In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve.

- Alexis de Tocqueville

Once a nation of talkers, we have turned into a nation of watchers - once doers, we have become viewers.

- Benjamin Barber

The act of reading fosters habits of analysis, questioning, comprehension, and rationality. Television, with its emphasis on emotion, image, and speed, fails to contribute to the development of these key skills.

- The NCES (2000)

...pop-culture, it's what people prioritize in their lives. The truth is, as much as we want to focus on politics, the American people would rather watch television. As much as we want to talk about substance, they'd rather listen to music. So I have to know what they are watching, I have to know what they are listening to, and I got to know why.

- Frank Luntz  (Frontline)

Bread and Circuses = Couch and TV

- Norman Goldman

Civil Society - Robert Putnam's Theory

Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam was the book that first got me interested in the insidious role of TV.  See here  and here for a taste of his argument.  In his book he catalogues the many ways that Americans are becoming less, and less civically engaged.  He also makes a detailed argument as to why it is TV that is the culprit. and here.

Excerpts from Bowling Alone

The Psychology of Entertainment: A Nation of Watchers

"According to Olken’s research, in Indonesia, where TV coverage isn’t yet universal, one finds that “better signal reception, which is associated with more time spent watching television and listening to radio, is associated with substantially lower levels of participation in social activities and with lower self-reported measures of trust.”  -  The American (Jan 2008)

The effects of TV on voter turnout (pdf)

"The report also notes a big difference between volunteers and non-volunteers in how much television they watch. In a typical week, volunteers spend about 15 hours watching television, while people who don’t volunteer watch an average of 23 hours.”  -  Philanthropy (July 2008)

"Tuning out the World of News and Current Affairs—An Empirical Study of Europe’s Disconnected Citizens" - Oxford University Press (2010)

Civil Society - More Socially Isolated

"But it is clear that social interaction matters. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant." - The Atlantic (May 2012)

"Americans are more socially isolated today than we were barely two decades ago."

"Americans' Circle of Friends Is Shrinking" - Science Daily (June 2006)

In 1985, when researchers asked a cross-section of Americans how many confidants they had, the most common response was three. When they asked again in 2004, the most common answer -- from 25% of respondents -- was zero, nil, nada.

Importance of Civil Society

"Among the strongest correlations—higher even than the quality of local high schools or the availability and affordability of local colleges—turned out to be social capital. Literally, the more bowling leagues, nonprofits, and similar groups per 10,000 residents, the more likely the area’s young people were to rise economically. And this was true not just for those whose parents were involved in these groups, but for all young people in the community.”  -  Washington Monthly (Dec 2013)

More recently, Robert Putnam has argued that even non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy. This is because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it.

"In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.

Collective Efficacy and crime abatement - Can Block Clubs Block Despair?

"...the poll found that nonvoters are not just disconnected from politics, but also from their communities. Nonvoters were less likely to trust others, to have a strong support network of friends and family or to know their neighbors than regular voters were."

"Because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it's done so only because it's been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing, by, you know, Lincoln pushed by the anti-slavery movement. You know, Johnson and Kennedy pushed by the southern black movement."

Reading & Democracy

"The report concluded that 57 percent of those who had proficient reading skills had performed volunteer work, compared with 18 percent of the people with poor skills. It also found that the better a person's reading skills, the more likely that person voted in the 2000 election. The Education Department study showed 84 percent of proficient readers voted, compared with 62 percent of those with basic skills and 53 percent of those with poor skills. " - Bloomberg (Nov 2007)  and (Nov 2007)

Twilight of the Books and Why Undecided Voters Can’t Make Up Their Minds (Maybe)

Libraries as Civil Centers

Toward the “Great Good Place:” Should Libraries Have Coffee Shops?

San Francisco libraries have become neighborhood best-sellers

What do we do about problem library patrons and criminals?

Churches as Civil Centers

The Left can learn from Rick Warren and Mega-churches.

