Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Jefferson and the other framers of the constitution made sure that our democracy included a free press. They understood that it was a vital check on the power that they were investing in government
What happens to our democracy when a significant number of voters reject even the concept of an unbiased media?
The American Journal of Political Science recently released a study to answer the question of how this could happen.
Political affiliation is now a stronger predictor of behavior than even race. People are much more accepting of someone of a different race as a potential spouse than they are of someone who has differing political views.
Many who are sharing fake news understand that it may not be accurate, but they share it none the less because it supports their point of view. More importantly it also demonstrates to their peers that they are trusted members of that social group.
Conservatives may also be more fearful.
According to a study slated to be published in the journal Psychological Science, it might be true that conservatives are more likely to fall for false, threatening-seeming information, but it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re hyper-attuned to hazards in their world. If they spot a sign of danger, they figure trusting it is better than ignoring it.
That’s all fine and good for Facebook users. But what happens when the President of the United States starts saying things are aren’t supported by facts?
You’ve got frivolous things like the size of the inauguration crowd (smaller than Obama physically and virtually), blaming his loss of the popular vote on illegal voting (voter rolls have problems, but no evidence of illegal voting, supported by recounts in Wisconsin and Michigan), the biggest Republican victory since Reagan (Bush I was bigger), and his standing ovation at the CIA speech (CIA officers stand until requested to sit. He never asked them to sit.)
But then you have things that affect people’s lives.
An executive order that counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce when the federal workforce is the same today as it was 8 years ago.
A ban on Muslims from 7 countries including Syria, when no Muslim immigrants from those countries has ever committed an act of terrorism in this country.
Trump suggested that there were only 100 or so people affected. His lawyers later testified in court that over 100,000 were effected. How could he have been so far off?
Trump provided preference to Christians because he said that they were having a more difficult time previously getting into the country. That’s not true either. We admitted Christians and Muslims at roughly the same rate. The smaller number of Syrian Christians is due to the fact that they are only 5% of the Syrian population.
His administration cited a fictitious massacre in Bowling Green, KY as evidence that we should fear Muslim immigrants. The data suggests that US citizens are MUCH more likely going to be the perpetrators of mass killings than immigrants. This ban will likely only alienate the domestic Muslim population further, at the precise time that we need their help.
At home as well, Mr. Benjamin said, the president’s order is likely to prove counterproductive. The jihadist threat in the United States has turned out to be largely homegrown, he said, and the order will encourage precisely the resentments and anxieties on the part of Muslims that fuel, in rare cases, support for the ideology of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
In our country, journalists have the responsibility to hold elected officials accountable. They do that by informing voters and speaking truth to power. There is no one else. Yet Trump is systematically delegitimizing the trustworthiness of the press. Why is that?
Some claim that this is the influence of Bannon. His world view is that the old order is corrupt and must be overthrown. He believes that we are literally at war with an expansionist Islamic philosophy and the solution is to exert our own sovereignty. Rather than make the world safer through alliances, he would prefer that the US protect itself through power and nationalism. The press, in his opinion, is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That’s because he views himself as a radical and he feels his own cause justifies ANY ACTION.
This is an old and proven strategy. Create fear of “the other”. Convince people that the only way to be safe it to eliminate “the other” from our society. The simple math is that you are either with us or you are against us. If you are against us, you become part of “the other” should be treated in the same way that we are treating “them”. You hear some of that language coming from the administration today in reactions to dissent.
In a democracy, we have to hold our elected officials accountable to telling the truth. It is THEIR responsibility to separate belief from fact. If we can’t trust that our elected officials are making their decisions based on the best facts available to them, our institutions begin to unravel because they can no longer be trusted to deal fairly with all people. And that’s the key here. Bannon isn’t interested in dealing fairly with all people. He is interested in a revolution where HIS OWN VISION of the future triumphs, not the vision of the founders, or even the vision of the majority.
The danger to democracy when people stop believing the press is that they will ultimately stop believing in the rest of the institutions that are the foundation for our society. That’s the moment that demagogues can gain followers by claiming that they are the only ones that are willing to tell the truth. The reality is that they are the ones manipulating the tribalism they create and the fear they instill to undermine democracy and usurp power. It is a proven formula. Don’t let it happen here.