Our fractured civic dialogue.

By far the most important responsibility of the people is staying informed about the issues we face. Unfortunately, in recent times, this civic responsibility, along with the general climate of our civil discourse, has been increasingly and disturbingly neglected.

graphic by Melody Tang

Political polarization has consumed the nation, as Americans divide into like-minded, self-reinforcing, political tribes. Both the right and the left have strayed significantly from the center. Professor Nolan McCarty of Princeton University in his presentation “Political Polarization, Economic Inequality, and the 2016 Election” used quantitative data from the congressional voting record to show a remarkably sharp shift to the right for the Republican Party and a less dramatic shift to the left for the Democratic Party over the past 40 years. With both sides straying further from the center, it seems now as if many Americans cannot agree on anything. The constant anger and vitriol fueling both sides of the political spectrum has devolved into a burning mutual hatred. In fact, in the summer of 2016, the Pew Research Center found that approximately 58 percent of Republicans held very unfavorable views toward the Democratic Party, while 55 percent of Democrats felt the same toward the Republican Party.

Such divided and angry feelings toward the other side of the aisle make it especially easy for fake news to find an audience, resulting in the rise of fringe news on both sides of the political spectrum. However, this has been undeniably more prevalent and influential on the right. While the media of the so-called “Alt-Right,” such as Breitbart or Infowars, are now commonly recognizable names. So-called “Alt-Left” and fringe leftist news outfits such as the World Socialist Web Site and DailyKos are relatively unknown and unpopular outside of small circles. With such political attitudes rampant on the right, fringe news sources have capitalized on the emotions of many on the right, while neglecting truthful reporting. This, along with the discrediting of mainstream media, has allowed for the rise of alternative news sources that are often incredibly biased or just flat-out inaccurate.

graphic by Melody Tang and Caroline Tan

With untrustworthy news sources gaining large followings, these falsehoods begin to resonate with their readers. As a result, the U.S. may well have entered an era of post-truth politics, when facts and policy are ignored and empty emotional appeals dominate. Many different groups of people across the political spectrum have developed their own set of perceived realities. The problem is then compounded when these alleged, though dubious, facts are used to make major decisions. Of course, many of us disagree on what we view are some of our fundamental beliefs, and we may hold these opinions so close to ourselves that we view them as almost equivalent to truth; however, there are still some pieces of information that must be universally recognized as fact.

Even in the face of such political tension, there can still be change. Change starts with the realization that, as Americans, most of us share similar overarching ideals and values of independence, equality, and justice. When doing so, it is critical that the conversation stays civil and substantive, even if very disagreeable opinions are voiced. The attack and alienation of certain viewpoints only breeds more polarization, fueling the fire of post-truth media. In addition to promoting conversation, more and more education within schools about responsible media use and awareness should be taught starting at earlier grade levels, especially considering the rapid growth of media usage among younger Americans. Doing so would enable students to separate credible information from doctored news media, making future generations less susceptible to fake news. But for the sake of our civic responsibilities and the health of our democracy, we cannot let this issue fester any longer. There is no telling how long and how difficult such a process would be, but though democracy has never been easy, it has always been worth fighting for.

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