The Rot At The Core Of American Politics

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” —Thomas Jefferson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why the political discourse seems to keep getting worse and worse. Civility seems to be eroding. Political dialogue seems to be a never-ending downward spiral into outrage and demonization. Ideas and logical arguments have faded to the background in favor of tribalism and identity politics. Negative partisanship — basing one’s opinions on what one is against rather than for — seems to play just as much, if not more, of a role in forming people’s thinking and voting decisions.

And this is all as true of American Christians as it is of other Americans.

There is a rot at the core of American politics, and it is emanating outward to poison the discourse and aggravate tribalism. This is a terrible environment for both Christians and libertarians: for Christians, because this political tribalism is detracting from the ability of and interest in grounding one’s identity in Christ; and for libertarians, because our entire movement and philosophy is based on ideas and logical arguments, not tribalism.

But what exactly is the rot at the core of American politics? Many different answers could be given, to be sure, but I have a theory of my own. The primary culprit for this toxic and tribalistic political environment is increasingly biased news media.

Let’s dive in.

“Fair And Balanced” No More

Mainstream cable news networks, especially the big three (FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC), have abandoned all pretense of objective news reporting and instead fully committed to appealing to one political side. Hard news programs, delivered with little to no biased commentary (informing people about events), have steadily been replaced by more and more news commentary programs (forming what and how people think).

News has become far more formative than informative.

Why have news networks stopped trying to appeal to wide audiences and instead focused on smaller, more monolithic audiences? It’s about the ever-changing landscape of news provision.

The news landscape has become incredibly broad and competitive. Long gone are the days when you had one or two choices for news — and for only and hour or two a day. Today, not only do we have 24-hour news channels, we have countless non-mainstream news sources that have carved out ideologically niche audiences. Mainstream media sources have to appeal to the average of their core audience in order to prevent their viewers from being poached by news providers further to the right or left.

Try to appeal to everyone, and you end up appealing to (almost) no one.

FoxNews has to become more conservative in order to prevent its audience from going to One America or Newsmax. CNN has to become more liberal to prevent its audience from turning the channel to MSNBC, which itself has to become even more liberal in order to prevent its audience from getting all their news from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or any of the numerous progressive YouTube channels.

The competitive news landscape, with mainstream cable news acting less and less as the gatekeepers of legitimacy, has created a centrifugal force pulling almost all news providers from the political center — or objective presentation of facts — outward to the more hardcore ideological wings.

Hence we find that FoxNews has become a nonstop parade of segments on Biden’s old age and mental infirmity, critical race theory, transgender 7-year-olds, the Democrats’ Trump Derangement Syndrome, and snippets of last night’s Tucker Carlson rant (to whet your appetite for tonight’s diatribe). It’s a veritable cornucopia of everything that outrages conservatives at the time.

Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC showcase great-for-ratings parades of ludicrous things Trump said or did; Dr. Fauci interviews; Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo, and Rachel Maddow ridiculing the latest FoxNews fixation; and discussions about anything and everything (no matter how far-fetched) through the lenses of race, gender, sexual identity, etc. Like FoxNews, CNN and MSNBC thrive on the culture war.

The Outrage Vortex

Networks have to follow their audiences and give them more of the most popular content in order to keep them watching. The competition for eyeballs forces them to. But, in turn, this catering to the audience reassures and hardens audience members in their preconceived views. In so doing, it pushes cable news viewers to become even more self-assured of their views — and in the wrongness of the other side’s views. The more self-assured one becomes, the angrier one gets when presented with the views, actions, or statements of the other political side. Then, reflecting the growing anger of its self-assured audience, cable news networks have to become even more self-assured and outrage-oriented in order to deliver the content that will keep audience members watching.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, a circular feedback loop that forces news sources to become increasingly agnostic to fact and slanted toward opinion. In the minds of audience members, this self-reinforcing cycle eventually makes the opinion they are presented with day after day indistinguishable from fact. Understanding the other side’s views or even seeing the grains of truth in them becomes impossible.

As such, when presented with the other side’s views, statements, or actions, the predictable response from the audience is outrage. “How could anyone believe that?” they ask. It seems as though the only possible answers are ignorance, misinformation, or bad motives.

“Trickle Down” News Media

It is true that not everyone watches mainstream cable news. Maybe 10-20 million Americans are regular viewers.

But this is a problem for all news media because the highest rated and most viewed cable news networks establish news cycles and determine what other news sources talk about. They have the most influence on the political conversations people have, which creates more interest in some subjects than others, which in turn determines the reporting decisions of non-mainstream news providers.

Narratives “trickle down” from the top, so to speak.

This increasingly tribalistic news media ecosystem renders the kind of toxic political discourse that leads to the mass destruction of urban areas during race riots and the storming of the Capitol during the January 6th Trump rally. As long as this outrage vortex continues spiraling further and further, more violent outbursts like these will probably result.

The Antidote To Outrage

For Christians, there are two simple antidotes to outrage.

First, consume less news and more Scripture. News is designed to addict you to events and scandals of the day that will ultimately prove inconsequential. Scripture is designed to inspire and equip you to pay attention to things of eternal consequence. If God’s eternal Kingdom was of this world, we followers of Jesus would be fighting. But it isn’t, so we believers have no reason to bicker and become hooked on outrage like the world does.

This is a crucial prerequisite to manifest the joy of the Lord. I’m reminded of another Thomas Jefferson quip:

I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.

Second, consume more long-form media (books, documentaries, podcasts, etc.) that explicitly seek to understand and explain the political theology of Scripture. This is a critical part of building one’s worldview around the Bible, rather than letting the world determine our views of what the Bible says.

It turns out that I have two long-form resources in mind if you are looking for a place to start. First, my own book, The Third Temptation: Rethinking the Role of The Church in Politics, which is an exploration of the political ramifications of Christ’s denial of earthly power in his third temptation in the wilderness. Second, the Libertarian Christian Institute’s Faith Seeking Freedom: Libertarian Christian Answers to Tough Questions, a comprehensive compendium of distinctly Christian libertarian perspectives on the biggest political issues.