Jul 24, 2014 | This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Buffalo News.
By Richard A. Lee, professor of Journalism and Mass Communication
A new study on political ideologies in America confirms what we easily can learn by viewing cable television on any evening: We live in an era of deeply divided viewpoints.
While that observation by the Pew Research Center is hardly a new revelation, there are other elements of the report that document some interesting and alarming facts about the nature of democracy in America in 2014.
For example, we already know that individuals who lean heavily to the left or to the right dominate political discourse on the airwaves and the Internet. But the study also very clearly shows how those on the far ends of the political spectrum wield a disproportionately large influence.
According to the study, hardline conservatives and liberals account for just over a third (36 percent) of the U.S. public, but have a greater role than the majority (64 percent) of Americans. They register to vote – and do vote – at greater rates than the rest of the nation. They donate to, volunteer for and work on political campaigns in higher numbers. They also are more likely to be in personal contact with candidates and elected officials, and are more comfortable discussing politics with others.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a majority of Americans would become more engaged in all facets of the democratic process.
We could increase the teaching of civics, but that won’t guarantee that today’s students will be more active in government and politics as adults.
Another approach would be to make people more aware of how government and politics directly affect their lives. In theory, this is a role the news media could fill.
But news organizations (with a few exceptions) are businesses that need to be profitable. A story explaining the significance of a complex piece of legislation isn’t going to draw the same audience as a feature on the latest escapades of the Kardashians.
Of course, all of us as citizens have the opportunity to become informed, educated voters and take more active roles in the democratic process. Thanks to the Internet, we now have more information than ever at our fingertips. But the Internet, just like cable television, has given us more choices. If we don’t find politics interesting, there are plenty of other options ranging from sitcoms and reality shows to sports and movies and more to keep us entertained.
Lastly, those who do wield influence, that 36 percent on the far left and far right, have little incentive to get more folks involved in politics and government. Why relinquish power to others?
All told, it is not a pretty picture, but it is a realistic one.
Richard A. Lee teaches journalism at St. Bonaventure University. He worked in journalism, politics and government in New Jersey for more than 30 years.