PoliticsSociology

Is Our Democracy in Danger?

Can democracy survive when large segments of the population no longer have faith in it? And what happens if one of the two major political parties actively works to undermine that faith as a strategy to achieve their political goals? Is this where we now find ourselves?

One of my favorite programs for news and information is On The Media — a weekly program produced by WNYC that can be heard on National Public Radio. It’s also available online and as a podcast. If you’ve never listened, you should check it out. Given all the “noise” and misinformation out there, I am grateful for their insightful reporting.

Here is a segment from November 22, 2019 that explores dynamics of our political discourse as illustrated by the impeachment hearings. It shows how ratcheting up the contentiousness, undermining the legitimacy of political institutions and raising the volume of the “noise” so that people tune out, is a purposeful strategy being used to achieve a political objective. An objective that threatens our democracy.

See also their series of short “Purple Episodes” as part of the Purple Project for Democracy where they explore concerns about the erosion of our faith in democracy and what can we can do to restore it. I’ve embedded these segments and summaries below.

PURPLE EPISODE 1: “Is Democracy up for grabs?”

Democracy is in trouble. Not necessarily because of our current political mayhem, or even because of the accumulated sins and failures of American society, but because vast swaths of the public are giving up on the system that has governed us for 243 years.

Here are some alarming data points: One, in 2018 only 33% of the general population expressed trust for government. Two, among 1400 adults asked about the importance of democracy, only 39% of younger participants said “absolutely important.” Three, in a 2018 Democracy Fund survey of 5000 Americans, 24% of respondents expressed support for “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections,” and either a “strong leader” and 18% for “army rule.

The more complicated question is what as a society we are to do about it? In this mini-series we’ll be talking that over, but we’ll begin with the actual state of public sentiment and public participation. Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University and Co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. He and Bob discuss potential solutions for taking on widespread disaffection.

From: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/purple-episode-1-democracy-grabs

PURPLE EPISODE 2: “Low Information, High Misinformation Voters”

The Pizzagate pedophile conspiracy, crisis actors at Sandy Hook, the flat Earthers…and on and on. Absolute nonsense peddled by the cynical and the naive, and eagerly lapped up by the gullible. Misinformation is a problem that Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth College, has studied for years. In this interview, Brendan and Bob discuss new research on how Americans form their political beliefs and how civic institutions may begin to win back their trust.

From: On The Media, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/purple-episode-2-low-information

PURPLE EPISODE 3: Let’s Not Discount Reality

One of the reasons so many Americans have lost trust and faith is democratic institutions is simple misunderstanding about how the system is designed to work.  Another, however, is familiarity with how the system does work— which isn’t exactly of, by and for the People. Anand Giridharadas is author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. He says the founders also didn’t plan on politicians constantly trash-talking government itself and that a decline in trust in government is the result of a concerted, private sector propaganda war waged over the last four decades.

From: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/purple-episode-3-lets-not-discount-reality

PURPLE EPISODE 4: Media to the Rescue?

A 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed only 23 percent of eighth graders in the United States attained “proficient” status in civics. A 2011 Newsweek survey found that 70 percent of Americans didn’t even know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. And only 26% of those surveyed in 2017 by the University of Pennsylvania could name all three branches of government. And no wonder: with STEM curriculum and standardized testing squeezing the school day, civics has become the snow leopard of the social studies curriculum. 

So if the knowledge vacuum is otherwise filled by misinformation and disinformation, and the result is a loss of faith and trust in democracy itself, who is left to intervene? Jan Schaffer — ombudsman for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, Pulitzer Prize–winning former journalist and founder of The Institute for Interactive Journalism — talks to Bob about what responsibility the media have to become educators, and maybe even re-assurers, of last resort.

From: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/purple-episode-4-media-rescue-on-the-media

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