As we close the chapter on one of the most contentious election cycles in recent memory, I wanted to share some thoughts on the current state of American politics and media consumption. If any good came out of the recent riot at the US Capitol, it's that it shined a light on the depths of the anger, toxicity, and misinformation that has consumed a sizable chunk of our country. While the rioters are certainly not indicative of the majority of voters, I fear that more and more people - both on the right and left - are headed in the same direction, steadily marching towards the political fringe, untethered to truth and reason.
The rise of the internet and social media has provided access to a never-ending supply of news and opinions. In theory, this presents an incredible opportunity to learn from and interact with those who hold different views and have lived different experiences. In reality, our social media feeds and news diets often become an echo chamber, painstakingly curated to tell us exactly what we want to hear. It's from inside these echo chambers, free from dissenting thought, that we become radicalized, hostile to anyone who dares puncture our protective bubble. This new, unfettered access comes at a time when we, as a people, are rapidly losing our sense of meaning and of our place in one common American story.
In a recent Atlantic article, Senator Ben Sasse outlines three factors that have contributed to our modern ills: media consumption, institutional collapse, and the loss of American meaning.
America's junk-food media diet
"The way Americans are consuming and producing news - or what passes for it these days - is driving us mad. This has been said many times, but the problem has worsened in the past five years. On the supply side, media outlets have discovered that dialing up the rhetoric increases clicks, eyeballs, and revenue. On the demand side, readers and viewers like to see their opinions affirmed, rather than challenged. When everybody's outraged, everybody wins - at least in the short term.
"This is not a problem only on the right or only on obscure blogs. The underlying economics that drive Fox News and upstarts such as One America News to cultivate and serve ideologically distinct audiences also drive MSNBC, CNN, and The New York Times. More and more fiercely, media outlets rally their audience behind the latest cause du jour, whether it's battling supposed election fraud or abolishing local police departments.
America's institutional collapse
"Traditional media outlets are only some of the long-standing institutions collapsing as the digital revolution erodes geographic communities in favor of placeless ones. Many people who yell at strangers on Twitter don't know their own local officials or even their neighbors across the street. The loss of rootedness and institutional authority has created an opening for populists on the right and the left. It's not a coincidence that in 2016, millions of Republicans threw in their lot behind a man who for almost all of his life had been a Democratic voter and donor, and millions of Democrats wanted as their nominee a senator who staunchly refused to join their party. On both sides, conventional politicians were being told they had lost the thread.
"The anger being directed today at major internet platforms-Twitter, Facebook, and Google, especially-is, in part, a consequence of the fading of traditional political authority. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, Americans have outsourced key parts of political life to Silicon Valley behemoths that were not designed to, and are not competent to, execute functions traditionally in the province of the government. The failure of our traditional political institutions and our traditional media to function as spaces for genuine political conversation has created a vacuum now filled by the social-media giants-who are even worse at the job.
"Civic authority has ebbed in other ways. Political incompetence and malpractice around the COVID-19 pandemic have only deepened suspicions that some politicians will never let a crisis go to waste. The decisions in California to keep churches closed but to keep open strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries baffle Main Street. Similarly, the jolting juxtaposition of a media-addict mayor breaking up Hasidic funerals while marching in Black Lives Matter protests not only deepens the cynicism of many Americans, but it indisputably undermined institutions of public health that should have been cautiously protecting their standing.
America's loss of meaning
"Our political sickness has a third cause. At least since World War II, sociologists and political scientists have been tracing the erosion of the institutions and habits that joined neighbors together in bonds of friendship and mutual responsibility. Little Leagues were not just pastimes; soup kitchens were not just service organizations; they were also venues in which people found shared purpose. Today, in many places, those bonds have been severed.
"In 1922, G. K. Chesterton called America "a nation with the soul of a church." But according to a recent study of dozens of countries, none has ditched religious belief faster since 2007 than the U.S. Without going into the causes, we can at least acknowledge one cost: For generations, most Americans understood themselves as children of a loving God, and all had a role to play in loving their neighbors. But today,
many Americans have no role in any common story.
"Conspiracy theories are a substitute. Support Donald Trump and you are not merely participating in a mundane political process-that's boring. Rather, you are waging war on a global sex-trafficking conspiracy! A conspiracy theory offers its devotees a way of inserting themselves into a cosmic battle pitting good against evil. This sense of vocation that makes it dangerous is also precisely what makes it attractive in our era of isolated, alienated consumerism."
Read the full article here.