David Remnick from the New Yorker interviewed Obama before, during, and after the election. I don’t want to write a lot of words rehashing the election for a couple reasons. First, everyone else is doing that. Second, I suspect we need to put some time and distance between us and the election before we can decide which combination of the many theories is correct (for example, Trump was a genius at connecting with the middle class, white Americans are a bunch of ignorant, paranoid racist assholes, Hillary was a uniquely weak candidate, Russia and/or the FBI stole the election, a majority of Americans actually preferred Hillary, Biden or Sanders would have won easily, it was essentially a tie and the electoral college is just quirky and outdated, etc.)
Obama offered a theory though that rang at least partly true to me, and I actually find it disturbing.
“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change…”
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”
It’s disturbing to me because I really had the sense during the election that facts didn’t matter at all. I don’t think human nature is particularly good at analyzing and understanding the nature of complex problems, and our education system is not particularly good at helping us to overcome our innate tendency to oversimplify and misdiagnose these problems. But at least detecting and agreeing on the facts needs to be the common launching point for reasoned debate. If we are no longer even attempting to establish the facts, we can’t even get to that starting point for problem solving and we have actually taken a step back as a civilization.
I don’t want to blame the millennial generation for everything, but I do think the educational culture that generation grew up in and the new media culture are intertwined. I think this generation was encouraged to formulate and express opinions much more than I was at the tail end of generation X. This is not bad in itself. Young people need to be trained to establish the facts, understand the larger systems those facts are embedded in, define the problem, propose and discuss solutions. But that doesn’t mean all conclusions, opinions, and proposed solutions should be given equal weight. When young people express opinions, they need to get supportive but firm feedback from people with more experience and seasoned judgment, because that is how they gain their own experience, judgment and problem solving ability.
Now of course I want to offer some prescription for fixing this. Well, I am not feeling too optimistic at the moment. If we were rowing against the current before, now we seem to have turned the canoe around and we are enthusiastically rowing with the current toward the whirlpool. Like I said, I need some time and distance to think more objectively.