In Morris Fiorina’s work "Culture War," Fiorina estimates that 80 to 90% of Americans are like unfortunate third world citizens who try to stay out of the crossfire while left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other. In "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam analyzes why the crossfire bystanders have experienced a downward trend in social capital. Both authors acknowledge how disconnected our society is becoming, whether it be the out of touch media or the technological advancements that have given the American more freedom but also more isolated. Although both authors acknowledge the role of campaign finances in creating this disconnected political culture, they have different suggestions on the solution.
In Fiorina’s "Culture War, " the author exposes the mass media’s role in creating a political culture where the extremes are overrepresented and the center underrepresented. Fiorina points out that the journalists do not spend enough time talking to the normal person at the local grocery store; rather they spend the bulk of their time talking to members of the political class. The result of this practice is an increasingly combative image between both sides, which is not shared by the entire population. Fiorina also acknowledges that conflict is in human nature and thus reflected in the news stories created. For example, a media organization would never written a headline that states: “New survey shows Americans agree on most things — details at 11:00.” As a result, stories are framed as wars, victories and defeats, unbridgeable gulfs and irreconcilable differences. While media organizations earn a profit from human nature, this militaristic approach has turned off American voters for the past fifty years.
The media’s combative agenda has led to less interested Americans in political affairs because the messages being created only represent a small percentage of the population. For example, Fiorina argues that although Catholics and Evangelical churches are portrayed to be leaders in the right-to-life camp, most of their opinions on abortions are similar to the rest of population. Out of six potential abortion scenarios, the average Catholic supports abortion in 3.5 out of six circumstances. Granted church goers are more likely to be pro-choice, the difference is only in two circumstances, which does not paint abortion as such a polar issue. This war tactic created by such a small percentage of people is contributing to a disengaged American voting class.
Similarly, in "Bowling Alone," Putnam reveals how advancements in mass media technology have made news and entertainment more individualized, which has turned off American voters from participating in the political process. For example, he states that in 1900s music lovers needed to be with a group of other music lovers at certain times in order to enjoy music, which created a community experience. However, now with smart phones individuals can listen to their music however and whenever they please. My parent’s generation had a small number of TV channels to choose from but now my mom can watch The Bachelor on the internet anytime she wants. The ability to consume content in private has made my generation more isolated, passive, and detached from their communities. Granted this is not to mean that we would be better off without television or the internet, however, it has contributed to a culture that is more isolated and more fascinated by entertainment than news
Putnam acknowledges that over the last few decades voter turnout has gone down at both the national and local level and less American citizens are seeking office. One example Putnam points out is that 62.8% of voting age Americans in 1960 went to the polls to choose between JFK and Nixon, but in 1996, only 48.9% of voting-age Americans chose among Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot. Even though the number seems alarming it is even more alarming when you consider the fact that in 1960 there were stricter registration requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests, violence, and Jim Crow and yet that election had nearly a 15% higher voter turnout. Over the last two decades the number of office seekers in any year at all levels in the American body politic— from school board to town council— shrank by 15 percent. Between 1973 and 1994 the number of Americans who attended even one public meeting on town or school affairs in the previous year was cut by 40 percent and over the same two decades the ranks of those who had served as an officer or a committee member for a local club or organization— any local club or organization— were thinned by an identical 40 percent.
Both works acknowledge dramatic changes in the importance of money in modern campaigns, which have created a disconnected American political culture. In "Culture Wars," Fiorina cites increases in campaign finances as the main reason why the Democrats had to move upscale and cultivate middle-class issue activists who had money to give while the Republicans allied with conservative Christian groups as a way of attacking the Democrats majority status. This tactic eventually led to the lifestyle liberalism and social conservatism, which became popular towards the tail end of the century.
In Putnam’s work, he exposes how financial capital has replaced social capital, which has resulted in Americans opting to spend less time in community efforts and more time digging in their pockets. He states that although campaign finances have soared in the past half-century, political participation has been down; campaign finances totaled $35 million in 1964 and $700 million in 1996, a fivefold increase. Today voters are not as likely to be reached by neighborhood campaign party worker, but more likely to get an anonymous call from a paid phone bank. More financing and PACS have enabled campaign workers to produce more “contacts,” but has made the campaigning process less intimate. Mass marketing has increasingly turned off voters to get politically engaged and people rather donate their money than sacrifice their time.
Although I agree with Fiorina and Putnam’s assessment of current American political culture and the reasons we have arrived at this place, I disagree with their solutions to fixing our culture. For example, instead of advocating for campaign finance/lobbying reform, Fiorina advocates reforming the “jungle primary” structure by making bigger obstacles such as signatures and filing fees for making the ballot. The idea is that each candidate will be able to have more proportions of the vote and more citizens will turn out to vote. However, I believe more obstacles to running for office will increase the public’s fears that only elitist Harvard/Princeton graduates can run for high office. If we want a higher voter turnout than I think we should make it easier for a farmer in Texas or a factory worker in Wisconsin to run for high office or someone who can actually represent the majority of the people, not only the highest educated citizens who have lost American trust.
In part because the book was written in 2000, Putnam did not discuss using various social media outlets like Facebook as a way to increase social capital. Today Americans are building communities on their social networks but the challenge is getting civic engagement higher through this platform. One of the problems that plague Facebook is a lack of trustworthy news outlets. For example, Buzzfeed ran a story in which they cited a Russian source who claimed that while President Obama was in Russia, Trump found out where the President was staying and defiled Obama’s room. While the rumor has been proven to be from a Russian source who made up the story to collect a profit, there were people on my Facebook page who believed this to be true. This type of journalism that is flooding people’s newsfeeds has contributed to voters being “turned off” and “tuned out” to most political discussion, which has showed in the most recent elections.
Although I would not advance censoring the media, I would hold mass media organizations like Facebook more accountable for the stories that they promote. One improvement that Facebook has made on their platform already is including the leading source in the trending news sections. For example, one of the trending stories today is a story run by the New York Times highlighting a bunch of kids visit to meet President Trump’s at the White House. To further develop the trustworthiness of news stories, Facebook could publish competitive rankings of the most trustworthy news organizations that are often in the trending news section. My guess would be that if this system was in place, then the Buzzfeed story would have never gained the traction that it did. More trustworthiness from our news sources would lead the public to have a higher social capital, which will improve voter participation during election time.