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Election surprises erode trust in democracy

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: A electronic news sources fragment, it leads to erosion of faith in the electoral process

With politics jammed at them 24/7 from every form of media, the cacophony of partisan noise is undermining the political process rather than expanding knowledge and understanding of it.

America has transformed into a nation where individuals listen and see news the way they want it spun with political outcomes predicted to occur the way they want them to. And when it doesn’t happen, rather than doubt their own judgment or the sources of their information, they lose faith in government and democracy.

At least that the takeaway we got from a report on a study released Thursday by the University of Georgia.

In the research, Barry Hollander, a UGA professor, analyzed 5,914 survey responses conducted by the American National Election Study that were taken before and after the 2012 presidential election in which President Barack Obama won re-election over the challenge of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. That was an election in which a great many Romney supporters, confident there would be a change in the White House, were surprised that their candidate did not prevail.

Hollander calls that the theory of wishful thinking. Another way of looking at it is simply false hope.

In examining the data, Hollander found that “surprised losers” — those who incorrectly predicted their candidate would win — were more skeptical of government, democracy and the election process than were those who supported the same candidate but had been expecting the loss. In the Obama-Romney race, he noted, 78 percent of Romney’s supporters believed Romney would win, though polls showed Obama leading.

Hollander said one problem may have been the way Americans consume information. For instance, we can recall hearing a number of conservative pundits, particularly on cable TV news and talk radio, decry the polls as flawed. arguing the numbers just “looked” bad because the pollsters were supportive of Democrats.

“You need the trust of those in a democracy for democracy to be successful,” the researchers aid. “We have become more fragmented in our media diet and that leads to hearing what we want to hear and believing what we want to believe despite all evidence to the contrary, such as polls. Our surprise in the election outcome makes us angry, disappointed and erodes our trust in the basic concept of democracy — the election. And that can threaten our trust in government.”

One of the reasons The Albany Herald’s editorial page regularly includes liberals such as Cynthia Tucker, E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson and Steve and Cokie Roberts and conservatives such as Cal Thomas, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell and Michael Reagan is the idea that our readers deserve a mix of perspectives. We don’t believe the right or the left has exclusive claim to political or social wisdom. That doesn’t hold true in other media, where the one who screeches the loudest gets heard and those who disagree are marginalized.

“In theory,” Hollander said, “greater news consumption should lead to greater political knowledge. Therefore, you should become aware of who is winning or losing, and this should reduce wishful thinking. That worked for those who read newspapers, but not for other news media. Also, the stronger you care about the outcome, or feel about a candidate, the more likely you are to think that candidate is going to win, regardless of the polls.

“The more fragmented our media have become the more people are hearing what they want to out of their news and the more surprised they are when the outcome doesn’t turn out as they’ve expected, which could further erode trust in elections, democracy and government. As a journalist, I didn’t give any thought to my effect on people. The danger is if our media continue to become more fragmented, the more and more we tend to hear only what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe, but when the outcome surprises us that can have very real consequences not only in people’s own perception but also in the stability of democracy and government.”

Indeed, if your only exposure to political news in the coming fall elections is to passively listen to those who with whom you agree — whether on TV, on radio or on social media — you’ll never learn anything new or have reason to question anything that you have heard. It may feel more comfortable, but it is a false security with no opportunity for growth as critical thinking skills atrophy. Our prescription to combat this malady? Tune out, read up and make up your own mind.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board