Besides public health and the economy, one of the most important institutions that took a hit this year was democracy. On the one hand, the election system proved resilient despite the Democratic party hand-wringing about possible intentional slowing down of the postal system, Russian hacking, Comey-style October surprises, and the prolific legal challenges from the Trump campaign. On the other hand, a truly bizarre large-scale public support for Trump’s baseless election fraud claims emerged.
Those issues kind of characterize a key political challenge we are facing in 2021. Since this is a newsletter about Positive Politics, I want to start off the New Year with a brief exploration of the political landscape we face.
This may be the most important time to consider the current challenge to democracy itself since the Civil War. As a case in point, I was listening to the investing podcast Truth or Skepticism yesterday, and it was mentioned that beyond the impacts of COVID, investors now have to be concerned with political risk. This is kind of shocking: For the first time since the Civil War (perhaps), there is a perceived threat to the stability of the U.S. government itself.
You could fairly ask, “But really how serious is that?” Well, last week a USA TODAY/Suffolk University released a poll showing that 78% of Republicans believe the myth of massive fraud in the 2020 election of Joe Biden. This is a mind-blowing number, as there is absolutely no evidence for believing that whatsoever. Yet, President Trump, major news organizations, and many high-ranking elected officials are actively perpetuating the falsehood that the election was stolen by Democrats through mythical massive fraud.
This all intrigues me because almost two decades ago I wrote a book about the growing malaise in public discourse that is being perpetuated by collusion between professional political operatives and the mainstream media. I was hoping to inspire developments on the Internet to counteract it. Sadly, the malaise has indeed increased, while the potential for the Internet to facilitate positive public dialogue seems to have gone nowhere.
Americans Agree that Public Discourse Is in Bad Shape
I am not alone in taking this position. As it turns out, a study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans generally agree public discourse needs improvement.
“Both sides agree on the poor state of public discourse in this country. Large majorities complain that the tone and nature of political debate in the country has become more negative (85 percent), less respectful (85 percent), and less fact-based (76 percent) over the past several years. And 6 in 10 say that discourse has been less focused on issues than in the past.”
Poor Public Discourse Leads to Poor Government
Poor public discourse leads to a polarized public opinion, which in turn influences who gets elected and the chances of the government being able to reach decisions that are acceptable to voters. This may help explain why confidence in government has been declining over the last few decades.
Public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).
Ideally, citizens would come together and align at least somewhat on informed preferences. However, Pew Research also found that we have reduced trust in each other to make good decisions.
This “democratic deficit” extends to a growing and troubling public distrust in each other’s ability to make informed decisions about democratic leadership. Almost 8 in 10 (78 percent) say that knowledgeable voters are very important to the U.S., yet when asked how the phrase “voters are knowledgeable about candidates and issues” describes the country, about 4 in 10 (39 percent) say it characterizes the nation even somewhat well.
This is a troubling finding because trust and confidence in each other are critical in reaching shared ideas about the future. I know it is tempting to claim, “we will accept no compromise,” but the fact is that compromising is the alternative to force. There must be collaboration and compromise to find optimal solutions for all citizens. We can all imagine what the natural extension of trying to rule by force—certainly not democracy.
I argued in my book and subsequent associated articles that a degraded public discourse was being caused by a kind of collusion that exists between political operatives and the mainstream media where there is a motivation to peddle fear as a way to galvanize attention and subsequently elect politicians. More on this in the future but the net result has been to shift the mainstream media from being the objective, truth-seeking institution of the past to one that is focused on creating attention-grabbing narratives and stories. It is now—in a sense—entertainment news.
Moreover, with the internet, everyone is in the game of creating content that will increase clicks, views, ratings, shares, and so forth. And all this has introduced a lot of leeway in the creation of content, including content that is doctored or slanted to create certain perceptions. The result is people being more suspicious of the content they see. Pew Research emphasizes:
Across all forms of media, Americans express deep concern over the creation and spread of made‐up news. More view it as a very big problem for the country than they do terrorism, illegal immigration, racism, and sexism. Additionally, nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults (68 percent) say made‐up news and information greatly affect Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and roughly half (54 percent) say it’s having a major impact on our confidence in each other.
Note that this made-up news is not seen as just a feature of social media. Americans see this made-up news as also being produced by biased mainstream journalists.
Likely, distrust of media is also contributing to a distrust of government. The Pew Research findings contain the following:
Additionally, nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults (68 percent) say made‐up news and information greatly affect Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and roughly half (54 percent) say it’s having a major impact on our confidence in each other.
We Are Really Only Polarized on Certain Topics
When we talk about the polarization of Americans, we tend to think of it as Republicans versus Democrats or conservatives versus liberals. We tend to think of it as being diametrically opposed in all ways. And of course, the conservative media ecosystem (such as Fox, Newsmax, Breitbart) would like you to believe that all Democrats are raging socialists bent on destroying the country while the progressive media ecosystem (CNN, MSNBC) would like you to believe that conservatives are now bent on destroying democracy and installing a dictatorship controlled by the 1 percenters.
The research shows, however, that most voters are really not that divided. They still believe in democracy and have many shared values—such as family, productivity, compassion, a strong middle class, and personal responsibility. People are being encouraged by the mainstream media and politicians to fear how extreme the other party is, but in reality, they are not that far apart. Pew Research finds,
When it comes to the nature of partisan polarization in this era, there is little evidence that the nation is more divided or that either party is taking more extreme policy positions.
What is divided is that the two parties completely disagree on certain main issues. These are health care, the environment, poverty, and to some extent how to handle the pandemic. This is shown in the graphic below.
Now, I would argue that these issues are to some extent artificial. The news and political organizations have framed certain issues like “health care” as wedge issues and used their influence to line people up behind them. If these issues were redefined, there would be a lot more room for agreement. But more on that in a future article.
Polarization is Leading to Mistrust of Each Other
A pressing current problem is that the poor quality of public discourse is creating hard feelings that are leading to less willingness to collaborate with each other. People are increasingly seeing the other side as unintelligent, dangerous, or immoral. Pew Research notes,
Deeply negative views of the other party have grown to the point that 40 percent or more of Democrats and Republicans see the other party not just as people they disagree with, but as a threat to the well‐being of the nation.
This mutual hostility has grown significantly in just a few years and is expressed in deeply personal terms. A majority (55 percent) of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans, an 8 percentage point increase from 2016. And 47 percent of Democrats now say the same about Republicans, a 12‐point jump from just four years ago.
Failure Is Not An Option
We have to turn this around. Division and distrust are leading people to say things like “we just need to burn it all down.” This is completely foolhardy. A Utopia would not arise from the ashes of democracy. Rather, it would probably lead to a new Dark Ages, if not the destruction of the planet.
Thankfully though, most Americans believe it can be fixed. Pew Research finds,
[Americans] “remain optimistic that the challenges can be addressed. Fully 84 percent think that trust in government can be improved. And 86 percent believe it is possible to improve trust in each other.”
A lot of the challenge has to do with how the issues are being framed and talked about. To break this up, we as newsreaders need to think differently. We need to look carefully at what we are told and consider who is saying and why they are saying it.
One key principle of Positive Politics is we have to be able to see perspectives from the other side. To do this, always try to understand the rationale of people who oppose your viewpoint before making a decision. To make this easier, also assume that average citizens (unless truly shown otherwise) have good intentions. (Okay, politicians and media organizations are a whole other animal. I’ll talk about that some other time. ;-))
That’s all for this edition! I hope your New Year is off to a great start and is truly stellar.
As always, feel free to give your comments and also stayed tuned for future issues!