Our desperate need to save US democracy from ourselves
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At a briefing following the 2012 U.S. presidential election, campaign managers from both the Romney and Obama campaigns bragged about their sophisticated use of voter data to micro-target their supporters.

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I asked them whether they thought that such tactics, because they slice up the electorate into tiny, self-contained, slivers might be good for their candidates but bad for our democracy. “Interesting point, Professor, but our job is to get our guy elected, not save American democracy,” they both said.

 

The trouble is that no one really sees it as their job to save American democracy — not politicians, not owners of social media platforms, not advocates of conservative and liberal causes, and maybe not even citizens themselves.

Instead, in the course of selfishly or zealously pursuing our interests, we all do our bit to chip away at the great gift of democracy.

Eventually, unless we start taking better care of democracy, it’s going to stop taking care of us.

Negative advertising turns would-be voters off and makes them less likely to participate in politics. Yet, the Wesleyan Media Project reports that 70 percent of presidential campaign ads contained an attack on the opposing candidate.

Large majorities of Americans — more than 80 percent in opinion polls — think that money has too much influence in politics. There is every reason to think that the vast sums spent on campaigning and lobbying erode the public’s trust in democratic institutions yet their candidates and representatives continue to take the money and refuse to fix the problem.

During this past election, for instance, opensecrets.org reported that the Clinton campaign and allied outside groups raised close to $700 million while the Trump side raised over $300 million.

Once in office, politicians are driven to make laws and policies that will be good for themselves even if they aren’t good for democracy. When they re-draw the lines of their political districts, they often draw lines to reduce competition and keep power in the hands of the majority.

Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens finds that politicians make laws and policies that respond to what wealthy people want but much less to what everyone else wants.

Looking at the correlation between public opinion and public policy, Gilens finds that policies are responsive to people at the top 10 percent of the income distribution. By contrast, government is not particularly responsive to poor people at the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution.

That part may not be so surprising. But he also finds that government isn’t very responsive to the whole bottom half of the income distribution. Indeed, he finds that public policies aren’t even responsive to the bottom four-fifths. If his findings are right, then what we’ve had over the past few decades is democracy for the top quintile of the income distribution on issues where economic classes disagree.

Journalists and new media have also neglected the health of our democracy.

Students and faculty of journalism schools will be discussing the democratic consequences of the coverage of the 2016 election for many years to come, not least for its focus on personalities and scandals rather than on issues and policies.

A saving grace of traditional journalism is it’s thick ethical basis — the drive to get both sides of the story and to hold power accountable to truth — that compels journalists to take such criticisms seriously.

By contrast, the new social media platforms don’t yet have a substantial sense of their ethical democratic responsibilities to temper the main driver of their policies: the desire to draw eyeballs and sell ads. These platforms facilitate conversations among like-minded friends and followers, while a healthy democracy requires understanding differences between people.

Democracy depends on good decisions, and good decisions depend upon real information. But this election, social media platforms facilitated the spread of “fake news” and other erroneous information.

Ordinary Americans haven’t done their part to make democracy work either. Only 55 percent of eligible voters bothered to turn out to the polls in 2016. Among the relatively developed OECD countries, the United States ranks very near the bottom of the list — at 31 out of 35 countries — in voter turnout.

More importantly, America is deeply divided into red and blue. This election only confirmed what many studies had already shown. The really hard work for citizens of such a society is to overcome the division by understanding those whose lives and views are very different from theirs. Instead, many Americans are taking the easy path of staying in their own tribes and consuming news and views that reinforce, rather than challenging, their beliefs.

Last week, Clinton communication director Jennifer Palmieri told Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway that “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did” at a 2016 campaign debriefing event at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In that moment of anger, she offered an important thought.

American democracy is a marvelous edifice for governing in which we all pursue our own interests. But its health and persistence depends upon restraint and ethical commitments to preserving democracy. That’s why each of us needs to make it part of our job to save American democracy.

Archon Fung is the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.