Our National Conversation: Healthy Discourse or Shouting Match?

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Beginning with the year 2000, the marker for a new millennium, we officially entered the Age of Bullshit. Please indulge me this rare bit of blunt vulgarity as we take an honest look at how Americans and their leaders talk to one another.

Let’s use the term national conversation to describe the collective thought process of the culture, told out loud. Every modern culture has one.

Unless you’ve chosen to live a life isolated from the rest of society, you probably experience the national conversation every day, during much of your waking time. Your conversations with your family; your significant other; your neighbors; your close friends; your colleagues, co-workers, or fellow students; your casual acquaintances; the people in the shops you patronize—all influence the way you think about the Republic that you co-own and co-inhabit. And, of course, your mental model of the Republic can influence their mental models through the everyday conversations you have with them.

In addition to our own personal microcosm of relationships, we modern citizens live our lives deeply and unavoidably embedded in an information environment. Let’s pause for a moment to think about this all-pervasive field of ideas and influences. What can we observe about the never-ending tide of messages swirling around us? How does it affect us? And, do we have the power—and the means—to influence it?

We can make a few key observations about the national conversation:

    • It consists of a vast collection of simultaneous overlapping and competing narratives—sales pitches, so to speak—for various ideas, ideologies, agendas, and special interests.
    • Not all narratives get the same amount of attention, respect, and acceptance. The voices of the privileged and powerful tend to dominate.
    • The narrative of the dominant socio-political coalition—currently, in the US, the white, male, European, Protestant, upper-middle class cohort—gets the most traction.
    • In recent years, with the phenomenal proliferation of online media—the electronic culture—the national conversation has become more crowded, chaotic, adversarial, intolerant, amplified, strident, uncivil, vulgar, dramatized, and—unfortunately—dishonest and manipulative.
    • Socio-political factions emerge and die out, tribalizing around their own specialized agendas and narratives. Every new faction adds another narrative to the conversation, however faintly heard.
    • Commercial news producers control a very large part of the content of the national conversation. The businesses that operate this media ecosystem wage a relentless, never-ending battle for our attention, selecting stories for their drama value and amplifying the dramatic elements to maximize advertising revenue.
    • The entertainment industry—TV, movies, and popular music—plays a dominant role in the national conversation, with a pervasive influence on factors like language; gender, ethnic, and generational stereotypes; attitudes toward civility, authority, and national identity; and contemporary socio-political values.
    • No one individual can experience all of the national conversation at any moment in time. Each of us has only his or her own narrow window on a very small part of it. We all have our individual interests and biases, which determine the parts of the message environment we pay attention to.

We’ll see again and again how the national conversation plays a crucial role in decisions about the design of our Republic, the way it operates, the way we deal with the choices facing us at various turning points, and the very untidy process of deciding what comes next.

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