates have approached global warming?

Well, some of them have made some interesting statements, but I'm not trying to directly influence them. If I could I would, but I long since decided that the only way to solve this climate crisis is by going straight to the grassroots and bringing about a massive sea change in public opinion. And that's the campaign that I'm focused on.

I've trained 1200 people to go out and give my slideshow multiple times every day, all over this country. They're a great group of people--completely bipartisan, by the way, from all walks of life. And I'm continuing to give it myself.

This book, The Assault on Reason, really came out of my in-depth exploration of why it is that this abundant evidence has been so blithely ignored by the political system. Any reasonable person who takes a look at the scientific evidence would have to conclude we face a planetary emergency, and the United States of America has to act quickly and provide moral leadership and political leadership in the world. The fact that it's not happening--yet--says something about the nature of our current decision-making process, and that's what this book is designed to explore, and it proposes remedies for.

Ryan Lizza is the Washington Correspondent for The New Yorker.

By Ryan Lizza