Uninformed Electorate

"How aggressively stupid is America when it comes to our debates over taxes, budgets and the size of government? That's been difficult to answer with any precision, beyond simply citing the Tea Partier who famously told his congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." But now we have some hard numbers to tell us how deep this ignorance really goes." - Huffington Post (Feb 2011)

"Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment, but more than half can name at least two family members of "The Simpsons" - MSNBC (March 2006)

"Our uninformed electorate - Bennett's research found that "most Americans were 'out to lunch' when it came to basic information about politics" in the most recent election year." - The Carpetbagger Report (Aug 2006)

..young people are increasingly saying that they are learning about the campaign from comedy shows such as the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. "But the poll finds that people who say they are learning things about politics on comedy shows don't know much about the current campaign."

How TV Teaches Stupidity

Dumbing-Down of America

As noted in Amusing Ourselves to Death, books brought about the "Age of Reason", TV on the other hand has brought about the "Age of Entertainment".

Attention-Deficit Citizenry. As Amusing Ourselves to Death points out debates, during the 1800's would last hours. The example he gave was a 7 hour debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (and this was considered a short debate). Each speaker given at least one hour to speak at a time.  Nowadays, debaters are allowed at most three minutes (so the audience doesn't get bored).

Increased Apathy

"Youth Voter Turnout For 2014 Midterm Election Lowest In 40 Years"  -  International Business News (July 2015)

"Lowest turnout since WW2: Final numbers are still being tallied, but at this point it looks pretty clear that turnout in these midterms was the lowest overall in 70 years. " -  PBS (Nov 2014)

Generational Effects

As Robert Putnam pointed out, TV's effects differ from generation to generation.  The "Greatest Generation" didn't watch any TV growing up, and was very civically engaged.  The "Baby Boomer Generation" grew up with some TV (less civically engaged).  And the "GenX Generation" which basically grew up on TV (apathetic and disengaged).

Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2006) Very readable sociology book. Jean Twenge argues that the children of the "Me Generation" have become the "Me Me Me Generation".  Although based on solid research, she peppers the book with many quotes from TV and movies (as a reflection of today's culture).

Review of "Generation Me"

"Have We Become a Nation of Narcissists?"

"Is there an epidemic of narcissism today?"

"The "debate" about narcissism increasing: More twists than a crime novel "

"Are Millennials "Generation Nice"? What data comparing the generations actually conclude'" -  Psychology Today (August 2014)

"Psychologists Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Tim Kasser of Knox College report that, for high school seniors in 2005, 2006, and 2007, materialism remained at historically high levels, even as commitment to hard work declined." - Salon (May 2013)

"We next examined whether tweens were picking up on these messages, and that research was just published in Developmental Psychology. We wondered if the synergy between the fame-oriented content of popular TV shows and the opportunity to post online videos and status updates for "friends" and strangers created the perfect storm for a desire for fame. In our discussions, we asked preteens what they wanted in their future. Their number one choice? Fame." - Huffington Post (Jan 2013)

"But here I want to talk about a slightly different split of the voting-eligible population: not the approximately 30% who voted for Obama, or the nearly identical number who chose Romney, but the 40% who did not vote at all or voted for minor-party candidates... Who is in this silent plurality? Surveys over the years have told us that they are younger and much less financially secure than the average voter." - New York Daily News (Nov 2012)  via  Andrew Gelman (Nov 2012)  via  Washington Monthly (Nov 2012)

"So when analyses on nationally representative samples of 9 million young people since 1966 suggested the opposite was true—civic engagement is actually lower among the 1982-1999 born group they call Millennials—Winograd and Hais fired back." -  Psychology Today Blog (March 2012)

"The participants in the study - aged 18 to 25 -- were found to be "lost" or deficient, not in their moral behavior, but in their ability to think and talk in moral terms. Asked to comment on whether cheating on a school test, cheating on a partner, or driving drunk were morally right or wrong, respondents were noncommittal. Questioned more closely about the moral dimension of these activities, the respondents either remained silent or made statements such as, ‘Thinking about right and wrong is something I don't do every day.'" -  Psychology Today (Sept 2011)

"Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor of psychology who has studied the psyche of college students, recently found that the ego of incoming college freshmen has become acutely inflated over the past four decades."  -  Washington Monthly (June 2011)

