I often wonder if there’s a more productive way for politics to move forward. It’s especially bleak right now after the election of Donald Trump, an election that was very short on actual policy positions and very high on the spread of fake news.
Everybody has a take on the 2016 election, and I’m sure we’ll be reading about it forever, but one story I read compared Trump to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and suggested the way to beat Trump is to ignore his antics and focus on policy.
I wonder if that would work. That seemed like one of the most telling moments of the presidential debates (and I commented on it my election post), though I don’t know if that moment changed anyone’s mind (it was easily overshadowed by other moments).
Maybe it’s idealistic and wouldn’t actually work, but I think a better, saner grasp of the facts and issues would go a long way to helping democracy, for all sides.
So what might that look like?
1. A Clearinghouse of Facts
One of the most helpful things in combating the rash of fake news is clearinghouse fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact. If you want to figure out if something is true (aside from just Googling), you can go to one of those sites.
It’d be great to have a clearinghouse site that explained issues and policies in a similar manner.
2. Thorough and Simple Explanations
Next, such a site would need to have thorough yet simple explanations of major policies and issues. Let’s say you want to understand an issue like immigration. The site should give an overview of the issue, present solutions and issues and the resulting pros and cons from all sides.
Keeping it simple would be pretty difficult, but I think it could be accomplished by breaking things down to a pretty granular level. You’d probably end up with a lot of top-level overview pages, and a myriad of more detailed pages as you drill down on specific approaches to an issue.
If someone could figure out how to do this simply—minimal text, graphics, flowcharts, etc.—it would be amazing. Nobody wants to read a six page whitepaper on every political issue, but if you could condense it down the basics and give someone a rough idea of the pros and cons and what’s at stake, that would be huge. A 60-second or even 5-minute take would be ideal (and maybe it offers that overview, and then goes into detail to give the proper nuance).
Any such site would have to be balanced. You would need to present all sides to an argument, not just your side. So often political sites are obviously slanted one way or the other, but even if you agree with the slant it’s not very helpful because it doesn’t give a very honest or thorough consideration of the opposition. It’s hard to debate an opponent if you don’t really understand or appreciate their position. We’re too quick to dismiss what the other side says, which is a shame because it just adds to the divide.
Now maybe it would be impossible for such a site to be completely balanced. Maybe you would end up with a Democrat and a Republican version of such a site. And maybe that would be OK, as long as it still accurately and fairly represented the counter-argument.
Last week I talked about how politicians need to communicate, and this would be an ideal way to do that. I’ve never seen a candidate communicate issues in a thorough, balanced manner. Clinton apparently had loads of detail on issues on her site—but I never once went to read them. Why? I assumed she wouldn’t be balanced or even attempt to address counter-arguments. If someone did that, I think it would create waves.
4. Issues Driven, Not News Driven
Such a site would need to be issues driven, not news driven. Of course current events would dictate what’s covered and how it’s talked about, but instead of the latest headlines dominating the home page, it would need to be the issues.
As much as I love the reverse-chronological approach of blogs (newest info at the top), it can create a constant demand for something new and it minimizes insightful, timeless analysis.
I can imagine such a site putting an hot-button issue on the home page after it comes up in a debate, but it wouldn’t simply quote what the candidates said about the issue. Instead it would give the logical framework around the issue that would help you understand (and judge) the candidate’s statements about the issue.
Think more Wikipedia and less Politico. It would be a timeless resource, though it would still require constant tending and updating.
Example: Illegal Immigration
Consider the example of illegal immigration. This seemed to be a major issue in the campaign and Donald Trump dominated it by constantly talking about deporting undocumented immigrants. Democrats decried how Trump tarred all immigrants as “rapists, murderers and thieves,” but Trump’s line seemed to rally his supporters.
There seemed to be little debate about the issue beyond that. Trump wanted to get rid of criminals and maybe all undocumented immigrants, while Democrats wanted to lecture Trump on his language and say little else, though maybe support some kind of amnesty program.
The result, while scary for many immigrants living legally and illegally in this country, was that Trump seemed to be aware of a problem and speaking to a real fear among his supporters.
But the reality is that Democrats were already addressing the problem Trump seemed to be offering a solution for. Trump said deport the criminal immigrants, and that’s exactly what Obama has been doing. He’s deported more immigrants than any previous president, the vast majority criminals.
The result is that Trump was able to gain traction on an issue Democrats should have been able to claim. Now maybe the problem is that Democrats disagree with what Obama is doing (every issue has its complications), but this shouldn’t have been such a win for Trump. It even came up in the debates at one point when Trump accused Obama of deporting millions of immigrants, but Clinton brushed it aside and it was never thoroughly discussed.
If I’m understanding the issue correctly, it seems like that could have been a trap for Trump where Clinton could have claimed sensible ground—of course we’re going to deport criminals and we’re already doing it. Instead Democrats look like they’re too easily offended and want criminals roaming the streets.
It’s Too Hard
Do any sites like this exist? I’m sure something like it is out there, but I haven’t come across it. The real problem is that it’s so hard.
Teens in Macedonia shared fake news because it made more money than real news—that’s how our attention-deficit society works. I’m not sure how a site like I’m suggesting would pay for itself. You need headlines to drive eyeballs, and this site wouldn’t have those headlines.
You see the same thing in comedy. It’s easy for Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and John Oliver to do their comedy pieces based on timely news. They do really interesting stuff and I think that can be a powerful way to change minds. But it’s usually completely lacking balance (compare post-2016 election Colbert to Jay Leno) and it’s almost always hyper-immediate (John Oliver is an exception… he’s been doing longer-form pieces on larger issues that are more timeless).
This kind of approach would also require massive time to research each topic and get that broad perspective. Any time you try to simplify something complicated, it takes a lot of time to fine-tune that understanding. It’s just hard.
It’s easy to launch a blog and vomit your opinions. It’s a lot harder to present a balanced, nuanced approach to the issues.
And before anyone suggests I tackle this myself, no thanks. I’m not sure I have the patience or the logic to really do something like this justice. And I definitely don’t have the time to do it without being paid.