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Division Everywhere? Christoph Bieber at the Transatlantic Media Forum

On September 8, 2022 Thomas Mann Fellow & political scientist Christoph Bieber opened the Transatlantic Media Forum in New York at 1014 with remarks about the main topic of the conference “Democracy Disrupted: Ever More Divided?” — “Division” functioned as the leitmotif of the event, where an international group of journalists, scholars and activists discussed different aspects of the current global mediascape. In the U.S., a polarized political public sphere divides the country in two distinct and clearly separated segments, colored “blue” and “red.” Meanwhile in Europe, the Russian assault on Ukraine sheds light on divisions all over the continent — pro-Ukrainian voices are countered by pro-Russian interventions, revealing sharp trenches in national public discourses and debates. And then, there is a divide between the analogue and the digital — characterizing the habits of older and younger generations of media users. Bieber kicked off the conference with a very personal account of selected experiences from his time at the Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades. Describing a journey from the West Coast to the East, he describes some scenes where divisions in current U.S.-American everyday life are visible, tangible and — at least to the eye of a visitor from abroad — meaningful. Christoph Bieber´s opening keynote shares some thoughts on current issues before the upcoming midterm elections, reflecting the continuously polarized state of an ever more divided and heavily shaken union.

The Transatlantic Media Forum was organized by 1014 and the Institute for Media and Communication Policy, in collaboration with the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium and with generous support from Stiftung Mercator.

Christoph Bieber at the Thomas Mann House in July 2022.

At first — thanks for having me! It´s a pleasure to join all of you here at the East Coast, I am honored to be part of this conference! And thanks again for the title “Division Everywhere”, which allows me to start literally anywhere…

But you will not be surprised that I choose my current workplace on the other side of the continent as a starting point to some of the divisions I was confronted with since the beginning of my fellowship at the Thomas Mann House. From there I will take you on a short journey, ending a few hundred miles south from here.

So, yes, this is a personal account, but it´s also an outcome of my fellowship — we shall engage in issues that are relevant on both sides of the Atlantic, and that´s what I am talking about. (Anyway: In Germany, we often expect things that are being discussed in the U.S will cross the ocean — the sooner or later.)

The Transatlantic Media Forum in New York at 1014 on Octoober 8.

“Division Everywhere” — Now let´s get started on 1550 N San Remo Drive, here stands the Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades. The Mann family decided to set up shop in a newly developed area called “The Riviera” with mostly Italianized street names (“it´s CaPRI, not Capri”), meanwhile dotted with mansions of different (and sometimes suspicious) styles. Today, it is a homogenous area, only slight differences between the super- and the super-super-rich people. But when you look closer, you will find a division here — because in the morning hours the neighborhood is quite busy. But it´s not the occasional movie star walking his dog or the tech entrepreneur doing her workout. It´s scores of gardeners, cleaners, plumbers, service workers of different kind flooding into the “Riviera” to fulfil their duties and to keep this part of town in shape. There is a food truck around, catering the workers with breakfast burritos, tacos and the like (right now, it´s Kikiz Food Service, also serving German scholars walking by).

Let´s move on and leave the Riviera — but not by car, as almost everyone here does, we take the bus. First, you have to walk for about 10 minutes down the hill (be careful, no sidewalks!) and then there is the 602-bus, connecting either to Pacific Palisades in the West or to UCLA, a 45-minute-ride to the East, into the City of Los Angeles. Of course, only once every hour, so better be on time. The bus has air conditioning, stable WIFI and a mask mandate. And it is almost empty. During daytime, you will travel with maybe 3 or 4 other patrons, in the evening, it might get a little more crowded — but also scary. Sooner or later, riding the bus (or one of the few trains of the light rail), you will encounter many of the “working poor,” and occasionally a drug user. I guess, the message is clear: L.A.´s traffic infrastructure or “Autopia” (how architectural historian Reyner Banham called it) is divided. In LA, you drive a car, period. And although public transport has to be improved for the 2028 Olympic Games, there is public dispute and lobbying against new rail tracks and bus connections.

Our little city tour continues, we leave the 602 for the 9 to Downtown Santa Monica Station and take the E-Line eastbound to DTLA. Then we switch to the rapid bus 720, and only 1 hour and 54 minutes later we arrive at Skid Row (to be fair: it is a 19 mile-trip, but by car, it usually takes about half an hour in off-peak traffic). In the shadow of the glass towers that mark LA´s most vertical part of the city, you will find the epitome of a division that currently fuels a lot of discussion in and around LA City Hall. During the pandemic, Skid Row became the nucleus of the housing crisis in Southern California. Entire blocks are still lined with tents, cardboard shelters and other constructions providing a little privacy and shade. This part of the city is especially hard to take, just half a mile away from bustling downtown and even closer to the new “arts district,” a gentrification hub with galleries, bars, boutiques and loft apartments. According to the 2020 “Homeless Count” for the City of Los Angeles, the number increased to more than 40.000 people experiencing homelessness or living in temporary shelters. Due to the pandemic, there was no count in 2021, the numbers for 2022 are slowly trickling in.

