Don Ness column: Choose your own adventure — Democracy in peril
Editor's note: This column ran earlier this week in both the Western Weekly and Eastern Observer newspapers. You are a citizen of the United States. You have a good job, a loving family, a solid home in a working-class neighborhood. You love your...
Editor’s note: This column ran earlier this week in both the Western Weekly and Eastern Observer newspapers.
You are a citizen of the United States. You have a good job, a loving family, a solid home in a working-class neighborhood. You love your country, but you feel the government is on the wrong track.You’re the star of the story! Choose from an infinite number of possible endings!
Throughout your life, you have seen enormous changes in the nation’s political culture. You’ve witnessed a growing dysfunction in governing bodies as elected officials care more about the accumulation of power and their own narrow interests rather than the overall well-being of our country.
You are generally disappointed at politicians because of their inability to accomplish anything of importance, but you are especially angry about the other party. They are the ones ruining this country. They must be destroyed. They are out of line with your personal values. For the first time in your life, you’ve become a partisan warrior - not because you love your party, but because you’ve grown to despise the other guys. Your anger about politics used to surprise you, now it’s just part of who you are.
The jerks in the other party are clearly to blame, they have no shame and no ethics. Sure, some folks in your party use those same shady tactics, but that’s only because your side would be at a disadvantage if they didn’t. You’re convinced that the other guys started it.
It’s been a long, frustrating day at work. Exhausted, you sink into your living room couch, grab your phone and start scrolling through your Facebook news feed. A few years ago, you would see posts from (now former) “friends” who would present opinions that you disagreed with. But you fixed that inconvenient problem. Thankfully, with judicious use of the “unfriend” button you are only exposed to opinions from people you already agree with.
In your newsfeed, you come across a bold headline which captures your political anger perfectly. It places blame for our nation’s troubles on a politician that you truly hate. The post feels especially satisfying because it features an awful picture of that politician and a creative use of profanity. Normally, you just read the headlines as you scroll. But this headline is such a perfect attack against your enemy that you just had to read more. It’s been a bad day, reading this article might help direct your anger.
You click and it sends you to a site you’ve never heard of before. It’s clearly a site that reflects your way of thinking … maybe a bit more extreme. Sure enough, the article is pure ideological bliss. It’s a stream of funny, profane, vile, over-the-top hatred of the other party and the politician you despise. The author is audacious and vicious. You laugh.
But doubt creeps in. There are a couple of statements that make you cringe because they are so obnoxious. You want to believe everything the author wrote because it confirms your world view, but you doubt the accuracy of a few of the proclamations. At least one of the statements you know is a complete lie. It almost feels like a textbook example of “fake news.”
Then again, maybe that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a serious piece, it’s just entertainment. And man, you love it as political theater - you love how the author savagely takes down your enemy and it makes you feel better about yourself. It justifies your frustration and anger with the dysfunction in politics. You know your friends would enjoy it too, they’d get a good chuckle out of it.
But deep down you know there is nothing helpful or constructive about this story. In fact, you know that there’s both misinformation and arguments that lead the reader to false conclusions. You stare at the original post with the bold headline and consider the familiar social media options presented on the screen. You consider the impact of this decision.
Do you share the link with your friends? Do you click “like” and gleefully comment about the viciousness of the message? Do you post your misgivings about the misinformation? Do you question how articles like this might be part of the problem? Do you start to wonder if articles like this are poisoning our politics? Do you ask your friend to remove the post for that reason?
Millions of your fellow Americans are making a similar choice at the same time. Meanwhile, the political industrial complex waits for the verdict - professional political hacks who get rich off your political anger, politicians who seek powerful emotional buttons and click-bait spammers - all waiting and watching to determine which messages accomplish their goals. Who cares if it’s bad for democracy, as long as they are getting rich and staying in power?
You reach for the screen to make your choice.
The future of American democracy is in your hands.
Don Ness is a Duluthian. But this fact should not be held against his fellow Duluthians. In this section, Don Ness is writing in the third person, which Don Ness finds kind of awkward. Don Ness would like the reader to send Don Ness ideas, suggestions and feedback. Send Don Ness an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org .