Mediators Failing by Al Sikes


In my book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow, I relate the experiences in my life, including chairing the Federal Communications Commission, that convinced me that few leaders are prepared to be counter-cultural. Most are content to let the culture shape their ambitions. Today joining the one percent or becoming a celebrity whatever exert a strong force.

The culture drivers I wrote about included winning election or re-election at any cost.

Most, in Washington anyway, who are elected have no idea what they would do if they didn’t hold office except lobby those who do.

On the media side, the business formula is too often serving the lowest common denominator and predictably the media have an out-sized influence on the culture. There are untold examples of media products (TV, radio, video games, movies, Internet applications, records) that respond to lowest common denominator stimuli and insidiously push cultural standards down; but, for purposes of this column, let me just cite two.

Reality TV shows, which are much less expensive to make than appealing dramas and comedies, serve voyeurism and often crudely. And on radio, Rush Limbaugh style talk shows search for outrage (unfortunately there is too much of it) and the hosts create a show that has anger as its fulcrum.

In his campaign to lead our country, Donald Trump has used anger as the fulcrum of his arguments. While his slogan is “Make America Great Again,” it’s barely disguised overlay is how “the other” is tearing us down — immigrants, Chinese currency manipulators, Mexicans and system-rigging elites to name a few.

Bernie Sanders’ bete noir was Wall Street — a handy bogeyman. Financial firms rarely display the best of America, but they are not an all-purpose villain. The industry is often the vehicle to meet capital needs. But, let me return to the media, a business I know from my own experiences.

TV, in particular, has re-shaped the standard for civility and blasted through the once moderating virtue of modesty. Talk radio has produced an angry minority that pivots on division. If Rush Limbaugh was elected to something, his preternaturally angry audience would soon turn on him.

Now, I could criticize Trump (a cultural phenomenon) further but that is too easy. What I believe we all need to discuss is why our politics has turned ugly and why capitalism is often the target of our anger. We should be looking upstream and the most important question is, what can we do about it.

Joseph J. Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, in his recent book, The Quartet, tells the story of the second American revolution as America pivoted from a loose Confederation of States to a federal government. Ellis credits James Madison with being the most important strategic and tactical thinker in the work of creating a constitution.

Madison, who Ellis noted is customarily called the “Father of the Constitution” expressed concern about deriving political power from “the people.” Ellis observed:

“Madison’s experience at both the state and the federal level had convinced him that “the people” was not some benevolent, harmonious collective. But rather a smoldering and ever-shifting gathering of factions or interest groups committed to provincial perspectives and vulnerable to demagogues with partisan agendas.”

What Ellis called “the second revolution” occurred in 1787. Today, by contrast, we tend to take for granted the wisdom of “the people.” Indeed, any challenge to democracy will be quickly rejected and the critic will be harshly criticized. We do, however, need to have a lively discussion about the role of the mediators.

Political parties and the news media occupy the middle — they are not the only mediators, but the principal ones. The Parties write many of the rules of political engagement and the media develop and direct the formats of communication. Neither,in my view, approach their exalted roles with the seriousness a healthy nation needs.

Political parties, almost regardless of context, jockey for advantage and the media often jettison serious approaches in favor of entertaining ones.

Necessarily, I will delay more detailed thoughts to a later time since almost all political thought, in the final months of an election, tend to be interpreted as partisan and dismissed as doing the bidding of one or another candidate. So, I will simply conclude by admiring the majority opinion of “the people”; if polls are to believed, the majority is not happy with the presidential choices presented. And, I hope, the majority will play a role in improving the work of the mediators.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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