Tomorrow is that day. Hundreds of millions around the world will be glued to the action taking place in front of the American Capitol, their teeth on edge and their worry meter steadily climbing.
It’s Inauguration Day in the United States, and there has been nothing like it in all its history. Armed guards everywhere. Insurrection threatened. State capitals on notice. And the media in a frenzy. No wonder the world’s on edge.
What’s particularly sad about this special day, which is normally a Rite of Passage for democracy, is that it will be riddled with falsehoods. Tens of millions of Americans will continue to believe that Joe Biden isn’t the legitimate president because they are convinced the election was rigged and that Donald Trump won by millions of votes. A similar number on the opposite side will tune in, believing that the Republican Right is in full insurrection mode, that the party membership has gone over to the dark side, and that the next four years will likely be nothing but a bare-knuckled fight.
So much of all this isn’t true, but does it really matter on tomorrow’s special day? People will believe what they want to believe, and no amount of facts, data, research, or personal experience is really going to matter.
What else can we expect when a recent poll showed Democrats firmly believe that 44% of Republicans earn over $250,000 a year. When informed that the actual number is only 2%, they doubt the reality and cling to their illusion. It’s just as discouraging on the other side, where Republicans believe that a full 38% of Democrats are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The correct answer is somewhere around 6%.
Let’s stretch it out a bit further. Democrats, for instance, believe that more than four out of every ten Republicans are seniors. But when they are informed by researchers that it’s actually only 20% of the party, the Democrats won’t accept that fact, refusing to even look at it. And when Republicans remain fully convinced that 46% of Democrats are black and 44% of the Democratic Party belong to a union, even though the research stresses over and over again that the real numbers reveal a mere 24% of Democrats are black and less than 11% are union members, you just know that accurate information matters little in the skulduggery that infests American politics at this moment.
These numbers are from American author and commentator Ezra Klein and what they reveal is that there are two Americas, existing in two different bubbles, following two different ideologies, and watching two completely different kinds of media. In a normal world, the more media reporting you consume the more aware and intelligent you become. During the inauguration tomorrow, a huge portion of the American population will have remarkably errant views about those on the other side. In other words, they will be driven by more political information than they’ve ever possessed in their adult lives, and they will be largely ignorant of the true situation.
Ultimately, this will become the greatest Biden/Harris challenge: to get Americans to open their minds and come to grips with the reality that, yes, fact and truth can sometimes be different things, but not often, and not on this. In a time when science is desperately needed in the midst of a shattering pandemic, the consequences of denying facts and research are tragic in nature. That is also true of research about politics. If Americans decide to move forward in the same ignorance from where they have just come, democracy will be crippled long before Biden’s first 100 days get geared up.
Identity media and identity politics have combined to create spheres of ignorance that “dumb down” American democracy. There is no way that all American conservatives are bigots and race baiters, and neither are all liberals driven more by social engineering than by the desire for social and economic justice. And yet that is what an increasing number of ideologues from both sides now believe.
Canadians must be careful to avoid the smugness we often reserve for our American cousins as we cast our gaze south of the border. Despite COVID, political ideologies in this country are increasingly splitting us along party lines, leaving huge chunks of our citizenry searching for mud instead of common ground.
Tomorrow’s inauguration will be the next great test for democracy. Should both sides prove totally unwilling to seek compromise, then all that remains is the continuation of political war instead of embarking on a new future. Democracy’s great detractors now live among us, not overseas in the Kremlin or in Beijing. We must heal ourselves before our open wounds incapacitate us. It’s that simple. And it’s that hard.