}

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fixing America’s broken politics

The USA’s political system is broken—that’s probably the only thing that voters on both the Left and the Right agree on. Sure, they may be similarly angry at the same people—like the oligarchs, plutocrats who have corrupted the system and government—but they disagree on what to do about it. What if they focused on their shared goal of more democracy? Could they unite to fix America’s broken politics?

To be sure, there are HUGE barriers to the Left and the Right uniting on anything, but both sides want free and fair elections in which legal voters can choose who they perceive as being the best candidates, and not necessarily just those of the two main political parties, either. If they were honest, both sides would agree that this would improve politics not just because of greater diversity in elected officials, but also because it would force the two main parties to address the needs of the people, not the oligarchs and plutocrats.

The problem, obviously, is getting the two sides to agree on how to do that.

Let’s start with an easy one: Stop using social media to get political information! I mean stop completely: Don’t share that meme that made you say “yeah!” out loud. Don’t take every chance you get to “correct” those you disagree with—read more, type less. Don’t follow links posted by friends you agree with—but, once in a while, follow links posted by friends you don’t agree with.

This is because, as Timothy B. Lee wrote yesterday on Vox, “social media creates angry, poorly informed partisans”, not informed and aware voters. He wrote:
The increasing polarisation of news through social media allows liberals and conservatives to live in different versions of reality. And that’s making it harder and harder for our democratic system to function.
This is the core of what’s gone wrong with American politics: People exist in ideological bubbles, often believing things that simply are not true and that, in turn, leads them to believe that their political adversaries are stupid, brainwashed, evil, and/or a threat to humanity itself—not necessarily in that order.

To understand why this happening, Lee deserves to be quoted at some length (though I shortened it a bit to focus the point):
The key thing to note about this process is that it’s not apparent to the average Facebook user. When people opened a traditional newspaper, they got a representative sample of the previous day’s news. They also got stories that had been written by professional reporters who had at least a passing familiarity with the stories they were writing about. So obvious nonsense… wouldn’t have shown up in the news.
The Facebook newsfeed isn’t like that. It’s a sampling of stories heavily skewed toward the kinds of stories your friends and family like to share. And many stories are produced by amateurs with no real expertise in the topics they write about. So stories that are inaccurate but confirm people’s biases… are more likely to show up in people’s Facebook feeds than stories that reach an accurate but banal conclusion on the same subject.
It would be nice if we could teach critical thinking skills, and how to vet sources of information and what they say, and how to find other sources to check information against, and to know how to do original research to confirm or refute an assertion. But, let’s be honest: That’s all too much work for the average time-starved person, even when they have all the research skills imaginable. So, a good first step is to stop using social media as a legitimate information source all on its own, because it just isn’t.

This year has been particularly toxic on social media. We’ve probably all seen arguments about candidates, and we may have seen or heard about real-life friendships disintegrating because the people disagree with each other about the “right” candidate to support. That’s stupid.

We cannot begin to fix the broken political system if we’re so willing to allow social media to substitute for real life because—spoiler alert!—it absolutely isn’t. In the real world, most of us would never dream of hurling the sort of abuse that happens every single day online. Most of us would never sit in a friend’s house and call them “just another fucking libtard/wingnut moron”, yet people do the virtual equivalent all the time when they let their angry fingers fly without their humanity engaged.

As for me, most of the time I disengage from social media discussions about politics. I do sometimes take part, and it’s not always completely positive—I’m human, too—but I’ve successfully made a conscious decision to avoid joining the vast majority of discussions I see, especially ones that make me angry. Because, you know, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to suffering, as Yoda warned.

And that’s the bottom line: Americans CAN unite to fix America’s broken politics, but only if they stop shouting past each other long enough to actually talk without anger or hatred. That means not using social media as a legitimate information source, because to lift the level of discourse, we must first lift the level of information.

I’ll be honest: I’m not optimistic this can happen. People seem to weirdly enjoy the current situation and its toxicity. But this is the one thing we can all do that doesn’t cost a cent or require politicians to do a thing. We have to start somewhere, why not with ourselves?

There are other, structural things that are needed to fix the USA’s broken politics, but that’s a topic in itself. Right now, we need to fix ourselves.

No comments: