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STEVE SEBELIUS: Disconnection in politics feeds conspiracy theories

People just don’t trust their government.

People feel disconnected from their government.

And that lack of trust — encouraged deliberately by some and unintentionally by others — is eroding the foundation of democracy in America.

That was the message from some speakers at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held annually at the University of Southern California.

And while solutions were harder to come by than diagnosis, it’s clear the erosion of trust in institutions — including and especially the media — is a big part of the problem.

In the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, Donald Trump became the sole source of information that many of his followers would believe, said Jonathan Lemire, the MSNBC host and Politico writer. His denigrations of the press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” — while not original — helped to erode already flagging confidence in the press.

As a result, many believed Trump when he said the 2016 election would be rigged (whoops) and the 2020 election was stolen (nope). The Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol were the culmination of that belief, said Steve Phillips, columnist and author of the book “How We Win the Civil War.”

When people feel alienated from power and believe that their votes don’t count and that the government isn’t responsive to their concerns, it’s fertile ground for conspiracy theories to grow, said Jared Yates Sexton, author of “The Midnight Kingdom.”

Even worse, political leaders realize that they can both make money and get votes by feeding in to those conspiracy theories, essentially by playing a character in those culture war dramas playing out in popular media.

“There has to be a spiritual sea change in this country,” Sexton said.

But author Sarah Kendzior noted that there’s good reason for people to be cynical about government — even when trying to do good, it often ends up in big, systemic failures. And while some conspiracy theories are obviously false, others are not.

“The reason there are conspiracy theories is because there are conspiracies,” she said.

Mother Jones writer David Corn traced the breakdown of Americans sharing a source of commonly accepted information to the 1970s, when conservative strategist Richard Viguerie began his direct mail campaigns to supporters, going around network TV news and newspapers. Now, the internet allows everyday people to do the same.

In fact, the internet gives people the idea that they have access to special knowledge and that they can fight against the people in power (and even make money off doing so), all from their laptops, Sexton said.

Clearly, the decline in trust in media that has been documented by pollsters for decades contributes to the disconnection and distrust roiling politics these days. Conservatives think the media is too liberal — covering Trump with brutal negativity, while going easy on Democrats such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

They might be surprised to learn the left thinks the media is too conservative, or at least too committed to objectivity to properly take on outright lies in political discourse. (On a recent episode of “Pod Save America,” a host was heard to remark that the days of expecting the mainstream media to counter propaganda are over and that only leftist media was up to the task of confronting the right.)

And while examples of exaggerated anti-Trump coverage are legion, there are also examples of appropriate criticism, especially surrounding the false claims of election theft and his unprecedented efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election. What the press needs when it comes to not just Trump, but every politician, is a healthy dose of skepticism and proportionality. (The ability to distinguish between the unsurprising payoffs to ex-porn actors on the one hand and attempted coups on the other would be a good start.)

Ultimately, however, we should — all of us. conservative, liberal, disaffected and engaged alike — realize that we share this country and that a second hot civil war isn’t likely to happen. Instead, we’ll have to find other ways to overcome our differences.

One idea, advanced by UCLA professor Patricia A. Turner at the festival, is to engage with people with unlike views, treating them as rational and actually listening to their beliefs even as you share your own. Finding out why people with dissimilar stances think the way they do may be enlightening, or at least informative.

It’s also bound to be frustrating, but it’s certainly a place to start. And ultimately, there’s really no other choice.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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