The safeguards of democracy—including the exhausting, underappreciated work of so many people who uphold them—have stopped the U.S. from descending into authoritarianism, but the facts of our division remain bleak. Institutional distrust has been rising for decades. A Monmouth University survey found that 77 percent of 2020 Donald Trump voters believe that Joe Biden won the presidency through fraud. Trust in Congress is in the basement. Until recently, a majority of Americans at least trusted one another. But in a 2019 Pew survey, 59 percent of Americans reported little or no confidence in the wisdom of their fellow citizens to make political decisions. It’s not hard to imagine that number might be even higher now.
The Biden administration is faced with reviving a sense of collective fate. Big infrastructure projects that help people feel safe, healthy and more secure both economically and socially could go a long way toward easing the underlying conditions of uncertainty and fear that drive “us versus them” thinking. Some have referenced the New Deal and other social safety-net policies of the past, looking to the supposed conditions of national solidarity that made them possible. Others caution against romanticizing history. “Let’s not forget that this idyllic idea of solidarity, especially in a wartime modality, is created by making an enemy of someone else,” says Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.* What we’re facing now, she says, is a polarization internal to the nation. We’ve made enemies out of one another. “The challenge for Biden is creating solidarity without a war mode and helping us feel the interconnectedness of our lives with others,” Nelson says. “We haven’t had leadership able to craft that national story for us.”
To sell a narrative of shared fate, Biden and his team will first need to restore a sense of shared reality. To start, Nelson and others emphasized the need for executive orders that “reset the clock” by publicly supporting the independence and integrity of science. Behind the scenes, the administration should incorporate more behavioral science into policy decisions, to better understand how beliefs and motivations influence policing and mask wearing, for instance. While acknowledging the damage of conspiratorial delusions and paranoid thinking, many of the experts I spoke to insisted Trump’s absence alone would help quell the uptake of extremism and false ideas. Conspiracies lose some of their allure, especially to new adherents, when high-ranking leaders go away. A paper published in November in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review echoes this sentiment. Without the “willingness to accept misinformation by prominent elites (like the president), many dubious ideas would likely fail to gain traction,” the researchers write.
Many agreed that the most immediate thing Biden can do to reset reality is to be transparent, take responsibility for how government can do better and encourage visionary leadership at all levels of society. Restoring basic norms and decency, such as honoring facts and speaking with compassion, will go far. There are also strategies and signals the administration could deploy to address our disordered information environment. Many science communication experts emphasize the need for consistent, clear communication across the Biden administration that separates out the best available scientific facts from what we should do in light of the facts.
This messaging should be paired with the principles that guide such decisions, to anchor people in the bigger picture. For example, an update about how to best contain the spread of the coronavirus should remind the public that when research leads to more precise strategies for keeping people safe while balancing different goals, that’s a sign science is working—it doesn’t mean that earlier recommendations were lies and that scientists can’t be trusted. Scientific updates should be presented as evidence, and the steps to be taken (a shorter quarantine period, perhaps, or reducing indoor activities) could be discussed as the resulting decisions, with transparency into the rationale for making such choices. This strategy could be applied to all evidence-based decision-making to help get people more comfortable with the nature of probabilistic outcomes while keeping larger goals in mind. Uncertainty isn’t going away, and Biden would do well to help Americans live with it better.
Of course, our disordered information environment hampers more than just coronavirus recovery. Private technology companies such as Facebook that facilitate the spread of conspiracy theories and other false content should be regulated. Congress should also take steps to ensure social media companies actually comply with their own standards for avoiding harm, such as blocking hate speech, harassment and calls for violence. Many Republicans have tried to paint such efforts as a threat to First Amendment rights; Biden and his team could reframe the issue from one of censorship to one of exploitation. As researcher Renee DiResta has often said, freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach. These companies rely on algorithmic amplification as their business model, which has created a massive economy of personal data while feeding people ever narrower versions of whatever ideology appeals to them.
The Biden administration should also speak to the consequences of rampant misinformation on our relationships and communities and how we are all susceptible to false belief. They should immediately establish a task force on media manipulation and digital disinformation, stacking it with experts in sociology, design, surveillance and justice, in addition to technologists and lawyers. To further inform policy, Biden’s team could dedicate funding for research to understand how disinformation affects behavior both online and off. That won’t be truly effective, however, unless independent research groups can access the troves of anonymized data held by private companies. We can’t measure how social media usage is driving behavioral changes if the data remain off-limits, and Biden’s team could exert pressure with precision.
