When we stop talking to each other, democracy dies in silence

Social media is valuable for our political discourse, but it‘s time to tone down the rhetoric

A protester takes photos in front of the White House at an anti-Trump rally in July 2018. The anonymity of social media and its reach are rapidly changing the country’s political environment and not for the better, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A protester takes photos in front of the White House at an anti-Trump rally in July 2018. The anonymity of social media and its reach are rapidly changing the country’s political environment and not for the better, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 14, 2019 at 5:00am

OPINION — What happens to a democracy when people stop talking to one another about what matters to them and the country?  When people are afraid to speak their minds because they fear the personal blowback likely to come their way? Or worse, when they come to believe that their concerns, their views and their values just don’t matter to anyone anymore, and so they “turn off and tune out,” to quote an old line?

What happens?  That’s when democracy dies. Not necessarily in darkness but in silence. 

Political voices matter on all sides even when it is uncomfortable for those in power or for those looking to replace them. Maybe that’s when freedom of speech matters most — when the people of a democracy, any democracy, debate their future and the future of their country among themselves.    

There was a good example of this Monday, when Sen. Kamala Harris got a lesson in direct democracy from a 91-year-old woman named Roberta Jewell. Harris dropped by a Muscatine, Iowa, nursing home for a standard photo-op moment with a room full of elderly nursing home residents playing an afternoon game of bingo.

Ms. Jewell called Harris over and pointedly asked her how she was going to pay for her “Medicare for All” health care plan. When the California Democrat tried to explain that we are already paying for health care for all through the cost of emergency room care, the feisty senior citizen was having none of it.

“No, we’re not,” Ms. Jewell told Harris. “Leave our health care system alone. We don’t want you to mess with it.”

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Democracy can be a sticky business when the objects of a photo-op instead decide to engage on policy that matters to them. Monday, it was Harris’ turn, but every candidate is likely to have a Roberta Jewell moment. It’s good for them to hear directly from the people whose lives will be affected by their plans and proposals, and hopefully, they will take those opinions to heart.

That’s how democracy should work, thanks, in large part, to the protections of the First Amendment. As a people, we have a right to debate and discuss the issues of the day, express our views without fear of retribution and vote our conscience. And then we have the responsibility to accept the outcome, win or lose, knowing that in two or four years, another opportunity to win our issues will come around again. 

For more than 200 years, our constitutional freedoms have kept American democracy strong and our political system stable, when others have faded away into socialism and statism. And none has been more important to the success of our republic and the preservation of our democratic ideals than free speech.

But the authors of the Constitution, when they protected our speech, did so in an era when communications were difficult. News was disseminated by horseback and broadcast by town criers. Ideas were exchanged through broadsides and pamphlets. 

Ben Franklin, when he called for the improvement of “the common Stock of Knowledge,” didn’t envision a global technology able to reach every corner of the planet, although given his inclinations, he might have approved of the internet, at least in theory. But today’s town square has morphed into the ubiquitous social media, spurred on by an increasingly subjective news media. Instead of friendly arguments, too many political platforms have normalized hateful rhetoric and the personal destruction of those who disagree with them.

Political debate in the time of Washington and Jefferson and Adams could be harsh and personal in tone, but the anonymity of social media and its reach are rapidly changing the country’s political environment and not for the better. It’s turning democratic debate into a belligerent shouting match and that’s not good for politics or the country. 

Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, media news sites or political websites, it’s clear that online behavior is becoming increasingly linked to violence whether in a Walmart or at a baseball field. As social media evolves and extends into almost every aspect of our lives, the power of this relatively new form of communication to affect social interactions, positively and negatively, is growing exponentially and often organically. 

That political fact of life is something that everyone from business leaders to lawmakers, from media of every stripe to political operatives and candidates, need to understand. More importantly, they need to take responsibility for the role they play in inciting increasingly negative social interactions on- and off-line.  What we’re seeing is people becoming more and more fearful of expressing their views and opinions because of the blowback they know they will experience.

In a survey done earlier this year, we asked people whether they keep quiet about their political views online to avoid conflict with friends and family.  Almost half, 49 percent, said that’s exactly what they did to duck what they had come to expect would be personal attacks in response to their political posts. 

Republicans and independents were more likely to downplay their views than Democrats. Women were also more likely than men to downplay their views online, especially Republican and independent women. That fear of online retribution is antithetical to the concept of freedom of speech and as social media grows, it threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our political system writ large.

Venture capitalist and technology guru Mary Meeker issues an annual report on internet trends that is must-read for anyone trying to understand where new technology is going and its future potential impact on society. In her most recent analysis, released in June, she tells us that in 2019, people will spend more time on mobile devices than watching TV. They spend an average of 6.3 hours a day online between mobile devices and computers.

Twenty-six percent of people overall and 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they are online “almost constantly.” Forty-three percent of Americans get news from Facebook, 21 percent from YouTube and 12 percent from Twitter (according to a Pew study cited in the Meeker report).

But perhaps Meeker’s most important insight is this: “Owing to social media amplification, reveals/actions/reactions about events can occur quickly — resulting in both good & bad outcomes.” That’s why acting responsibly online with the good of the country in mind, matters.

Despite concerns over the growing antagonism and division that seems to emanate from so much of social media these days, this new medium still has the potential to fulfill Franklin’s dream of improving “the common Stock of Knowledge.” It still represents the very essence of democracy by giving voters the means to freely voice their complaints and concerns to their political leadership and interact with each other to debate the issues of the day.

But as our political discourse continues to devolve into name-calling and worse, it’s worth wondering whether either side can tone down the rhetoric, talk to, not at, each other and put the country first. At its core, democracy works when we fight (figuratively) for what we believe in, but also listen to each other and respect our differences.

There will always be a place for a Roberta Jewell moment in our political arena when a voter talks directly with a candidate and voices his or her opinion. Once upon a time, Ms. Jewell’s moment in the spotlight might have gotten her a mention in the local newspaper. Today, thanks to the impact of social media, her voice was likely heard by hundreds of thousands from coast to coast.    

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.