"College students today are significantly less empathic than students of the 80's or 90's, according to a new study by the University of Michigan. The 30-year longitudinal study of nearly 14,000 students found a 40% drop in empathy from the late 70's, with the sharpest decline occurring after the year 2000." -  Psychology Today (May 2010)  and  Science Daily (May 2010)  and  Scientific American (Jan 2011)  and  The New York Times (June 2010) 

"...turnout among those under age 30 was 20%, according to a press conference this morning with Rock the Vote, CIRCLE, and League of Young Voters" -  Psychology Today Blog (Nov 2010) 

"I'm particularly fascinated by the negative influences of narcissism and perfectionism in our lives, as these are traits that seem to be celebrated in many ways in modern American culture. For example, many cultural heroes of popular TV shows, particularly those shows that portray the lives of doctors, lawyers and successful business people, are hard-driving individuals who seem to have no life other than work. What each shares is a grandiose sense of his or her own self-importance that is central to the definition of narcissism."  -  Psychology Today (March 2010)

"The hole in the moral ozone seems to be getting bigger — each new generation is more likely to lie and cheat than the preceding one. Young people are much more cynical than their elders – they are considerably more likely to believe that it is necessary to lie or cheat in order to succeed. Those who believe dishonesty is necessary are more likely to actually lie and cheat. Cheaters in high school are far more likely as adults to lie to their spouses, customers and employers and to cheat on expense reports and insurance claims."  -  Josephine Institute (Oct 2009)

"Youth turnout less than all other age groups - 2002 & 2004"  -  Civic (July 2005) (PDF)

Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News (2005) David Mindich finds that "In 1972, half of all college-age eligible voters participated in the presidential election; in 2000, only 32. The decline in voting in midterm elections is equally frightening: In 1974, 24 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted; in 2002, that turnout was only 17 percent. Put another way, the 2002 figure means that for every young person who voted, five stayed home."

"This political disengagement cannot be explained away as merely the habits of youth, because today's young are markedly less engaged than were their counterparts in earlier generations."  -  The Atlantic (August 1999)

..young people are increasingly saying that they are learning about the campaign from comedy shows such as the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. "But the poll finds that people who say they are learning things about politics on comedy shows don't know much about the current campaign."

Natural Environment

Pergams and another researcher set out to determine why visitation to national parks dropped 25 percent between 1987 and 2003.

Nature Conservancy President Steve McCormick said the study suggests Americans and their children in particular are losing their connection to the natural world.

Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors - Free Range Kids versus Battery Cage kids

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2006)

"The numbers coincide with national polls indicating that children and teenagers play outdoors less than young people did in the past. Between 1997 and 2003, the proportion of children ages 9 to 12 who spent time hiking, walking, fishing, playing on the beach or gardening declined 50 percent, according to a University of Maryland study."

"In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages nine to thirteen play outside on their own. Studies by the National Sporting Goods Association and by American Sports Data, a research firm, show a dramatic decline in the past decade in such outdoor activities as swimming and fishing. Even bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995." - Alternet

Other ways that TV effects democracy

"Television is a dream come true for an authoritarian society: those with the most money own most of what people see; fear-based television programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for the ruling elite who depend on a “divide and conquer” strategy; TV isolates people so they are not joining together to create resistance to authorities; and regardless of the programming, TV viewers’ brainwaves slow down, transforming them closer to a hypnotic state that makes it difficult to think critically."  -  Alternet (July 2011)

- Soundbites

- Because people are getting most of their political information from the TV, politicians are forced to spend huge amounts on TV advertising.  The result is politicians more, and more beholden to special interests.

- America has become a celebrity obsessed society. What are effects of millions of people emulating narcissistic celebrities ?

- A depressed society: Evolution Of Despair

The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV

"Objectification suppresses women’s desire to engage in social activism, study finds" - Raw Story (Feb 2013)

Good God, it isn't as simple as just picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary.  The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.  You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it is a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than 'Mr. Gimmick' and the parlor 'families'? If you can, you'll win your way, Montag. In any event, you're a fool.