Putting the onus of monitoring misinformation on government regulation would lighten the load for journalists and researchers who have been stretched thin by the task. At the same time, the disappearance of newspapers and radio stations across the country has devastated the ability of people to connect to their communities and has put too much focus on the national level, making people feel even more powerless and vulnerable to algorithmic echo chambers on the Internet. (It has also led to dangerous concentration in the ownership of local news outlets.) Research shows that the decline of local news is associated with higher polarization.
The Biden administration should consider various policies that would help build a robust network of editorially independent local and nonprofit newsrooms, while remaining sensitive to the inherent conflicts at stake. One plan, from Rebuild Local News, a coalition that represents more than 3,000 newsrooms, builds on a bipartisan bill that would give taxpayers a $250 refundable tax credit they could use for news subscriptions or donations.
Trump didn’t just block journalists from doing their jobs and call coverage that made him look bad “fake news.” He attacked the very premise of press freedom and endangered journalists’ lives. The Committee to Protect Journalists has suggested that Biden emphatically vocalize support for a free press and define for the country why it is vital to have accurate, trusted information that holds power to account. It also recommends that the president appoint a Special Presidential Envoy for Press Freedom, similar to how Biden has already appointed John Kerry as a Special Envoy for Climate. Alan C. Miller, founder of the News Literacy Project, suggests that the Biden administration bring back daily press briefings and make the president available for a wide range of media appearances where he speaks truthfully, thereby helping to restore trust.
Speaking of “fake news,” the Biden administration (and everyone else) should stop using a term that Trump turned into a linguistic weapon for attacking the legitimacy of the press, among other institutions and people he perceived as a threat. Biden and his people can help unwind the chaos of false equivalency by letting Trump’s ugliest phrases rot away. Research has shown that repeating lies, even in the context of explaining why they are wrong, solidifies them in people’s minds.
Americans, as ever, remain optimistic that relations can improve. Last year the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a bipartisan report called “Our Common Purpose” that offered dozens of proposals for repairing democracy, combining quantitative data with listening sessions around the U.S. It cites a Pew poll showing that 86 percent of Americans think we can “improve the level of trust we have in one another, particularly if we can reduce political partisanship, make the news more factual and less sensational, spend more time with people instead of on social media, and practice empathy.”
National leaders can leverage this willingness to heal by encouraging civic identity that isn’t Republican or Democrat and that focuses more on local engagement. “We need a massive cultural education in how to do politics,” says political scientist Eitan Hersh, who recently wrote a book about so-called political hobbyism and the dangers of universal punditry. “Most people who perform politics on Twitter are just getting an emotional discharge. They blame Citizens United for everything, but have they ever been to a statehouse meeting? There’s this totally weird and false reality on the left that if gerrymandering or the Senate just didn’t exist, they’d get all of their dream policies.” Hersh wants to see Biden encourage citizens to learn about local issues, to put pressure on state senators and city councils for policy on climate, policing and public health, and to gain empathy by listening to competing interests at a town hall meeting.
The White House cannot manufacture solidarity alone. Indeed, the larger lesson of the New Deal, wrote Harvard University professor Lizabeth Cohen in the Atlantic last spring, “is that recovery is a complex and painful process that requires the participation of many, not directives from a few.”
Nonpartisan grassroots activism might not be plausible in this moment of ideological division and physical distance. But the Biden administration could transcend Pollyannaish calls for unity by giving Americans examples of values they truly do have in common. Recent research from the Knight Foundation and Gallup, for instance, shows the majority of Americans agree that misinformation on tech platforms is a problem. Similarly, exit poll data showed that 67 percent of all voters think climate change is a serious issue. For years atmospheric scientist and communicator Katharine Hayhoe has urged leaders and media to stop focusing on the tiny, loud minority of people who have staked their identity on dismissing evidence. “By falling for the illusion that climate deniers can be convinced with more facts, we are distracted from engaging with a much larger group of people who want to understand why and how we should move forward with solutions,” she told Scientific American in 2017. “And that’s exactly what the deniers want.”
We will disagree, sometimes vehemently, over what solutions to pursue—but debate based on evidence-based reality is the foundation the new administration must prioritize. Joe Biden should remind Americans, too, that it goes both ways: truly inclusive shared reality is possible only when we all participate in democracy.
* Editor’s Note (1/12/21): This sentence was edited after posting to correct Alondra Nelson’s affiliation.