In Jamelle Bouie’s article, “Disinformation Is Not the Real Problem with Democracy,” he argues that democratic backsliding in the U.S. is not the result of misinformation and conspiracy, but the decline and disappearance of local news outlets. Bouie notes that “fractured” and “unreliable” information has long been a part of American journalism: “there was no press but the partisan press well into the 19th century… political machines produced their own newspapers for their supporters and patrons.” While news media can encourage political participation, unite “like-minded people,” and fuel reform movements, the shift of American focus from local news to national outlets has caused decreased turnout in local elections. As we have become more focused on national political conflict and paid less attention to local, concrete concerns, we have become more susceptible to “political hobbyism,” or the inclination to treat politics as if it were a game in which the only objective is to embarrass and humiliate our opponents. The entertaining aspects of political rivalry that dominate national news outlets have overshadowed the motivation for citizens to engage with politics on the local level.
Bearing Bouie’s arguments in mind, I concur that partisan journalism and the tendency of individuals to believe in conspiracies are not novel factors in U.S. politics, and therefore, not to blame for recent trends of increased political polarization and democratic erosion. Our fixation on national news outlets and disinterest in local organizations causes us to perceive democratic processes as distant, taking our focus away from the issues that matter, and redirecting attention to partisan conflict, which lessens our faith in democratic institutions.
Conspiracy has long played a role in American politics – think about McCarthyism and fears of old American virtues being under attack by intellectuals and communist schemes (Hofstadter 23). On the role of media in democracies, Lipset notes that through industrialization, societies are able to mass produce newspapers, radio networks, and films, which accelerate the spread of literacy and foster political participation (82). Lipset lists communications media as a condition associated with democratic stability among factors like “urbanization,” “education,” and “increased wealth,” arguing that “the literate develop the media which in turn spread literacy” (87). Robert Dahl states that democratic stability improves when “citizens and leaders strongly support democratic ideals, values, and practices… the most reliable support comes from when these beliefs and predispositions are embedded in the country’s culture” (Dahl 157). Given that Cisneros defines news media as a “cultural product” that constructs our “social reality,” we may interpret news media as a force that (ideally) helps to sustain a healthy democracy (574). As Hayes and Lawless summarize, “the quality of the democratic enterprise rests in no small part on the availability of political information in the media” (447).
Examining democratic erosion in Turkey, Bermeo writes how legislation aimed at weakening democracy targeted “institutions of accountability,” which include both media freedoms and judicial autonomy (11). Bermeo calls attention to the importance of independent media by equating its relevance with judicial autonomy, suggesting that freedom of the press serves as a check to the actions of the government. Huq and Ginsberg write that non-democratic regimes cast doubt on mainstream media sources to “dilute the power of information” (154). In a sharply polarized society, it is easier to accomplish this, as citizens are already inclined to believe that certain news sources are “fake” or otherwise invalid. Thankfully, in the case of the U.S. Constitution, “it is conventional wisdom that the checks and balances of the federal government, a robust civil society, and media, as well as individual rights, will work as effective bulwarks against democratic backsliding” (Huq and Ginsberg 83). Still, in our modern age, how “robust” is the media that we explore daily? Do we pay attention to our “town newspaper” or local publications? Do we always read past the headlines? Are we inclined to read or listen to the thoughts of those who think differently than we do? Or, do we prefer the comfort of the “echo chamber” and having our own views reinforced to us by algorithms? In our modern “high-choice” environment, those interested in politics can consult an array of sources – conversely, it has become easier to exist in a bubble or avoid engagement with political information (Hayes and Lawless 450). Besides concerns with the digital age and our obsession with entertainment, our focus on national news networks may inhibit faith in democratic institutions. To clarify, national outlets provide citizens with valuable information. However, when we are constantly reminded of national politics and the issues that divide us, it becomes easier to demonize the opposition while also falling into hopelessness. Individuals lose sight of how they can affect change in their local governments and become apathetic toward politics.
Looking at the topic of local news, in recent decades, “while the national media landscape has expanded dramatically, smaller news outlets have struggled to stay afloat” (Hayes and Lawless 447). The dominance of national news and the diminishing of local coverage has “generated a significant gap in knowledge and participation among the public” (Hayes and Lawless 459). Since World War II, more U.S. House seats have become safe for one party, incumbent reelection rates have increased, and “district polarization has rendered the outcomes of most contests predictable before the campaign even begins” (449). This decline in electoral competitiveness has been accompanied by smaller news outlets cutting resources, scaling back publishing schedules, and going out of business (Hayes and Lawless 449). As less political news has become available, citizens have become less active participants in democracy. Americans have become less likely to “express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote” (Hayes and Lawless 448). Beyond disinterest from voters, “the outlets for local news are typically scant… declines in newspaper coverage will have similar effects among citizens regardless of their level of political attentiveness” (Hayes and Lawless 451). This implies that otherwise politically active citizens are disengaged with politics due to lacking media sources addressing local concerns. As Bouie argues, the problem lies not with people being disinterested in politics, but the fact that they are uninformed. As local news outlets devote less attention to politics, citizens must turn to mainstream news organizations to “fill the gap” in information. Hayes and Lawless conclude that in order to enrich the local news environment, there must be a “renaissance in the competitiveness of House elections” (460). They note that the overarching issue behind the decline of competitiveness is polarization, which produces uncompetitive elections and centers on national engagement, which makes it “more difficult for citizens to gain the information that would help them hold their local elected officials accountable” (Hayes and Lawless 460).
Having investigated the role that media plays in enabling core functions of democracy as well as the decline of local news outlets, we are forced to confront the issues caused by decreased participation in local elections and polarization. By encouraging citizens to be more active in local elections, and restoring the influence of local media, we can be less fixated on areas of national division, and advance solutions that benefit our communities, contributing to a more dynamic and strong democracy. Rather than being fixated on national polarization, an informed, active electorate that is involved in local politics can work to counteract the effects of democratic backsliding and bolster faith in democracy.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27 no. 1, 2016, p. 5-19. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Bouie, Jamelle. “Disinformation Is Not the Real Problem with Democracy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/11/opinion/local-media-newspapers-democracy.html?searchResultPosition=10.
Cisneros, J. David. “Contaminated Communities: The Metaphor of ‘Immigrant as Pollutant’ in Media Representations of Immigration.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 11, no. 4, 2008, pp. 569–601. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41940396.
Dahl, Robert. “What Conditions Favor Democracy 12-14 .” On Democracy.
Hayes, Danny, and Jennifer L. Lawless. “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge, and Participation in US House Elections.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 77, no. 2, 2015, pp. 447–62. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1086/679749
Hofstadter, Richard. Paranoid Style in American Politics. Cape.
Huq, Aziz Z., and Tom Ginsburg. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2901776.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 53, no. 1, 1959, pp. 69–105. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1951731.