People are having fun."

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“Ghandi's seven sins:

Wealth without work

Pleasure without conscience

Knowledge without character

Commerce without morality

Science without humility

Worship without sacrifice

Politics without principle”

Mahatma Ghandi Quotes

Recommended Books

Bowling Alone (2000)

Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986)

About "Amusing Ourselves to Death"

Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2006)

Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News (2005)

Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008)

Civil Society Values

For civil society to exist and thrive, certain values must predominate:


Typical of soap operas, and much of TV drama is 'indirect aggression'. "They successfully spread rumours, damage relationships, distort reality, and destroy the reputations..." Sound familiar?  Could this help explain the public's tolerance for political "dirty tricks" and lack of ethics?

"All the gossip, insults and dirty looks add up fast on popular reality shows, far outpacing the level seen in equally popular dramas, comedies and soap operas according to a new Brigham Young University study. The researchers looked at five reality shows and five non-reality shows and found 52 acts of aggression per hour on reality TV compared to 33 per hour for the non-reality programs."  -  eScience News (May 2010)

"The type of so-called reality show represented by the "Real Housewives" franchise is the soft-bellied, 21st century American TV version of a gladiatorial contest. It has no agenda except giving viewers the basest sort of entertainment: the spectacle of people doing violence to each other and suffering violence themselves. Instead of going at each other like gladiators with swords and clubs, or like boxers hurling punches, participants in this kind of unscripted show attack each other psychologically. The show's appeal is the spectacle of emotional violence. The participants -- or "cast members," as they are revealingly labeled -- suffer and bleed emotionally while we watch and guffaw."  -  Salon (Aug 2011)

Could this lack of ethics on TV also help explain a 30 year increase in cheating? And a 10 year youth ethics decline?  Note: ethics declines have real world consequences. and  More on Ethics Decline

See also: "This “the ends justify the means” attitude is starkly evident among high-school students. Recent surveys found that 75 percent of students had cheated on a test in the previous 12 months, as compared to only 25 percent in 1963 and 50 percent in 1993."  -  Psychology Today (Nov 2012)

Peaceful Intent:

Scientists have concluded that exposure to violent TV does indeed lead to more aggressive thoughts, attitudes and actions (see Aggression & TV).  So the fact that an  "average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18" means that TV has created a more aggressive electorate.  Could this also help explain the fact that the homicide rate nearly doubled from the mid 1960's to the late 1970's.  In reaction to this huge crime increase, the public supported policies that have lead to a 500% increase in the incarceration rate.  This has brought the crime back down to the early 1960s levels, but the United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world (pdf)  - see also The New York Times (April 2008)  (For graphs see Aggression & TV)

Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became the last nation on earth to introduce television. Suddenly a culture, barely changed in centuries, was bombarded by 46 cable channels. And all too soon came Bhutan's first crime wave - murder, fraud, drug offences.

A more aggressive electorate, would also logically lead to increased popularity of more aggressive ideologies and policies.

"This study examines the relationship between young people's exposure to media violence and their aggressive political opinions (APO), which were defined as support for positions that involve forceful resolution to social or political issues."

More interested in shopping than community

This study shows a link between TV watching and consumerism.  Could this help explain the public's national spending spree?

"The real concerns of yesterday's poor have become the imagined concerns of today's rich," said Dr Hamilton. "This 'deprivation syndrome' induces politicians to distort policy to reduce the burden of taxation and increase public payments to wealthy households."

"Frey found that heavy TV viewers were both more anxious and more greedy than were light viewers on the same incomes. They were also more scared about the outside world."

       *      *      *      *      *

With Americans spending over 4 hours in front of the TV every day, and with the fact that TV models aggression (both direct and indirect), and that TV encourages the contract effect, is it any wonder that Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago?  Social isolation leads to stress.  Could this help explain a stressed-out public?

