We The People, and We, Our Media

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

On this Independence Day, my questions are: Who are we, and Who is We?  

A recent Pew Research study showed that just 15% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans trust the federal government to do what is right. Just as striking 24% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans say that anger is the best word to describe their feelings towards the government. 

In a related report, Pew tells us that 34 percent of Democrats and a shocking 11 percent of Republicans say that information from national news organizations is very trustworthy. Likewise, Democrats and Republicans show enormous gaps in their basic views on the function of media—meaning we lack a shared definition of the role of our media institutions, a precondition for any kind of shared public discourse.

What is equally concerning is that, beyond not trusting our institutions, we also don’t trust each other. The New York Times (if you trust it) ran a story last week under the headline, “Partisan Relations Sink From Cold to Deep Freeze.” They weren’t only talking about politicians, but about every day people:

“Surveys over time have used a 100-point thermometer scale to rate how voters feel toward each other, from cold to warm. Democrats and Republicans have been giving lower and lower scores — more cold shoulder — to the opposite party. By 2008, the average rating for members of the other party was barely above 30. That’s significantly worse than how Democrats rated even ‘big business’ and how Republicans rated ‘people on welfare.’ “By 2016, that average dropped by about five more percentage points, dragged down in part by a new phenomenon: For the first time, the most common answer given was zero, the worst possible option. In other words, voters on the left and right now feel downright frigid toward each other.”

Which brings us back to “We the People” on this July 4th. Can we actually see ourselves as part of a collective anymore?

Practical Ideas From Aspen

At the Aspen Ideas Festival this past week, this theme of distrust in institutions and each other came up in session after session: From medicine (Do we trust scientists with the ability to edit the human genome?) to cybersecurity (Hacking, election manipulation, bots, fake news), from philanthropy (Do grantors and grantees really understand and trust one another?) to interfaith relations and relations between religious and secular people, these questions of trust in individuals and institutions came up over and over again. What can we do to restore confidence, trust, and faith?

There’s no silver bullet, of course. But there are some things we can do.

  • In a session on talking about values, researchers Matthew Feinberg (University of Toronto) and Robb Willer (Stanford University) showed how the Moral Foundations Theory developed by Jonathan Haidt and others can help. Their work shows that most of us experience our moral values as bedrock, like facts. To argue with someone about their morality, to call them immoral, is like hitting your head against a wall—it will almost always fail to achieve common ground or move someone in their position. Far more effective, Feinberg and Willer show, is to reframe issues in terms of the morality of the opposing side.
  • For instance, when liberals want to persuade conservatives to support environmental protection policies, they will be far more effective if the argument is made in terms of purity (keep the Earth pure) and duty (stewardship). And if conservatives want to persuade liberals to support expanded military spending, they will do far better if they frame it in terms of providing career opportunities and economic fairness.
  • The essential point is to find a frame of reference that enables the conversation to move away from no-win contentious fights, and more towards shared values.
  • A similar idea was voiced regarding philanthropy. In an interview with the Aspen Institute’s Jane Wales, Reeta Roy of the Mastercard Foundation talked about how philanthropy leaders are more effective when they listen to grantees and don’t make assumptions about the best solutions to problems. This is especially true in the developing world (but as a foundation grant recipient in the U.S., I’ll attest that the idea applies equally well here).
  • There is always an imbalance in foundation-grantee relationships. And in any relationship with that kind of power imbalance, the temptation can be for the powerful to impose upon the less-powerful, and for the less-powerful to become subservient and acquiesce to whatever the more-powerful wants. In philanthropy, and in the rest of life, that’s generally a recipe for disaster, and it reflects precisely the kind of distrust that infects so many other areas of our lives and work.
  • To build trust—not just from a moral perspective, but because it also achieves better outcomes—Roy insists that more-powerful entities need to ask questions and listen closely to the people they’re aiming to help. And I would add that the grantees—the less-powerful—need to approach those encounters with a sense of their own agency, and not say yes to an offer simply because it has been made. Rather, both parties do best by being open and honest about their needs and interests. That will achieve better outcomes.

These are good steps, and all of us can take them and apply them in a wide array of settings. But the toughest nut to crack, it seems to me, is the media. I didn’t hear an idea at Aspen about how to generate greater trust in the media. There was a lot of talk about the importance of fact-checkers (and how much the Atlantic, one of the Ideas Festival sponsors, invests in fact-checking). But the larger take-away perhaps is that we’ve come to treat our media as more about confirming our membership in a tribe than about providing information with which to make informed decisions as citizens. That of course reflects the very dance of our desire to trust (either MSNBC or FoxNews) and then to distrust (everyone else) at the same time.

It is this last point about media that most concerns me on this Independence Day, because media is essential to weaving together our experience of We. While our schools, religious organizations, community groups, and neighborhoods are places we experience a larger sense of “We-hood,” in today’s world we experience We most frequently and powerfully through our media. And yet we also depend on our media to brake against those who would seek to mold a “We” free of others—a We of unity, rather than diversity. That’s a tough act, maybe even impossible.

Perhaps it’s asking too much of our media to be all those things. Perhaps we need to start with ourselves, with intentionally putting ourselves in conversation communities that enable us to experience a sense of “We” and also to mediate our experience of media. In my next post, I’ll offer some ideas about how we can do that.

A version of this post appeared on the Ask Big Questions blog here.

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