How Inattention Is Killing Democracy

Our ability to maintain attention is changing, according to a growing body of research.

A 2019 study in Denmark indicated that collective global attention span is narrowing due to the vast amount of information being presented to the public. In 2013, a Twitter “global trend” would last on average about seventeen hours; in 2016, a similar Twitter global trend lasted about twelve hours.

Other research from presentation software company Prezi showed that today’s workers are constantly distracted: 95 percent of surveyed business professionals admit they multitask during meetings. Another study by academics at Oxford, King’s College London, Harvard, and Western Sydney University found that internet use is physically changing humans’ brains, resulting in shorter attention spans and worse memory.

“The habit of inattention is to be regarded as the greatest defect of the democratic character,” observed French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous 1835 essay Democracy in America. That might strike readers as a surprising analysis, given that Tocqueville wrote before radio, TV, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the internet, social media, and smartphones, all of which have been credited with accelerating American inattention.

Yet the French aristocrat, who toured the United States for almost a year during 1831 and 1832, had excellent reasons for making such an ominous claim, reasons all the more relevant in our distracted age.

Inattention and Ignorance

In democracies, men are never still; a thousand accidental circumstances move them constantly from place to place and almost always something unforeseen, something, so to speak, improvised, prevails in their lives. Hence, they are often forced to do what they have not properly learned to do, to talk about what they have hardly understood and to devote themselves to projects for which they are unprepared by a long apprenticeship. (Tocqueville, Democracy in America)

Tocqueville was impressed and amazed by the fluidity and flux of American society. During his travels, he observed recently built homesteads that had already been abandoned, as settlers moved farther west to claim new lands and harvest new wealth. He met Americans who had professionally reinvented themselves not once but sometimes two or three times. For a French aristocrat more familiar with ancestral tradition, family trades, and ancient guilds, American ingenuity and dynamism seemed interminable.

Yet Tocqueville also believed there was a less admirable side to Americans’ aversion to all forms of stasis. Americans could be quick to judge, to pontificate, and to act—even when lacking the necessary knowledge or training. He explained:

In democracies, a man’s life is more complicated. The mind of one man will almost always embrace several aims at the same time and these are frequently wholly foreign to each other. Since he cannot be expert in all of them, he easily becomes content with half-baked ideas. (Democracy in America)

Democratic (or republican, as some theorists will specify) forms of government demand a comparatively high degree of education and participation from its citizens. Citizens are expected to vote and actively engage in the commonwealth.

This is a daunting demand—how do citizens go about acquiring informed opinions about law, economics, foreign policy, and the many other subjects they ought to consider in choosing a preferred political candidate or party? Yet to acknowledge ignorance or abstain from debate is to forfeit your civic responsibilities. The result, according to Tocqueville, is a lot of “half-baked ideas,” or worse.

A popular cartoon published in March by syndicated cartoonist Rick McKee circulated throughout social media. In it a man sitting at his computer turns to his wife and says, “That’s odd: My Facebook friends who were constitutional scholars just a month ago are now infectious disease experts.”

Then, in May, just as the coronavirus seemed to be on the decline, Americans witnessed video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed African American, resulting in his death. This incited protests, vandalism, and violence across the country. Many Americans took to social media to express their anger at police, who, they perceived, inordinately kill blacks.

Yet recent peer-reviewed academic studies do not corroborate this perception—white officers are no more likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot black civilians. This is not to say there is no institutional racism in American police forces, only that the narrative of white police brutality against blacks has more to do with selective media reporting than the available data.

In effect, American inattention to details (or data) aggravated the country’s political distemper. Such nuance is too much for many an American, who “does everything in a hurry, is content with approximations, and never stops for more than a moment to reflect upon each of his actions” (Tocqueville).

Emotionalized Political Discourse

This relates to another consequence of inattention on American politics. Tocqueville explains:

Americans, who almost always retain a calm bearing and cool appearance, are nevertheless carried away well beyond boundaries of common sense by some sudden passion or rash opinion, so that they commit in all seriousness strangely absurd things.

Tocqueville observed this trend in the aggressive business speculations that ruined many Americans, as well as in the more eccentric forms of religious expression in the “burned-over” districts in upstate New York, home to Mormons, Millerites, and Shakers, among others. This also manifests itself in politics, especially when arguments appeal to emotion rather than to reason, and when news media focus as much on entertainment value as on information.

