U.S. democracy is very clearly in a state of crisis. An NPR poll found that “64% of Americans believe U.S democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing.” These negative feelings about the future of democracy were especially prevalent after the January 6th attack on the U.S capitol. To live in a democracy is to be governed by the people, where the people (regardless of partisanship) are supposed to work together to make decisions for the betterment of the country and to influence the government to make decisions for the greater good of society. However, it is evident that is no longer happening.
The first and most prevalent threat to the state of democracy, is the extreme political polarization the country is facing. Political polarization is at an all time high, and the conflicts have far exceeded disagreements on policy matters. Explored by Liliana Mason in Uncivil Agreements: How Politics Became Our Identity, she finds research that “both parties negatively stereotype members of the opposing party, and the extent of this partisan stereotyping has increased by 50% between 1960 and 2010.” Members in both parties typically hold strongly unfavorable views of their opponents, it’s become a matter of an “us versus them” mentality, resulting in anger and resentment toward the opposite political party.
Social media has been majorly instrumental in increasing political polarization. Instagram, Twitter, and other social medias have become sites of intense political arguments, where people not only attack policies of the opposing party, but the people belonging to those parties themselves. On social media, we essentially live in bubbles, where we are constantly faced with an “affirmation feed,” where we are constantly being fed opinions and news that we agree with. People tend to follow social media pages and news sites that will validate their own views and opinions. This is consistent with a term used in psychology, confirmation bias, insinuating that humans are more likely to seek out and agree with views that align with their pre-existing beliefs. When we are constantly faced with ideas that we agree with and that align with our views, when the time comes where “the other side’s” views or opinions are brought into conversation, it makes it extremely difficult to be able to truly listen and understand the other sides point of view. Simply put, the design of the algorithms and feeds on social media use popularity-based algorithms that will specifically tailor & spit out content that users agree with in order to maximize user engagement & profit made off of that engagement. While maximizing engagement has been successful, it has also maximized political polarization.Another way social media has influenced political polarization has been through the rise of political figures using social media. This has made it very easy for users to engage in political conflicts and debates online — most of the time in a not so respectful manner. When “debating” online, it makes it very easy for users to say whatever they want towards the opposing side, resulting in negative feelings and anger toward the opposite political party.
The extremity of political polarization became extremely prevalent in throughout the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and still is. Based on national studies, it has been found that liberals perceived a much higher risk of the virus, placed less trust in politicians to handle the pandemic, much more trusting of medical experts and scientists, and were much more critical of the government response. These results were based in partisanship, rather than political ideology. At the time, President Donald Trump made it very clear toward the beginning of the pandemic that the virus was “under control” and “nothing to worry about,” making his supporters (typically republican / conservative) believe that there was minimal risk of the virus, resulting in them engaging in less preventive measures such as social distancing and wearing masks, (Kerr, 2021).
The rise and spread of fake news is extremely threatening to democracy — democracy is WAY less likely to survive in a poor informational environment. When voters are poorly informed, it could lead to mistakes at the polls and in who is elected. This could potentially (and has) lead to the election of incompetent and unfit political officials. In todays society, we live in an information environment, where there is constantly a surplus of information, making it difficult to find real and reliable information. The sharing of false information threatens the quality of democracy.
Political polarization, social media and fake news are not the only things threatening democracy, there is also the threat of stolen elections, mob violence, minority rule threat, voter suppression, and much more. A major threat to democracy was Trumps conduct and behavior after the 2020 election, leading to his supporters storming the capitol and putting many lives in danger. Trump had tried to pressure officials to reject Biden’s win of the presidency, saying that the election was rigged and stolen — leading too many losing hope in democracy & what democracy stands for — being governed by the people. When voters dont believe that the electoral process is working, they are losing hope in democracy. Another threat that many are seeing is the threat of voter suppression, arguing that republicans and government officials have been trying to suppress certain voters (specifically young, poor, nonwhite, and immigrant voters) from actually casting their ballots.
U.S democracy is under a state of attack, we are in a state of crisis. Political polarization is the driving force behind the collapse of democracy, as well as social media and fake news driving that political polarization. To live in a democracy is to live governed by the people, to work for the greater good for the majority of people — that is no longer happening.
About the Authors Follow Lee de-Wit Lee de-Wit, et al. “Are Social Media Driving Political Polarization?” Greater Good, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_social_media_driving_political_polarization.
“From Crisis to Reform: A Call to Strengthen America’s Battered Democracy.” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2021/crisis-reform-call-strengthen-americas-battered-democracy.
Mason, Liliana. “Uncivil Agreement.” University of Chicago Press, 1 Apr. 2018, https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/U/bo27527354.html.
Rose, Joel, and Liz Baker. “6 In 10 Americans Say U.S. Democracy Is in Crisis as the ‘Big Lie’ Takes Root.” NPR, NPR, 3 Jan. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/01/03/1069764164/american-democracy-poll-jan-6.
Vinopal, Courtney. “2 Out of 3 Americans Believe U.S. Democracy Is under Threat.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2 July 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/2-out-of-3-americans-believe-u-s-democracy-is-under-threat.