Fixing Our Political Culture
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Since its inception in 2017, Protect Democracy has pursued a variety of legal actions, legislative advocacy, and communications strategies to confront acute threats to the country’s democratic system, particularly those posed by the administration of former President Donald Trump. But we understand that the effort to secure self-government — one in which each American has a say and the law accords each American equal treatment — is not just a political undertaking. It requires an understanding of the cultural underpinnings of our democratic society: the factors that make it possible for the American public to even entertain and sustain the idea of living and participating in a democracy.
The Problems & Why They Matter
There are three trends that are symptomatic of the United States’ fractured political culture.
- Declining institutional trust
- Problem: The level of institutional trust — or the degree to which individuals trust major public and private institutions in society such as governmental bodies, organized religion, and the business community — has been decreasing in recent U.S. history, a trend that has only accelerated over the last four years. The Pew Research Center found in 2020 that 71% of the U.S. public do not believe that most elected officials care about what the public thinks, and 52% of them do not agree that the country is run for the benefit of all. According to Gallup, 70% of U.S. adults in 2020 had little to no confidence that the government in Washington will actually solve a problem they decide to address.
- Why it matters: The government is responsible for designing and implementing policies that support all of its citizens. Evaluating the people’s trust in that ability is an important indicator of the government’s legitimacy, and therefore its ability to carry out its role and responsibilities. Institutional trust is also necessary to maintain democratic systems: it enables the public to rely on decisions made by the government, facilitates policy implementations that require trade-offs, and is critical for the public to accept election outcomes
- Media & disinformation
- Problem: After the 2020 elections, public trust in the media experienced the greatest decline compared to the three other key institutions affecting American civic life: businesses, NGOs, and government. For example, a 2019 survey found that 61% of U.S. adults believed that the media intentionally ignores stories important to the public. It also found that increasing distrust in media is driven by Republicans increasingly distrustful of legacy news outlets. To be sure, this statistic is not entirely due to belief in mis- and disinformation. Instead, it highlights the growing public distrust of established media institutions and the resulting increased likelihood that people would get their information from alternative platforms. In fact, a significant portion of the American public gets their news primarily from social media platforms, a media space that does not effectively regulate conspiracy theories or unproven claims. Additionally, much of the American public tends to seek out news outlets as well as social media pages and accounts whose political bents align with their own, creating echo chambers that then heavily influence media consumption.
- Why it matters: Distrust towards traditional media outlets fuels the reliance on alternative media platforms for information, despite their lack of commitment to facts and news gathering. The low cost of producing news without fact checking or accurate information is one of the factors that give an advantage to social or alternative media platforms over more traditional ones. Paired with the public’s tendency to engage with media echo chambers, these trends facilitate the spread of disinformation and misinformation, and further the lack of shared knowledge and narrative between members of opposing parties.
- For more: Click here to learn more about Protect Democracy’s work to stop the spread of disinformation in particular.
- Polarization & political sectarianism
- Problem: Political polarization manifests in the U.S. as two increasingly uniform “sides” and a growing gap between them. While there was a significant number of people with both conservative and liberal ideology within each party between 1994 and 2004, they have both become increasingly homogenous in our contemporary political landscape. For example, the Pew Research Center found that in 1994, 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat, and 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. In 2014, the distribution was 4% and 5% respectively.
- Why it matters: While the U.S. public has been divided along other lines of difference in the past, such as race or sexuality, the growing importance and commitment to one’s political identification is a recent phenomenon that contributes to poor understanding, growing animosity, and increased inclination to political violence, all of which further inflames the widespread political polarization that characterizes our contemporary cultural landscape.
Context & Causes Explaining Political Culture
- Racism & white supremacy: Early institutions of American government were characterised by the consolidation of white political power and dominance. Despite hard-fought progress towards a multiracial democracy, white supremacy’s legacy of racial resentment and the disenfranchisement of communities of color continues to divide our society.
- Economic inequality: Economic stress drives a loss of faith in government, can lead to social detachment and the deterioration of the rule of law, and may be a factor in making authoritarian appeals more attractive.
- Lack of power of political parties as gatekeepers to their presidential candidate selection process: The parties’ limited control mechanisms for presidential candidates, combined with changes in the ways they can fundraise and advertise, have improved the electoral prospects of outsiders, including those on the extremes.
- Low levels of social trust, or the combination of interpersonal and institutional trust: There is a positive feedback loop between social trust and effective government, such that a lack of social trust can affect governmental accountability and efficacy, as well as further entrench polarization.
- Ineffective civic education: This contributes to our lack of “shared narrative” as well as an inability to engage and conduct knowledgeable political debates, both of which further mistrust political institutions and, by extension, the public’s commitment to democracy itself.