“A republic, if you can keep it.”
-Benjamin Franklin, when asked whether America would be a republic or a tyranny.
Our political debates reflect little interest in facts and nuanced discussion — soundbites reign supreme. The fault’s not with our politicians, however; it’s with us. Politicians (e.g., Mitt Romney, President Obama, etc.) don’t deal with reality because citizens prefer politics as entertainment and theater. If we’re the generation that loses our republic, the epitaph should read: “American Republic, Killed by the Internet and Cable TV.”
No prior generation of Americans has had such convenient/free access to high quality information. This should be democracy’s Golden Age. Paradoxically, the ease with which citizens stay informed — is destroying the foundations of our republic.
If this seems counter-intuitive, read on.
The Internet revolution provides an incredible wealth of high quality online data from the Congressional Budget Office, Census Bureau and many others, while Google and other search engines rapidly locate what we’re seeking. We have access to dozens of cable TV channels, rather than just three networks.
But the easy availability of information hasn’t promoted fact-based discussion. Instead, rumor and innuendo have a greater-than-ever role in politics. For example, although President Obama was born in America – – 13 percent of Americans believe he was born in another country. This is a partisan issue — 23 percent of Republicans think Obama was born outside the United States.
Gallup has tracked the partisanship gap (support from President’s own party, minus support from the other party) since 1953. The 10 highest partisan gaps occurred during the last 30 years, with the nine largest gaps during the last 20 years. The birth of the new media age correlates with the birth of hyper-partisanship.
In 2010-2011, President Obama’s approval rating by Democrats averaged 81 percent, but only 13 percent among Republicans. In 2004-2005, President George W. Bush’s approval rating by Republicans was 91 percent, but 15 percent among Democrats (a partisan gap of 76 percent =91 percent -15 percent). Partisan gaps of this level suggest that Democrats and Republicans are living in different countries. In fact, they do live in different countries — in cyberspace.
Courtesy of technology, we can now receive all our information from people who agree with us — which is exactly what human beings want. And, the new economics of media makes it extremely profitable for information-providers to pander to what we want to hear.
A significant body of peer-reviewed academic research demonstrates that we seek information confirming what we want to believe. Prof. Daniel Gilbert describes this as a contractual relationship between brain and eye, where the eye agrees to look for what the brain wants to see.
Research reveals that convincing us of something we don’t want to believe (e.g., persuading hyper-partisan birther Republicans Obama is US-born) requires much stronger evidence — shown repeatedly — relative to what’s needed to convince a person with neutral views.
For most of our republic’s history, news providers tended toward oligopoly or monopoly (due to high fixed costs for gathering/distributing the news). In the 1960s, Americans got news primarily from TV (one of three major networks), local newspapers (which were monopolies, or part of oligopolies) and perhaps a news magazine. The economics of the 1960s’ news business favored a focus on the broadest possible market, and penalized narrow-casting to only a targeted political segment.
The 1960s’ TV networks would have continually repeated the message that Obama was US-born. They wouldn’t have had any economic incentive to pander to birthers, and birthers wouldn’t have had alternate TV channels to turn to. Today, we have Fox & Friends treating all sorts of malicious nonsense as serious, factual news.
During the 1980s (birth of cable news) and 1990s (birth of online news), the old oligopoly models dissolved. Media started offering differentiated products to give consumers what they want. Today, you can choose from hundreds of different breakfast cereals, and hundreds of different news sources. As with cereal, we pick the news source we like. Some media sources will decide pandering to birthers (or whomever) makes business sense. It’s much cheaper (saves the expense of deep research) and more profitable to tell people what they want to hear.
Consumers choose news organizations that affirm their worldview, or at least that won’t seriously challenge it (even if contrary to truth and reality). (63 percent of daily Fox viewers believe: “It is unclear whether Obama was born in the US — or, Obama was not born in the US”).
So, welcome to the collapse of our republic. It will be broadcast live — through hundreds of media channels — to provide entertainment, but not edification, to the voters.
A version of this article originally appeared at the HuffingtonPost.