A new academic year has begun, as is evident from the smell of Xeroxed paper in the hallways and the excitement of college freshmen who are new to our classrooms. These first weeks are glorious: students are cheerful and optimistic, believing that this will be the year of straight A’s and good times. The professors are generally happy, too, having spent at least part of the summer away from campus, believing that this is the year where there will be no plagiarism, only enthusiastic class participation and completed reading assignments.
These first few weeks are always so hopeful and expectant. Then the first exams hit, and spirits are murdered en masse, like a “Law and Order” marathon but with fewer attorneys.
That’s the way it normally is, anyway – but as we’re often told, these are unprecedented times. This fall of 2023, the spirit-killing happened way too quickly in my American Politics classrooms, something I noted when a first-year student took my proffered syllabus, met my smile with a grimace, and asked: “Do we, like, have to talk about politics in this class?”
My student is not alone in her political distaste, as evidenced by recent polling data from Pew that reports a majority of Americans are “exhausted” when thinking about politics. Even worse, the Pew data show that the percentage of Americans who are excited by politics is a microscopic 4%. That’s lower than the percentage of Americans who hate ice cream (7%)! On the plus side, it’s higher than the percentage of people who don’t like dogs (2%). In any case, the number is depressing to consider for those of us who are unrelenting cheerleaders for democracy.
The bottom lines are these: Elections are important. Elections have consequences. The American experiment of a democratic republic is teetering now, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation where everyone needs to chip in, or the whole thing is going to fall apart. Unfortunately, these bottom lines are increasingly difficult to sell to the general public, which can avoid bad information with a thumb swipe.
The theory known as “news avoidance” describes a segment of the public who, after being deluged with so much content and information, unplugs from the news. Reuters conducts an annual survey of global news trends and has found that the percentage of American news avoiders is growing. Its 2023 report stated that the percentage of Americans who are “passive consumers,” or avoiders of the news, has grown to 51%.
Let’s unpack that number, because being a “passive consumer” is about the same as total abstention.
Thanks to technology, even those who want to dodge the news will still get bits of information from story fragments that seep into their feeds. These servings can come from reliably sourced journalism, or spicy stories that may or may not be true, or scary misinformation from well-meaning friends, or shady disinformation that originates from truly bad-intentioned actors. Regardless of the information quality, everyone who receives these news bits is getting them without context or perspective.
This is where our hyper-polarized, deeply personal, and furious political system becomes repugnant for my students and, apparently, for the majority of Americans who used the words “divisive” and “corrupt” to describe U.S. politics. The political stories most people hear are actually slivers of information that pierce their news avoidance because they are the loudest and most sensational bits.
Our current political media system feeds this beast. When politics moves from policy debates to a fight about individuals, the discourse becomes a cheapened binary. Nuance takes time, but sledgehammer invectives are much easier – and much more effective as clickbait.
This is not just about Biden and Trump; seemingly every election in 2024 will be a negative referendum on a single person. Will you vote against Doug Mastriano if he runs? Will you vote George Santos out of office? Will you send Joe Biden and his “crime family” packing? Our elections have become one-dimensional unpopularity contests.
No wonder only 4% of those polled are excited about the elections. Only the most engrossed and outraged citizens dig into these fights, and politicians cater to this subset of seething voters instead of the broader public. This is where, as The Bulwark’s Tim Miller writes, politics becomes fan service, where politicians just play the hits. Our political climate right now is toxic, so the greatest hits are chock full of emotion. In an effort to break through the noise, these politicians continue to amplify their well-worn messages of negative partisanship, panic, and ire. And that’s what’s seen and heard by all those Americans who are already trying to avoid the news because it’s so angry and contentious.
So, that’s not good.
The answer, however, is fairly straightforward. We all have to refuse the (click) bait that’s offered to us and read news to become informed, rather than enraged. Instead of letting bits and bites of politics and news seep into our brains when we’re not looking, maybe a sober news review will help us assess the real problems we face.
In short, we must resist the temptation for fire and fury and opt instead for equilibrium. We need to change the words we use to describe politics – and the only way to do that is to dismiss the pull of negative emotions.