The system is broken… How will we repair it?
The system is broken. This is indisputably true. But no one thing or person broke it.
Yes, the Republican party has been sowing the seeds for this day for a very long time. Nixon’s Southern Strategy helped. So did the Powell Memo. And Reagan’s 1980 “states’ rights” campaign kickoff speech outside the Mississippi town of Philadelphia, where three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Dog whistles and outright appeals to racist thinking set the stage for this moment.
But so did a string of damaging-to-democracy Supreme Court rulings, from the 2010 verdict on Citizens United v. FEC to Justice John Roberts’ decision to join the 2013 5-4 ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, which set loose a line of tumbling-domino laws across numerous U.S. states that aggressively reduced the ability of some citizens (of color, typically) to vote. (Esquire’s ever-brilliant Charles P. Pierce traces the origins even further back, to the 6-3 2007 decision on Crawford v. Marion County Election Board et.al that enabled Indiana to begin clamping down on the franchise.)
There was also the decision in 1987 — by a Reagan-appointee-dominated Federal Communications Commission — to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to adequately cover issues of interest to the public. And, of course, the 1988 withdrawal of the non-partisan League of Women Voters as sponsors of the presidential debate, following collusion between both candidates (George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis) to take control over the choice of debate questioners, press access, audience composition and more.
The rise of, first, cable TV and then the Internet played a part as well. Both helped simultaneously to suck dry newspapers of the ad revenues that had sustained print journalism for decades, and to also continually speed up and cheapen the quest for “news,” turning it from a recognized public good into a commodity that could be sliced, diced and sold to the highest bidder. These developments led eventually, inexorably, to the rise of things like large numbers of Macedonian spammers creating Trump-friendly “news” sites to rake in click-generated bucks through Facebook ads. Of course, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News also have much to answer for. The late and much-missed Mike Royko saw that one coming many many years ago.
And then there were the current election cycle’s Neville Chamberlains — so, so many of them — eager to appease a click-generating, eyeball-grabbing candidate for any number of reasons, just to ensure the clicks and the eyeballs kept coming, or to secure themselves a place at the trough of power down the road. It’s clear why the Chris Christies, Rudolph Giulianis, Newt Gingriches and others like them did it. But how might it pay off (or not) for the likes of Paul Ryan, John McCain, John Thune, Deb Fischer and so many more who unendorsed and then cravenly endorsed again?
There were craven, ratings-obsessed entertainers too, like the playfully hair-ruffling Jimmy Fallon.
For some in the media, meanwhile, it was the labor-affirming desire to keep the 2016 contest a “horserace,” no matter how unequal the two candidates’ qualifications actually were. For others, it was journalism’s perverse faith in what Jay Rosen has called the “view from nowhere,” which held that reporters need to stay impartial by not taking sides, even if one source claims the Sun revolves around the Earth (demonstrably false) while the other states the scientifically established fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun (see: pretty much every mainstream news article on the science of climate change). There was also the press’ desire for “refuge,” along with the all-too-frequently observed sin of false equivalence, which said if Candidate A’s supporters yelled “Boo, hiss!” at Candidate B, that was just as bad as Candidate B’s supporters yelling the Nazi slur “Lügenpresse” at reporters. Sadly, I count the usually excellent Matt Taibbi among the recently guilty here.
The mainstream media’s late-to-the-party dedication to fact-checking was welcome, but — by then — pathetically tardy and inadequate for the task at hand. By the time the New York Times’ Dean Baquet, among others, realized they really needed to point out to readers when something was “just false,” the U.K.’s pro-Brexit team had already helped win the day in Britain with the help of declarations from the likes of Michael Gove that the “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
A large number of people in the U.S. have now apparently agreed with this, throwing into jeopardy everything from meaningful action on the well-established science of climate change, a concept barely mentioned in mainstream election coverage, to fact-based strategies for securing cyber space and the ever-expanding Internet of Things.
So, yes, examining the 2016 election results in the light of day clearly identifies plenty of people and practices to blame beyond those in the Trump camp alone. The question now is, where do we go from here? To once again begin assigning a fair value to facts, truth, equity and, for goodness’ sake, fairness, we need to dig deeper and think bigger. Building an atmosphere where the majority of us can, once again, agree at least that there are basic facts and fundamental descriptions of reality upon which we all agree, will take nothing short of a large-scale truth-and-reconciliation campaign across the country. No side in this debacle of an election can afford to give up on this goal. From equal rights and human rights to digital security and a livable climate, the stakes are too high to surrender now.