Tocqueville And the Tube
From the April 18, 2011 issue of NR


Does Tocqueville give any reason for hope in our struggle with TV’s negative influences? For all of his anxieties, he admired many features of American society that counterbalanced democracy’s pull toward privatism. In particular he appreciated the decentralized government that attracted self-interested citizens to participate locally and taught them public-spiritedness. He lauded Americans’ religiousness because it drew people out of their homes and out of themselves while setting salutary yet voluntary moral limits. He especially appreciated the non-political “art of associating” by which Americans learned to cooperate for common purposes without relying on distant and impersonal powers. 

In the present day, organized religion may serve some of the same functions that Tocqueville observed. Sociologist Christian Smith finds that extremely religious American teenagers watch much less TV than their unreligious peers. But for the moderately observant and unobservant, TV watching continues to rise. Like Gerbner, media scholar Larry Gross proposes that for many Americans television plays the role of socializing influence that religion once did. Nothing could be worse from a Tocquevillean perspective. Organized religion might combat social isolation and egoism, but television as religion puts the isolating force in the pulpit. 

Engaging with community affairs would get us out of the house and develop beneficial social capital to boot. But since heavy TV watching seems to undermine community engagement, prescribing the latter as a remedy for the former would be like prescribing robust health as a tonic for illness. In the end, each of us bears the burden for himself, and parents bear a multiplied load. TV offers a pacifying anchor for turbulent family life, but over time that anchor becomes a ball and chain. Here are two simple pieces of advice for parents: First, keep TV out of children’s bedrooms, since in that private setting viewing time rises and negatively affects children’s sleep, focus, and schoolwork. Second, make a concerted effort to limit TV exposure generally. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends withholding TV entirely from children under two and limiting its viewing by older children to less than two hours a day. 

While our 19th-century Frenchman offers wise counsel, his 21st-century countrymen offer a poor example: In 2008 France’s High Audiovisual Council, desiring to “protect children,” banned from French TV all programming aimed at kids under three. That heavy-handed approach not only set a bad precedent, using the state to parent parents, but likely undermined its own aims. French parents wealthy enough to afford international programming can circumvent the ban altogether; poorer citizens who treat TV as an electronic babysitter for their toddlers turn to shows whose content is even less appropriate. 

What to do? The legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow insisted that when TV is used responsibly, “this instrument can teach.” Neil Postman disagreed, maintaining that whatever TV teaches is not worth learning. Perhaps there is a middle ground: TV may instruct us — but not, contra Murrow, primarily on the subject of current events. It can provide an object lesson in our shared public philosophy: Though citizens from across the political spectrum find TV-viewing problematic, most of them would agree that the problem can’t or shouldn’t be solved through state action. As Tocqueville argued, we citizens err about our long-term interests, but the only worse judge would be anyone else. Even when faced with TV’s barrage of stimuli, it is up to us to focus on what matters most. 

— Ben Berger is an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. His book Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement is forthcoming this summer from Princeton University Press. From the April, 18 issue of NR.