A Drop of Ink: We Must Harden Our Democratic Institutions

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By Reed Anfinson

Publisher

To combat the anti-democratic poison social media feeds into our political discourse Jonathon Haidt says we need to do three things: harden our democratic institutions, reform social media, and inoculate the next generation against the social media’s damaging impact.

We’ve been changed by social media, and not for the better. Today, Haidt, a social psychologist, and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University argues social media has become a direct threat to the stability of America’s democracy.

You would think we coudn’t get more polarized than we are today. One-quarter of Americans now say violence is sometimes justified against the government. The percentage of liberals and conservatives who believe this is true is nearly equal.

We saw evidence of the willingness to do violence expressed in the assault on the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, 2021, as the most ardent of former President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to stop the Senate’s count of the electoral college vote certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 win.

Plots to kidnap elected officials and hold them for a vigilante trial are hatched. Death threats against journalists are common. School board members and elections judges are quitting in fear. It’s going to get worse.

“Political polarization is likely to increase for the foreseeable future,” Haidt writes, with both individuals and governments doing their best to ensure it does. Russia, China, and other countries with no love for America will use social media to “keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry.” Domestic extremists will foment discord through social media.

Though their tactics have already successfully accomplished these goals, they are about to get much more sophisticated. “Artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation,” Haidt writes. “The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone, and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence.”

Even more frightening is the rapid advancement of video deep fakes. With computer technology, videos of politicians, celebrities, and journalists can be created with them speaking words they never uttered. The look and sound will seem authentic but will have been generated by a country, organization, or individual to destroy reputations and plant false beliefs.

 “We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality,” Haidt quotes Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Our 21st Century technology that promised to bring us close has shattered family and community bonds, putting us at increasingly bitter and potentially violent odds. 

The height of the early industrial age was marked by rampant pollution, poor wages, long hours, and abusive child labor. Our digital age fouls our political and social discussions, commands obsessive attention, and abuses the mental health of our children.

“American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability,” Haidt writes. “If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.”

We aren’t going back to the pre-internet days, so how do we address its damage to democracy? 

We harden our democratic institutions - our legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government - to withstand the destabilizing power of social media. We must also set guardrails on social media to mitigate its worst aspects.

One way to harden democracy’s founding principle of the necessity of compromise is to take away the power of the fringes controlling who gets nominated and elected. Over the years, only between 8% and 23% of the electorate votes in a primary. Too many of these voters don’t represent the mainstream of either party.

How do we fix this problem? With ranked-choice voting. It ensures the candidate with the broadest support wins. Ranked-choice voting leads to more civil campaigns and debates with candidates not wanting to alienate voters in the middle whose ballots they may need.

With ranked-choice voting a person ranks their candidate selections. You check your first, second, and third choices, for example. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, that candidate wins. However, if there is no decisive winner, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated, with the second choice of those who voted for that candidate going to the remaining candidates.

Those second choices can then push one candidate over the finish line. This form of voting requires candidates to moderate their stands to appeal to more voters – extremists are likely eliminated.

We must also mandate a fairer process for redistricting the country’s congressional districts. Every 10 years, new congressional maps are drawn based on the decennial U.S. Census. Whichever party controls a state’s government draws the maps. These maps are often drawn in convoluted ways to maximize the controlling party’s future power and disenfranchise their opponents. Again, this process protects the extremes of the parties. 

We must ensure those who oversee elections are above reproach, acting to uphold our democratic process rather than subvert it.

“Research on procedural justice shows that when people perceive that a process is fair, they are more likely to accept the legitimacy of a decision that goes against their interests,” Haidt writes.

 We must return to an era when Democrats and Republicans could vigorously debate the issues and then go out for a cordial meal together. They never abandoned their respect for one another. Today, too many in Congress come from the fringes and are more interested in burning bridges as badges of honor with their base rather than building them. Comprise, camaraderie with the other party, is dangerous to your chances of getting nominated or running election. Yet, it is the foundation upon which a representative democracy is built.

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