The Disappearing Agora

For most of us, the agora is electronic rather than physical. We now meet mostly online, missing the shared ‘witnessing’ known to early democracies and even early television viewers.

The idea of a central meeting place goes hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy.  A location where leaders and citizens are can be heard and exchange ideas is an essential feature of a civil society. Of course it was one thing for the several hundred citizens of a young democracy like ancient Syracuse in the 5th century BC.  They would gather in an open space.  It’s quite another thing when the political unit is scaled up from a city-state to a nation spread over a continent.

The romance of a New England town meeting retains some of the aura of a simple agora.  We have sentimentalized the idea even in classic television programs like Newhart or the Gilmore Girls.  Yet there is still truth in the romance. Even if most of us live in larger cities, we can still interact with local leaders. And though most of us rarely exercise the opportunity, it can be empowering to put a municipal leader on notice with our grievances or occasional praise.

Living within political boundaries containing thousands or millions obviously changes how we can connect to each other.  With regard to the federal government, most of us have only known the quasi-agora of national television news. Growing up in the 50s, my family mostly used one of three choices for connecting with the rest of the country.  NBC, CBS and a weaker ABC beamed out seemingly urgent news, such as the 1969 landing on the moon.  Life paused in most Colorado households in time to catch early evening newscasts narrated by Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC.  The announced death of President Kennedy in 1963 came to most of the nation through the words of the venerable CBS anchor.

CBS News announces president’s death

Nov. 22, 1963: In an emotional moment, Walter Cronkite tells the world that President John F. Kennedy has died, half an hour after being shot in Dallas, Texas.

The agora is now clearly electronic not in real time. We now “meet” mostly online: a change from early live television, where limits on technology meant that Americans witnessed the same momentous events more or less at the same  time.

We need to be careful about citing digital “advances.” To be sure, chatter in the culture has never stopped.  We are engaged with others in an endless spectrum of online communities.  But in no sense should we consider Twitter or Instagram as comparable vehicles for meaningful public “discussion.”  If we need a comparison, the typical social media post more closely resembles a shout issued from a passing car.

At the same time, the idea of a common civic space has withered. Readership of the nation’s largest newspapers is in decline.  Reliable online news (much of it aggregated from the remaining national news outlets) occupies less of our time.  The resulting fragmentation of the nation into specific audiences means that it is less likely that Americans will pay attention to significant events, or even  the same informational sources. If you ask friends what they are watching on online or via networks such as CBS or Netflix, the odds are good that “their” programs are not what you are watching. Neil Postman had it at least half right: we are “amusing ourselves to death,” but now with ever more esoteric ‘narrowcasting’ that satisfies personal rather than national interests.

I see this most dramatically in younger Americans, who have not only lost the newspaper habit, but the news-seeking habit as well.  There are too many other choices that offer more immediate forms of gratification.  Add in the double-threat of disinformation efforts from sources ranging from this White House to the Kremlin, and we are ill-prepared to enter any kind of agora as informed citizens.

Of course a national disaster brings lots of us momentarily back to CNN, NBC or Fox news.  But many more of us stay in touch–if at all–through other online venues offering their own unique perspectives and agendas.  Given these changes, its little wonder that the congressional Agora envisioned by the founders of the republic is now dysfunctional.  No one looks to Congress for momentous debates on the issues of the day.  In structural terms, it has always run a poor second to parliamentary forms of government for hosting spirited legislative debate.  The mute Congress is a symptom of our problem, but our fragmenting media now also seem ill-equipped to bring us together to ponder great national issues.