While there is hope for America’s future as a democracy, there are serious democratic backsliding issues at the present moment. Increased polarization is widely accepted as a pre-cursor to this backsliding. Polarization can have a large variety of causes, but in America the most prevalent cause seems to be the expanding media network. Not only this, but as time goes on and technology becomes even more integral to everyday life, so too will the media, particularly in respect to political polarization and institutions. The media’s increased effect on politics is because of three reasons:
Media sensationalism is the practice of exaggerating of existing news stories, commonly for financial gain through increased audiences. Unfortunately, sensationalism has become a guarantee for success and money in the media world. While authentic and noble journalists still exist, many may find it hard to fight the urge to join their fellow journalists in the developing journalistic world and the financial compensation that follows such. If news stories are constantly exaggerated, the common American citizen will begin to believe that the exaggeration is the reality of general American life and trend towards the extremist views they see on the television and social media websites (Kleemans and Vettehen 2018).
Monopolistic News Stations:
Unprecedented numbers of news outlets is leading to an exponential increase of competition in a market which provides a good that is very difficult to regulate. To gain money and dominance above other competitors, news outlets must find ways to stand out from the pack. Unfortunately, this leads to reporters cutting corners and sacrificing their journalistic integrity for visibility, which lends itself to the aforementioned sensationalism problem. Sensationalism as stated above, draws more money into the media market, which in turn makes it an attractive arena to invest and create more businesses in. In a positive feedback loop of sorts, the increased saturation of news outlets made monopolistic actions necessary, and sensationalistic writing even more necessary to continue turning a profit. As stations fight for survival in the crowded media network, their attempts become increasingly dramatized. These dramatizations are common and hard to catch as many people simply do not have the time to conduct extensive research on every piece of news they consume. Viewers, then, do not see a true representation of their society, but a conflated and volatile one, fed to them by conglomerates with largely financial motivations. This is accepted as the truth, leading to more extremism on both sides of the political spectrum (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2018).
As technology has increased, American connections to the outer world become stronger. This connection of global communities can lead to a vulnerability very easily exploited. If the same narrative is being fed to large groups of people globally, it is a simple task to manipulate such people and turn them against those who do not have the same opinions of them. Media conglomerates such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, and CNN can control the narrative of the global media market and therefore affect million of persons who consume media across the globe (Panday 2009).
As we have seen in the previous three examples, the media plays a critical role in causing and encouraging polarization in the American society. This then begs the question, how does this polarization lead to democratic erosions.
Mutual Tolerance and Forbearance:
One of the best explanations of this concept is through the Levistky and Ziblatt’s idea of mutual tolerance and forbearance outlined in their book, How Democracies Die. Mutual tolerance is accepting an opposing political party as legitimate and having the right to rule if they win a free and fair election. At the very least, the citizens are willing to cooperate and respect to a certain degree those who disagree with them to maintain democratic institutions and peaceful transitions of power. Forbearance is the practice of continued compromise with the minority party, despite holding a majority and having the ability to completely disregard them. Even if an action is legal, the majority exhibits selectiveness when choosing when to exert such power. The most basic principles of democracy are maintained by mutual tolerance and forbearance. Respecting these tenants is the only avenue in which one can accept the leadership of an opposition party and not become woefully downtrodden at their own party’s failure, as there will soon be a chance for another free and fair election trusted to be non-rigged and dependent on the people’s beliefs. Unfortunately, the feeling of polarization trumps these democratic ideals soundly and easily. If someone believes they are very far from and dissimilar to the opposition party, they cannot trust this party to rule. The loss of this trust in the opposition party and democratic institutions stems from the polarized belief that the two parties are inherently different from one another and clearly cripples our democratic health. (Levistky and Ziblatt 2018)
When contemplating America’s future as a democracy, it would be remiss to ignore the media situation at hand. While media coverage of events is relatively new and unprecedented in the arena of politics, it is of the upmost importance that as a nation, America learn to navigate accordingly. The prospect of retaining democratic institutions would be greatly improved by intentional action against the polarized transformation of the average citizen’s news diet (and by extension world-view). In this way, the people may become less vulnerable to potential ideological manipulations by the national and international media market, as well as the creeping practice of sensationalism. Essentially, to understand polarization, what first must be understood the media’s role in broadcasting the American government’s political actions and the ramifications of such. Then, the extreme polarization incident to these reports may be foreseen and handily prevented. Perhaps on that day, the media may be harnessed in a way that is not detrimental, but supplemental to the American democracy.