In 2016, American trust of mass media was at an all-time low. Gallup found that of 1,020 adult Americans surveyed, 32% reported having a “great deal/fair amount” of trust in the media. When sorted by party affiliation, Gallup found that 51% of Democrats, 30% of Independents, and 14% of Republicans trusted the media. Last month, Gallup reported that in 2020, trust in media is at 73% among Democrats, 36% among Independents, and 10% among Republicans. The trend is clear. Republicans trust mass media significantly less than their Democrat counterparts, and the gap has widened over time. What has led to this polarization?
A good place to start when answering this question is the presidential administration and its relationship with the media. President Donald J. Trump’s administration has purported a fake news rhetoric in which Trump has accused oppositional news outlets of being dishonest in their reporting, exampled by his response to an article by the New York Times that claimed he had only paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. While this is more of a correlative claim than it is a causal claim, it is possible that Trump’s attitude towards the media has spread to his voter base causing Republican voters to distrust the media over the course of Trump’s presidency. However, one could argue that trust in the media among Republicans has gone down because media is actually less trustworthy and that the reason Democrats and Independents have developed more trust in the media is because of partisan prejudice against Trump. This claim is unsubstantiated in that it would have to prove that media has truly gotten less honest. Since that would be quite the feat, it is fair – at least for now – to grant the possibility that Trump’s treatment of the media has affected the attitudes of his voter base towards the media.
If the above claim is granted, American democracy is in trouble. According to Gallup, Republicans trust Fox News the most, meaning that his voter base does not believe that any criticism made against Trump is valid, and while trump has not directly attacked laws concerning free press (although his move to ban the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, the Daily Mail and others from White House press briefings could be seen as a direct attack against free press), the possible spread of his distrustful attitude may have degraded the spirit of free press within his voter base. If the spirit of free press has been damaged, then free and fair elections may be damaged too.
According to Robert A. Dahl, a government must have free and fair elections to be considered a democracy, and for a democracy to maintain its free and fair elections, the government must be responsive to the people. Moreover, for a government to be responsive to the people, the people must be able to engage in three opportunities: 1.) “[t]o formulate their preferences,” 2.) “[t]o signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and their government by individual and collective action,” and 3.) “[t]o have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government, that is, weighted with no discrimination because of the content or the source of preference.” Furthermore, Dahl asserts that for a government to allow its people these three opportunities, the people must have access to alternative sources of information. In the context of Dahl’s theory, Trump’s voter base is being influenced to distrust alternative sources of information, posing a serious problem to democracy within the Republican party. Since the Republican party is currently in power, the distrust of alternative sources of information within the Republican party poses a threat to American democracy as a whole.
The reason that trust in alternative sources of information is important to democracy is because elections risk not being free and fair if it is believed that the only credible source of information about a candidate comes from the candidate himself. If candidates are the gatekeepers of public information about themselves, then it would be relatively easy for an autocratic personality to spread misinformation about himself – or even his opponents. In this way he can gain power under the guise of a free and fair election despite manipulating his voter base with misinformation about his actions or the actions of his opponents. These manipulative actions may ensure that an autocratic personality can maintain a solid voter base or disrupt his opponents voter base, making it easier for him to remain in office despite any possible anti-democratic actions he may take.
Recent literature on the autocratic tendencies of the Trump administration has outlined the signs of an autocratic personality within a democratic office. A “readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media” is on that list. Trump’s fake news rhetoric has led to the degradation of American democracy in that it has degraded fair and free elections by influencing his voter base to mistrust alternative sources of information. If the public does not trust the press, then there is no free press. Even though the freedom of the press has not been legally abolished in the United States, the degradation of its quality may still serve as signal for democratic backsliding. The degradation of free press as it is enumerated in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution may lead to the degradation of American democracy itself without serious political intervention. Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2007.  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York, New York: Broadway Books, 2019.  Lust, Ellen, and David Waldner. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, 113, 21, no. 93 (May 2018).  U.S. Constitution, amend. I (1791).
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