In spite of 24 hour cable news channels and the internet at our fingertips, the average person seems to feel less informed, not more. Why might that be?
I’ve been talking about the issues and values I believe in since forever, since it was just my mom and me staying up late during the first Gulf War to solve all the world’s problems. I’ve been a voter since I turned eighteen, and been politically active far beyond voting for going on twenty years, talking about and working for good policy, values, governance, and so on. I’ve been embedded in the Republican party on and off for nearly that long, attending meetings, sitting on committees, training and educating people on how to get involved.
I’ve been in the arena a long time.
And one of my greatest frustrations has been how few people seem to be engaged on the issues. The last few election cycles have taught me a lot about why that might be.
There’s so damned much government to keep track of, for one thing. A voter used to be able to understand much of the government over him in this country. He could see his local government up close, and he could understand the few things it did. Now there are so many elected officials for offices most people don’t even know about, they can barely get through the ballot. Not to mention the layers upon layers of committees and bureaucrats and public employees and public unions and bonds and ordinances and on and on. There is way too much for me to follow myself, so normal people are at a huge disadvantage.
And trust is an issue, too. When the corporate media outlets seem to take sides, everyone trusts them less. Instead of merely worrying about getting the details on the news of the day, now news consumers have to be concerned about whether or not they are getting the whole story. It’s hard to feel fully informed when perspectives are left out, or stories are framed in a way to imply one side of a political issue is bad or evil. It’s difficult to keep coming back for news to a source that directs scorn and ridicule at a large portion of its audience.
And for another thing, the people (like me) who eat and breathe and live politics and government have trouble imagining how other people can’t be similarly engaged and informed; and I think we tend to broadcast our confusion and disbelief (and perhaps superiority a little) to those who we are trying to reach. We’ve learned that normal people don’t care about the minutiae the way we do, and quite a few don’t take any of it into account when they vote. We devote so much time to knowing things that couldn’t matter less to them. For instance, a citizen in Texas has had to sue a state representative to be able to record his open committee meetings. People like me think that’s much more important than most things going on in Washington or Hollywood, but those places are where all the attention is.
And why WOULD they be more engaged if they have people like me around? On one hand, if they trust people like me, they might feel comfortable outsourcing the fuss to us, letting us stay in the fray and giving them an occasional update.
And on the other hand, if they ask questions, they might think we would look down on them a bit for not knowing enough; or if they voice an opinion, they might find one of us overwhelming them with facts and histories, and thus subtly telling them they don’t know enough to be able to talk about the issue.
(I have to pause here to say that I hope I’ve never made people feel that way, but I very much fear that I have. And I owe anyone who has been made to feel that way a huge apology.)
But there it is – there’s so much government that you can’t keep track; and if you could, even in one area, you’d find it difficult to find trustworthy sources, and you’d occasionally learn that it doesn’t pay for the normal person to voice an opinion.
So with that background, let’s look at where we are today.
- There’s a gazillion dollar health care bill being debated in Congress.
- There’s a lot in the news about Russia, and investigations.
- There are many other foreign and domestic issues to deal with.
- And Mika and Trump are throwing down over Twitter.
The news media is covering all of these things, to varying degrees. But it hit me today, what if the reason people are talking about Mika/Trump (or Kardashians, or The Bachelor or whatever is on) is that they’ve been walled off from really weighing in on the issues of the day?
What if the media and people like me have disincentivized normal people from talking about these complex problems like the nation’s health care crisis?
What if they feel out of their depth with all there is to keep track of, or they feel that their opinion is unpopular and so they’ll get trashed for it?
What if we’ve shoved all but a small percentage of manic news junkies and policy wonks out of the discussion entirely, curating the news and polls and social media experiences for those who’ve decided to opt out, sending them the message that they should just leave it to us?
And what if… what if the result of all of that is that public discourse has become mostly ABOUT things like Mika/Trump… because that is a situation that people can actually relate to, and understand, and grasp?
What if the trivia and the schoolyard spats and the online junk food is the only arena left in which they feel safe in weighing in?
And if all THAT is true, how do we come back from that?