Systemic Problems, Incremental Solutions: Lessons from the Knight-Civic Hall Symposium

Dave Algoso, a consultant in the global development and social change sectors, attended the Knight-Civic Hall Symposium on Wednesday and here offers his observations on the lessons of the day.

Every few decades, we face a deep challenge to the idea of American exceptionalism. There are injustices large and small throughout history, of course, highlighting how we fall short of our ideals. But once every generation or two, something big makes it seem completely untenable to envision America as a shining city on the hill: the violence of the Civil War, the setbacks of the Great Depression, the disgraces of Vietnam and Watergate, and now, the risks posed by the era of Trump.

The election and transition period have left half the country closely examining who we are as a nation. Yesterday’s Knight-Civic Hall Symposium brought together major players from technology, politics, and the media to turn that introspection into analysis and planning. Five outstanding panels grappled with questions of journalism, polling, social media, voter engagement, campaign technology, and press freedom.

A common thread throughout the day was that the dynamics presently unfolding are not the result of the election alone. The long campaign season revealed deep divisions and a breakdown in civic discourse, but the roots of the problem go back decades. The economics of corporate media have long been biased toward the sensational and “horse race” aspects of campaigns, undermining public discourse on issues that matter. Social media is no savior either, favoring clicks over dialogue and driving wedges deeper.

Citizens are also to blame for largely failing to engage in civic life outside the election cycle, and for entering the voting booth uninformed, if at all. Meanwhile, gerrymandered districts drive politicians toward the partisan extremes and money flows through the election system to further its own interests. Now, in the lead up to the inauguration, the transition team and cabinet appointees reveals the weaknesses in our accountability institutions with every norm they violate.

These problems were well understood prior to the 2016 presidential campaign. If a savvy strategist had read all the critiques of American institutions, and looked for ways to unabashedly exploit them rather than provide remedies, the result would have looked like the Trump campaign—though he also benefitted from a certain amount of luck. Trump’s victory and incoming administration will undoubtedly shift the political landscape, but he didn’t create the structures that won him the White House and he remains just one actor in the system.

The systemic nature of these problems stands in sharp contrast to the solutions under discussion. The fixes offered since the election are more micro-targeted, and will take as long to have an impact as the problems have taken to develop.

The solutions mentioned during yesterday’s wide-ranging conversation included:

  • As a first step, supporting local newspapers can promote coverage more relevant to most Americans. Then over time, as Zeynep Tufekci pointed out, you can push that local paper toward better coverage of the issues that matter most to you.

  • For major publications, paid subscriptions can provide a reader-centered counterbalance to the demands of advertising and corporate ownership. As Amalie Nash and Sally Buzbee pointed out, news organizations also need to get better at engaging communities of readers, moving further away from the unilateral “broadcast” approach to news.

  • After first trying to duck responsibility for fake news, Facebook has taken the meager first step of partnering with independent fact-checkers. There’s a great deal more to be done, and a crowdsourced effort launched by Eli Pariser has resulted in over 80 pages of ideas under the title, “Design Solutions for Fake News”.

  • Each election cycle, campaigns and parties improve their voter outreach. As Eric Liu of Citizen University argued, we also need to address the demand side—making voting something people want to do by educating them on their power and introducing community-oriented approaches that make voting fun.

Any list of solutions—and these were just a few from the symposium—deserves a word of caution: solutions will always let us down. Any given solution is just an incremental step toward addressing the fundamental problems. The symposium conversations were important, but not because they spelled out the full solutions needed; they only outlined the path we need to take and surfaced a set of near-term options. Over the longer term, we’ll need to adapt as we see what works and respond to the efforts of those who oppose voter access, press freedoms, and accountable governance.

America’s sense of its own exceptionalism, with its kernel of truth smothered in a large dose of mythology, can seem abstract and even distracting compared to the incremental solutions needed. The symposium conversation never touched on exceptionalism, which even feels naive in the current political context, though there was an unspoken sense that we can do better. The core of American exceptionalism doesn’t lie in the founding stories we teach in schools, the nation’s international relations, or the politician’s stump speech rhetoric. If it means anything at all, it should be as a guide for the actions we take when we doubt it the most.