Is truth dead in America? Washington State University political professor Steven Stehr aims to find out.
On Monday, Stehr will give a free public presentation at the Longview Public Library about how talk of alternative facts, fake news and the post-truth world are symptoms of deeper societal stress. But America has been here before, he says.
The same discord was present in the lead-up to the American Civil War, he said, with gun fights on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. And again in the 1890s with anti-immigration attitudes, income inequality and the rise of yellow journalism, which used sensationalism and exaggeration.
“It ebbs and flows,” Stehr said in an interview Monday. “When societies are more healthy, you tend to see more trust in political institutions. You certainly don’t see that now.”
A generation ago, Americans were more willing to accept what they heard from political leaders, institutions and the media, Stehr said. Now there is a lack of trust on all levels: from interpersonal relationships to major institutions.
Stehr is a Sam Reed Distinguished Professor in Civic Education and Public Civility and director of the WSU School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs.
His presentation at 6 p.m. Monday in the Longview library at 1600 Louisiana St. is part of the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, which is federally funded under the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities Act. It will last about an hour, with time for questions at the end.
During his presentation, Stehr will examine the recent anti-vaccine movement, which he says represents a declining trust in not just the medicine but the medical establishment at large.
“It’s not the vaccines so much as it’s the institutions behind the vaccines. Parents don’t want to be told what to do with their children from a medical establishment they don’t trust,” he said.
The distrust also pervades political groups, he said. Many Donald Trump voters felt left behind by “people cutting the line.” Meanwhile, some on the political left fear they’ll be left behind by a patriarchal society, he said.
The political polarization is only reinforced by social media platforms — where younger generations overwhelmingly get their news — that use algorithms to show people information they are already inclined to agree with, he said.
Decades of research reveals that Americans are generally uninformed about politics, Stehr said, but it’s getting worse, in part due to the increased presence of opinion in news.
Increased demand for constant news coverage has forced media outlets to fill a 24-hour news cycle. Uncovering and reporting news is expensive, while it’s relatively cheap to pay people to give their opinions, he said.
“I’m a pretty sophisticated consumer of political news and sometimes I can’t tell when they’re talking about news reporting or offering opinions,” he said. “Newspapers mostly you can tell because they put ‘opinion’ at the top.”
Stehr said there is some evidence for the stereotype of reporters as leaning liberal and editors leaning conservative, but the larger problem in media is that it is a for-profit enterprise that has to think about the bottom line.
“People generally get the kind of news they are willing to pay for,” he said. “If people wanted to see four hours of white paper segments on complex issues, that’s what they would show. Instead they’re showing car chases.”
Stehr will also talk about the “politics of fear.” Since the 1990s, violent crime has steadily decreased, but surveys find that citizens believe crime is going up. “Both Democrats and Republicans have discovered that’s a winning message. If you can scare people, you can get elected no matter the reality.”
Despite the dire outlook, Stehr says there is also cause for optimism: Americans generally agree on political positions regarding social security, Medicare and background checks for guns.
“There is some middle ground that we often ignore because that doesn’t generate nice headlines,” he said. “(When I’m on a plane), I don’t care if the pilot is conservative or liberal. I just want her to be able to fly a plane. Every day we accept professionals to manage our daily lives.”
However, Stehr said he doesn’t have any answers about how to pull America out of its societal stress.
“I’m observing things like everybody else. I’m interested to see what will happen.”