Of course, measures have been taken to improve the situation of the homeless — there are experiments with temporary housing, tiny homes, housing vouchers. Some of these initiatives have become subject of research during my stay at the Thomas Mann House: The City of LA and Los Angeles County make use of digital data and an innovation team at the Mayor´s office engages in new forms of providing shelter and temporary homes. Thus, a rather unexpected branch of “Smart City”-activities has developed, aiming to address homelessness with civic tech solutions. Nevertheless, the housing crisis is one of the most visible divisions one can encounter not only in Los Angeles, but also in San Francisco´s Tenderloin district or in the Downtown part of Seattle. And of course, this issue also is relevant elsewhere — my co-fellows Doris Kleilein and Friederike Meyer, two architects-turned-journalists researched housing policies after COVID-19 as a possible blueprint for activities in Germany.

Already speaking of other Cities in the West, our little journey continues — I skip the “county”-level (although there would be a climate/water/resources-division to mention) and continue to the state level. A quick glance towards Sacramento brings us to the political dimension of “Division Everywhere”: Gavin Newsom, current Governor of California, is testing the waters for a potential presidential campaign. The democratic-leaning “golden state” seems to be a good testbed for his ambitions, yet there are also ideological divisions around — let´s take Silicon Valley-icon Peter Thiel as one (of many) counterparts: the investor is known for his ultra-libertarian attitude, spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and now is supporting a number of republican candidates in the 2022 election cycle. Although there is no direct political conflict, both men can be seen as two sides of the political medal the Golden State still is.

If you want more direct political conflict — let´s move on to some other states, as there is plenty of “divisionist” rivalry unfolding on the way to the Midterm Elections in November. And I don´t mean political campaigns of democratic and republican candidates against each other. No, there is a much more subtle, but also much more dangerous antagonism around. The main battleground for this division is electoral law, which has turned out to be a battlefield as soon as the ballots in 2020 had been counted. Let´s take the “Badger State” as an example: The Wisconsin Elections Commission is responsible for organizing the electoral process and has oversight of the routines before, on and after election day. It is a bipartisan construct, with 3 members of each party — and yet, it is under siege by other political actors in the state. Republican gubernatorial candidates have turned on the commission, and even the Wisconsin Supreme Court got into play by banning drop boxes for early voting — overruling the decision of the commission to use this feature for expanding voter turnout. Similar schemes also apply in other states, take Ohio, Georgia, or Michigan. Radical Republicans, often bolstered by the former president, try to take over key positions in state administrations, such as Attorney General or Secretary of State. Their final goal is to get control over the voting process — we do know what redistricting and gerrymandering can do to election results, but this unfriendly takeover of institutions in the electoral process might go even farther. Here, “the platform of democracy” is at stake, to use the words of President Joe Biden.

When getting closer to Washington, the republican pursuit for institutional control of political institutions reveals another division — this time within the republican party. As Donald Trump continues to support candidates adapting his “agenda” he has fueled competition between “trumpist” and “moderate” republicans in the primaries — in some races this might lead to weaker candidates in the general election, not able to attract a broader electoral base on the republican side. Spurred by Trump´s interventions, there are a lot of un-experienced candidates in the field, who never have run for any office before. At the end, that might bring profit for some democrats, who could turn out successful although the overall political sentiment in one state is actually more republican-leaning. (Nevertheless, most polling sees an advantage for the republican party to re-take at least the House of Representatives.)

Finally, we arrived in Washington, where on November 8th the Midterm Elections will set the switches for the second half of president Bidens term — maybe he will face divided government, maybe not. When it comes to discussions about the overall political climate, the recent Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade is seen as a pivotal moment that shifted support into the democrats´ direction. And there is more: legislative success of the Biden administration (think of the infrastructure and climate bills, the inflation reduction act, or student loans) and possible effects of the ongoing January 6th hearings add on to some serious electoral dynamics. Yet, there is still time until election day, and what we know from past elections is — we never know for sure.

As you might have noticed, I did not use the word “media” one single time. When talking about “division everywhere”, this also functions in a mediatized society. Let´s do this with two small encores to my opening remarks.

The idea of “divisions” can easily be transferred to the media landscape — with a usefual and valuable division of the mediasphere in Germany into a public service media side and a commercial media market. This model of the “two columns” is still considerably healthy, although the “öffentlich-rechtliche Rundfunk” is going through a severe crisis — self-induced and close to something one might call “institutional corruption” (Lawrence Lessig) it is fueling the debate about the future of this allocation. In comparison to the U.S., where we can see the effects of a widely polarized, almost entirely market-oriented mediascape, the importance of public service media seems inevitable, yet it has to adapt to the affordances of digital transformation.

And finally, I would like to add one thought about a special kind of public sphere, that is desperately needed in the next couple of months. As the British media studies scholar Martin Moore has pointed out, there is a need for “a new electoral public sphere” that secures information about candidates, parties and the voting process and thus contributes to a healthy public discussion before individual political decisions are being made. Many of the divisions I have been talking about indicate the difficulties for political actors to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. When members of one political party try to get hold of key positions and aim to turn formerly neutral institutions into partisan power centers, it is time to put this moves and schemes under scrutiny and enable a public discussion and protest. This “Plot against America” has to be stopped.

Christoph Bieber, born 1970 in Laubach/Hesse is Professor of Political Science at the NRW School of Governance, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. The position is funded by the Johann-Wilhelm-Welker-Stiftung. His main area of research is ethics in political management and society. Christoph Bieber has published widely on the effects of online communication for political actors, a special focus is addressing the effects of digitalization for the US political system. Since 2018 he has been delegated to the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS) in Bochum, where as a research professor he currently directs the program “Digital Democratic Innovations“ that runs from 2021 until 2026. On Twitter he is known as @drbieber.

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Thomas Mann House

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