… from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties…and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses J. P. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome
If you are among the 56 percent who disapprove of Hillary Clinton or the 65 percent who disapprove of Donald Trump for president – what now? Surveys have found that the word most associated with Hillary was liar and second was dishonest; and for Donald it was arrogant, followed by blowhard and idiot. Add Ted Cruz (“Lucifer in the flesh” per former Speaker John Boehner) at 56 percent disapproval before he dropped out. Clearly, voters selected candidates with the highest collective disapproval ratings in the history of presidential polling. Round it out with Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist that elicits disdain from many, and you have the perfect “disapproval” storm.
If you arrived from Mars and observed 20 presidential candidates winnowed down to these four, one might conclude that the campaign strategy for each candidate was to be as hated as possible. And in many ways that would be accurate.
While the unexpected success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has garnered much attention, the bigger question is: How have voter disapproval and contempt translated into success for all four candidates? Is dislike the new political currency of politics? In today’s political world, it appears the path to popularity by one side requires hatred by the other.
Candidates who advocated for unity, collaboration, and compromise were discarded early. In fact, mostly candidates raced to become more extreme: Trump’s wall with Mexico got taller, Hillary’s $12 minimum wage morphed into Bernie’s $15, Cruz would not only change the tax structure – he would abolish the IRS, Bernie would provide free college – to all. Partisan voters were assured there would be no need to compromise with their opposition. Disdain from the opposition became a badge of honor.
Why have voters championed polar-extreme policies and brutal, in-your-face discourse? What happened to this nation’s founding big e pluribus unum idea: that force by ruling monarchs serves the people badly; our differences are a source of strength; and, that elected officials are to collaborate to represent the majority and the minority by coming up with the best decisions and solutions possible. We used to say “majority rules.” Now we say “Shut up, I am right, you are an idiot.”
Unfortunately, our political enmity is but one piece of a much larger, more troubling relationship unraveling. I spent six years researching the cumulative effect of our relational decline for my book, This Land of Strangers – The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics and Faith. The facts are daunting. Families are “coming apart” at an unprecedented level as single-parent households have increased more than 700 percent. Seventy percent of employees report they are disengaged at work. The unaffiliated (“nones”) are the fastest growing “religious” group. We are increasingly defined by the relationships we do not have, do not want – that we disdain.
Yes, people are angry, but this is not the first time our country has suffered economic disadvantage, division or a belligerent presidential candidate (think George Wallace). What has happened to feed our collective contempt and what can we do? Short of enrolling the entire country in anger management, let me suggest we start by understanding the unintended consequences of three key trends.
Technology enables polarization. Conventional wisdom is that if you can get like-minded people to communicate more they will moderate. Years ago J.A.F. Stoner at MIT performed a series of studies that found that as like-minded people deliberate on a topic they actually become more extreme. Today’s bountiful supermarket of political content and channels means we can dial-up talk radio, cable television, blogs and social media that reinforce our preexisting opinions and even dredge up desired feelings. Participating in these communities often leads members to more extreme, cult-like behavior – including expelling members for collaborating, negotiating or even fraternizing with the other side. The most damning accusation for any candidate this year: attempting to “deal” with the opposition – thus conversation silenced, compromised outlawed. The greatest risk of being mortally wounded came from so-called “friendly” fire.
Political fights are profitable. As the President of CBS said about the candidates’ bomb-throwing, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” No one has understood and exploited this more than Donald Trump. The unpardonable sin for candidates this election is to be boring or forgettable. When politics becomes a reality TV show it is not surprising that a reality TV star would do well. Trump has received an estimated $1.9 billion in free media coverage – six times his closest competitor. Diana Mutz, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that we are wired to avoid boredom by seeking conflict. We may wish to avoid conflict in our own lives but are entertained by it in others. Civil discourse and policy discussions lack drama.
Partisan media is the new political establishment. Partisan media has railed incessantly against the political establishment for not being “pure” enough and for working with the other side. Conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and also progressive media like Move-On.org and Salon magazine have been especially outspoken. Guess what? They are no longer the outsiders. They are the insiders that brought us an ideologue (Cruz) and an in-your-face TV star who never back down. They also promoted Bernie Sanders and pressured Hillary Clinton’s move to the left. Ironically, as drama-driven media has prospered, trust in the media has plummeted to an all-time low – six percent. As Campbell Brown laments, TV executives’ and anchors’ job and incentives are tied to ratings that drive revenue.
So technology polarizes and makes politics more tribal. Tribal political fights become an entertaining, profitable consumer product. These powerful products elevate media to Alpha status – running the show. It is an unvirtuous cycle of unintended consequences. In the process, the attributes of leadership that produce strong communities and effective teams – hearing opposing views, collaboration, compromise – are sacrificed for cheap entertainment that resembles professional wrestling.
In democracy, citizens get the leaders they deserve. Unless we intend a fate like that of the Roman Empire, we must move beyond the hope of bread and circuses.