Forget fake news. The real problem is a lack of political literacy.
Maybe we are looking at the wrong issues. The problem may not be fake news or this infamous ‘post-truth society’. In fact, these issues are symptoms of a society that lacks a basic understanding of how politics works.
Watch this video and reflect on why these voters say what they say:
This is just one example. I like to think that we need to talk about this lack of political and media literacy. Of course, it would be easy to blame schools and education but that may miss the point. (Don’t get me wrong: Political education in schools is a hugely important issue and we need to look into it but today I want to focus on something different…)
But let’s face it: for most of us school is just a distant memory. What matters is how we perceive and engage with politics in our daily lives. And this is the problem: we perceive politics as theatre and entertainment. I am pretty sure that if we were able to change that perception we could have a better political discourse and better political outcomes.
Politics is not entertainment
The modern trend to make politics entertaining must have started with cable news and the need to produce regular breaking news and continuous commentary for a 24h news cycle. New formats needed to be invented: daily political talk shows, an army of pundits with opinions about everything, correspondents who wait for hours for a statement by a minor political celebrity — today politics needs to be entertaining, free from complex issues and easy to digest.
Today we think it is normal that certain political stories receive the ‘breaking news treatment’ while other issues are ignored. We find it normal to watch pundits arguing about issues that no normal person would ever discuss over dinner. We think it is normal that each political issue is covered in segments that barely last longer than 3 minutes.
Politics is theatre. We are the audience.
Marketing professionals also tell us that ‘content’ should be ‘engaging’ and ‘emotional’. Politics should be a ‘story’ we can relate to. Of course this can be good advice and it all makes sense to a certain extent but there is a downside to it. If everything is a story we tend to link issues that should not be linked. If everything is a narrative we organise our thoughts into story patterns that may not be relevant at all.
Who is to blame for this trend?
The audience? Of course we are to blame. We have become consumers of political news instead of demanding news that help us to be active citizens. We simply let it happen. We keep watching the theatre on TV. We keep buying newspapers that sell us political news as if it was a big soap opera. We ‘like’ stuff on facebook that sounds funny and edgy. We don’t read complex arguments. We don’t engage with opposing policy proposals. We treat opinions as facts and we are simply not interested in detailed policy. We don’t bother to look up basic facts or question our belief systems. We post stuff on our social media profiles without checking the source. We don’t like to hear complex answers to difficult questions. Our attention span lasts about 30 seconds. We have become lazy.
Journalists also need to accept part of the blame. They churn out stories that lack facts and explanations; they prefer writing opinion pieces instead of getting their hands dirty in basic (policy) reporting. Too many political journalists don’t seem to be interested in policy. Instead, every personal fight among politicians is covered as a huge political power play. Everything needs to fit into a narrative, an entertaining political story. The question ‘what does it mean for politican X’ has become more important that asking ‘what would this policy proposal change and what would be an alternative?’. Journalists need to reassess what sort of political news citizens need.
Editors who ‘editorialise’ headlines to ‘make politics sexy’ really need to rethink how this is seen by casual readers. Editorialising is often done for a political audience and/or for simple clickbait. On a normal day, most people spend probably 5 minutes to read about politics. So,what happens when people consume politics by only skimming over those headlines written for political insiders? On social media — especially on facebook — both issues combined can have a negative impact on casual readers. Imagine that in those 5 minutes you would only be exposed to a couple of editorialised headlines. What would you think about politics?
Political talk shows follow a similar pattern. They work on the basis of controversy — not information. Ingredients for a good political talk show? Extreme positions, confrontational statements, outrageous remarks. The same pundits with the same arguments. The same politicians who are invited to say the most extreme things. The same topics. Watch it for a few weeks and you would also come to the conclusion that we are doomed, the world will come to an end, all politicians are lying corrupt people and that terrorists will take over our government (or something along those lines..) Anyway, applause guaranteed. And TV producers tell us that that’s what the audience wants.
Political dramas There is also an interesting argument about the impact of political dramas like West Wing, House of Cards or Homeland. Yes of course, they are great shows, hugely entertaining. But what if that’s your only engagement with politics? Think about it. What if everything you know about the role of the US President is what you ‘learnt’ from House of Cards? What if those shows have a an influence of how people perceive politics?
How do we learn about politics?
I have asked myself this question a lot lately. I have always been a political person —in school I enjoyed learning about history and politics. At university I did a degree in politics and communication. Afterwards I went to work in think tanks and other political organisations. I read a lot of political news, in the morning, at lunch, after lunch, in the afternoon, in the evening. Yes, I am a political news junkie.
But I also know that this is not normal. Not everyone has a similar routine (that would be terrible!). So, what about the vast majority of people out there? How do people learn about politics, different institutions and political dynamics? How often are they in touch with politicians? What do they know about government? How do they experience the political process? Yes, we may have to look into how schools teach politics/government — but is this really enough? Are the curricula still up to date? How do schools tackle ‘politics in the social media age’?
How does political literacy look like in the 21st century? How do we become politically literate?
Funnily enough, there is not even an article about “political literacy” on Wikipedia – only a rather basic definition:
Political literacy is a set of abilities considered necessary for citizens to participate in a society’s government. It includes an understanding of how government works and of the important issues facing society, as well as the critical thinking skills to evaluate different points of view. Many organizations interested in participatory democracy are concerned about political literacy.
Of course these issues are related to other societal trends that we have seen in recent years. Participation in the political process is changing: membership in political parties has been declining, traditional media is in crisis, trade unions — traditionally organisations for political activity — have become less powerful. Instead, people seem to be more comfortable signing petitions or joining one issue campaigns. This has an impact on how we think politics works.
The challenge to boost political literacy is linked to education in schools but also how we learn to engage with the political process throughout life. You could also describe it as a form of expectation management. What do we expect from a politician? What sort of outcomes do we think are realistic in our political system? And here the perception of ‘politics as theatre’ plays an important role: the audience is watching — not participating. What happens in politics can’t be changed. If that is how we perceive politics — we do have a serious problem.
Improving political literacy will take time. Of course it needs to start in schools, we need to have a serious conversation how this can be improved. It needs to continue at the workplace — political literacy has to become a lifelong activity. We also have to start seeing media and political literacy as two sides of the same coin. This all takes time and requires more than a few blog posts. But there are things that all of us can do to improve political literacy:
Let’s make politics boring again!
Yes, that’s right. Let’s stop pretending that politics is fun and entertaining. Let’s tell the audience: This is your political system. If you don’t like it, get involved. It is not fun, it’s hard work and it’s complex. It is challenging and you need to invest time.
If you work in politics or in journalism it is time to rethink your main talking points. Instead of saying how exciting and fun everything is, try focus on the boring stuff:
Politics is serious and boring business. Politicians do serious and important work. Policy is complex, democracy takes time.
Editors should think twice about writing another fun headline to impress policy wonks and other journalists. TV stations should rethink their programming: why not replace a political talk show with an investigative reporting feature? To all online newspapers: quality trumps quantity. Instead of posting 50 half baked stories each day, why not just publish 5 good stories each day? Drop the opinion page and do proper policy reporting?
But also we — as an audience — can change the theatre of politics: Let’s stop retweeting rubbish (even if it comes from the US president). Let’s stop watching talk shows. Let’s acknowledge that things are difficult. Let’s stop buying newspapers that lie to us — but in an entertaining way. We all can decide whether we need to use facebook as our way to debate politics.
We — the citizens — have a responsibility for the society we live in. We can create the political debate we want. And remember: we have created the current political debate by not engaging or by tolerating it — we can also change it again.