American history often has its moments of tumult and discord. There is no greater a breach in our body politic than the years of the Civil War. The era of the Gilded Age laid bare the gap between our nation’s haves and have nots. The events of 1968 which we now commemorate looking back 50 years — the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rioting in American cities — all laid bare political, societal and racial strife that had been unresolved and echoes to this day.
Today, these similar levels of discord now come from our collapsing faith in shared institutions and the retreat to partisan echo chambers. The loss of faith in our institutions is laid bare in survey after survey. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that only 18 percent of Americans trust their government “always or most of the time.”
Some might say that this current collapse is the result of the clouds of scandal and partisan back and forth surrounding the Trump administration. That said, it is worth noting that before a single ballot was cast in 2016, a Washington Post survey found that 40 percent of Americans had “lost faith in American democracy.”
As we have lost faith in our system of government, those among us who are active in politics have retreated into partisan echo chambers. Research on media habits found that there was almost no overlap in what consistent conservatives and liberals found to be “trusted” media sources.
Conservatives reported that they were more likely to see only conservative viewpoints on social media. Liberals claimed they were more likely to block or “unfriend” political viewpoints with which they disagreed. The absence of a common narrative has created a vacuum into which tribal partisanship and misinformation flow. For political provocateurs at home and propagandists abroad, this vacuum is inviting.
The technological advance and opportunity of social media has created an interconnected world where, sadly, fake news thrives. A study showed that falsehoods are 70 percent more likely to be shared on Twitter, while, at the same time, our own psychology appears hardwired to believe a headline we have previously seen before, regardless of its veracity.
Many of the solutions to this range from the simple to the high tech. One is to improve the state of civic education in this country and the skills with which Americans are taught to question what they see in a range of media sources. Another is better analysis of news sources and their origins, especially as enemies overseas insert propaganda into our digests.
But beyond that, we must also consider how our political dialogue has been transformed by these trends. First, it’s easy to see how the tenor of political language increasingly uses fear and confrontation instead of highlighting hope for the future or a shared vision for America.
With divided outlets for rhetoric, divisive rhetoric thrives. Within the echo chambers, politicians and pundits aren’t rewarded for language that seeks consensus or compromise. The same research on political media habits also showed that those who were the most partisan in their media consumption were also the most active in a range of political activities.
With non-competitive districts and low-turnout primaries, those at the far ends of the political spectrum can be the few thousand votes that make the difference between victory and defeat. To get their message to these voters, politicians tailor their remarks for highly partisan audiences and are rewarded for inflammatory rhetoric. Many in the middle tire of this, get on with their lives, and voter apathy and disdain for politics grow.
With this partisan rhetoric, the echo chamber vacuum fills with zero-sum visions pitting conservative versus liberal, urban versus rural, white collar versus blue collar, and so on. Thus, we are seemingly unable to have conversations that transcend political identity about how our nation can invest in our future, achieve racial reconciliation, build economic opportunity, and shape a vision of patriotism in a globalized world.
Our country is indeed divided. Solving these challenges will not be a moment where we all sing “Kumbaya.” Political debate can be both heated and healthy, and American democracy is at its best when it is. But to rebuild the faith in our institutions and have hope for the future, we must return to a shared set of facts and a willingness to talk to each other.
Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.