NYU professor of communications Neil Postman in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death noted that radio and television newscasts often employed the phrase “now… this” as a way “to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see.” Postman further explains:

The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

Keep in mind that Postman wrote this in 1985, before many Americans began consuming news on the web and through social media, where all one needs to do is scroll down or click to move on to something more interesting.

Such frivolity encourages us to consume news “without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment,” writes Postman. This is especially the case when our news consumption is often done less with words than with images that evoke strong emotional responses and can short-circuit our capacity for introspection. “It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions,” Postman muses.

Take the iconic photograph of a South Vietnamese officer pointing a handgun at a grimacing, kneeling man in civilian clothes about to be executed. The photograph, taken during the 1968 Tet Offensive, shocked the world and convinced Americans to end the Vietnam War, even though the military campaign was actually a strategic disaster for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Americans didn’t realize, as Max Hastings points out in his book Vietnam, that the executed man was Viet Cong fighter Nguyễn Văn Lém, who less than thirty-six hours prior to his execution had led a Viet Cong death squad that executed South Vietnamese Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan, his wife, five of their six children, and the officer’s eighty-year-old mother.

The Distractible Will Be Distracted

In the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, the president of the United States gets exposed for making advances on an underage girl in the Oval Office, shortly before the election that will determine if he will get a second term. His administration quickly acts to distract public and media attention from the scandal by fabricating a fictional war in Albania. With perfect poetic justice, the movie was released one month before the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and then-President Bill Clinton’s subsequent decision to bomb Sudan in August 1998 (later comparisons were made again in December 1998, when Clinton ordered Iraq bombed during his impeachment trial).

Tocqueville saw the blessings and curses of the stereotypical curious American:

His curiosity is both insatiable and cheaply satisfied, for he is anxious to know a great deal quickly rather than to know anything well.… He has hardly any time, and soon loses the taste, for deepening his knowledge.

A citizen who is inherently distractible can be easily distracted, as politicians, newsmen, and advertising executives understand all too well. One who is easily distracted can be exploited into developing the opinions his manipulators desire, subjected to a never-ending political version of “the shell game.”

Postman sees this at work in the bizarre contrast between serious television news reporting immediately followed by commercials whose content “will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal.” He cites Robert MacNeil, executive editor and co-anchor of the then-popular MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, who explained:

The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required… to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.

This fosters a political climate where media organizations can manipulate their audiences into thinking some particular story or subject is of paramount importance to American society.

Here’s one arresting example: the Washington Post from June 2019 to June 2020 featured about 620 articles on transgender persons (who comprise about .6 percent of Americans); during that same time frame, they published about 660 articles on Native Americans (comprising about 2 percent of Americans). In other words, the newspaper had elevated a sexual identity that, until recently was medically labeled a form of mental illness, to the same level of sociopolitical importance as a diverse group of indigenous nations who have suffered historical oppression and marginalization.

Worrying Trends

Between 2010 and 2017, there was a 42 percent increase in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). During their lifetimes, about 18 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with it. Children’s television is defined by mind-numbing fast-pace scene changes. Researchers studying the cartoon program SpongeBob SquarePants found that the scene changed roughly every eleven seconds, whereas in a program about the everyday life of a four-year-old, the change was every thirty-four seconds. “The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference,” writes Postman.

Moreover, our pervasive use of digital technology may be causing ADHD-like symptoms among the general population, according to a new study of college students done by academics at the University of Virginia and the University of British Columbia. “We found the first experimental evidence that smartphone interruptions can cause greater inattention and hyperactivity—symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—even in people drawn from a nonclinical population,” noted one of the researchers.

We carry in our very pockets the possible source of our own political devolution.

“Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from…the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence,” declared prominent nineteenth-century American statesman Daniel Webster. He and Tocqueville, almost two hundred years ago, recognized the threat posed by an inattentive electorate: more ignorance, more favoring of emotion over reason, and more susceptibility to manipulation.

This is dangerous for a political society that presumes an educated, well-informed populace. Thus Tocqueville saw an irony: “Democratic nations are serious because their social and political circumstances constantly lead them to think about serious matters, and their actions are ill-considered because they devote but little time or attention to each of these matters.”

As the eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift joked: “I never knew any man cured of inattention.”

For the sake of the survival of the American experiment, let’s hope he’s wrong.


About the Author

Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.

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