Slower brainwaves, engendered by TV, bring on a feeling of passivity.  Also this study shows how TV encourages apathy. Democracy does not work with a passive and apathetic populace. See Brainwaves & TV

Community Trust:

Regarding the 'mean-world' syndrome, a quote from Television and its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research (1999) page 49: "Gerbner and Gross reasoned that a heightened and widespread sense of fear, danger and apprehension can bolster demands for greater security; this in turn can mean greater legitimacy of the authority that can promise to meet those demands, creating conditions highly conductive to repression and undermining support for civil liberties.  It can also mean greater acceptance of the use of violence as an appropriate means to solve disputes of international policy... or greater habituation to violence and passivity in the face of injustice."

"But today, for most middle-class American children, "going out to play" has gone the way of the dodo, the typewriter and the eight-track tape... And forget about walking to school alone. Today's kids don't walk much at all (adding to the childhood obesity problem)... Forget the television fear-mongering: Your child stands about the same chance of being struck by lightning as of being the victim of what the Department of Justice calls a "stereotypical kidnapping." And unless you live in Baghdad, your child stands a much, much greater chance of being killed in a car accident than of being seriously harmed while wandering unsupervised around your neighborhood."  -  L.A. Times (May 2008)


"Rose McDermott, a political scientist at Brown University, recently published a study in the  American Journal of Political Science that analyzed people’s susceptibility to succumb to fearful thinking. In it, she found a correlation between heightened fear and current conservative attitudes toward immigration and segregation. “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” McDermott explains. “People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.””  -  Alternet (April 2013)  and   Brown University (April 2013)

Individualism, Consumerism, Lack of Trust and Aggression

"The study also shows that people in the middle-aged generation and people who volunteer are associated with an increase in trust, while having conservative ideology and media usage correlate with decreased levels of trust." - E! Science News (March 2010)

"He concluded that people's views about the legitimacy of government and how much they identify with their fellow citizens play a major role in how often they kill each other -- much more so than the usual theories revolving around guns, poverty, drugs, race, or a permissive justice system." - Science Daily (Dec 2009)

"Hall said: “Britain and the US have the worst violent crime rates of the industrialised west – far worse than Western continental Europe – because we have the most competitive, individualist culture and the least developed sense of solidarity and common fate. In addition, consumer culture instils in so many individuals from an early age that their identities are incomplete without the status symbols carried by consumer goods, which of course makes crimes an attractive option for those who simply cannot afford to buy these goods.’’" - Science Daily (Sept 2009)

"When journalist Eric Weiner traveled the world to discover what made some countries happier places than others, he found one primary common denominator among the happiest. The essential ingredient was trust. The happiest countries are those in which people feel they can trust their government, trust social institutions, and trust their neighbors..."  -  Psychology Today (May 2011)

"Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress, have reached record lows. Opposition to congressional incumbents, already approaching an all-time high, continues to climb. " - Wall Street Journal (April 2010)

More on the importance of trust:

"Weakness of trust has been identified as a key factor perpetuating the cycle of poverty for the working and self-employed poor of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia." - Psychology Today (July 2013)

"Herrmann and collaborators replicated the previous results in subject pools in the U.S., Australia, England, Switzerland, Germany, China, and South Korea.  However, when they conducted the identical experiment with subjects in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey, Greece, Saudi Arabia, and Muscat, they found that the opportunity to punish other group members had much less ability to stave off a decline in contributions, and that the likely cause was that in those subject pools, punishing cooperators was almost as common as punishing non-cooperators.   As a consequence, subjects in the “bad” subject pools earned less in the experiment than did their counterparts in the “good” ones.

It wasn’t lost on the experimenters that people in the countries having “well behaved” subjects also tend to earn more on average in everyday life than do those in the other countries.  Might this have something to do with the quality of social norms?  The researchers speculated that it might indeed.  They presented evidence showing that in the countries in which punishing of cooperators was rampant in the experiment, survey evidence shows that people generally trust one another less, and that measures of the quality of government, for instance absence of corruption, are also lower.  The case could be made, if not fully proven, that subjects carried into the lab with them the norms and expectations regarding others’ willingness to cooperate and not to take advantage of one another that are pervasive in their societies and that go hand in hand with a well-functioning economy and political system." - Psychology Today (Sept 2012)