The State of the union is…divided
Presidential Address Shows That Much Work Remains to Forge a Functional Body Politic
By Ryan Anderson
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is the result of an assignment in Public Affairs Communication in the online master’s degree program in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
The other night President Joe Biden delivered his third State of the Union (SOTU) address. Unlike the previous two addresses where the Democratic party controlled both chambers of Congress, Biden’s most recent address took place before a Democratically controlled Senate, and a Republican led House of Representatives.
At times, the address looked like it had been hijacked by the British parliament with shouting from the gallery directed at Biden, and a fair amount of clapback from the president aimed at his hecklers. Despite the shouting from the gallery, for brief moments, the address offered a small glimmer of hope that two political parties might agree to actually pass legislation that helped form a more perfect union.
However, for the most part, the address followed the similar pattern of the party of the president agreeing with everything that was said, and the opposition party disagreeing with everything said out of principle during their opposing party rebuttal.
As a classically trained journalist, I was taught to avoid discussing politics in most cases. Instead, my journalism school professors taught us to report the facts and let our readers decide what position they wanted to take on an issue. Relying on my trusty friends Who, What, When Where, Why and occasionally How, I have interviewed countless individuals and covered myriad events while always letting the facts tell the story. Somewhere along the way, in the 20 or so years that have passed since those Journalism school lessons, the environment has certainly changed.
No, I am not talking about global warming, although that has certainly led to changes in the environment. Instead, I am referring to a rise in the inability to discuss issues without people retreating to their trenches on the far left and the far right. In short, society has moved to the point where it is almost impossible to not talk about politics.
Everyone has an opinion now, and for the most part, they are not afraid to share it with whoever they come in contact with. There are of course many hot button issues that cause people to dig in ranging from immigration, to renewable energy, and of course the aforementioned global warming.
It is easy to blame social media for the rise in polarization of opinion. Although, a media landscape where people are only fed stories and ideas that coincide with their personal viewpoint is certainly not helping. While news is getting more partisan on the national level, the rise in news deserts, where the guardrails of sound journalistic principles have given way to a wild, wild west news silo and echo chamber approach, is also contributing to fostering divisions among people.
A 2022 study by the Poynter Institute noted that a fourth of all the local newspapers in the United States have closed since 2005. Some estimates state that an average of two newspapers a day are silencing their presses for good. Seventy million residents, or roughly 20 percent of the population of the United States, live in communities without easy and affordable access to local news and information that binds the American experiment in democracy at the grassroots level.
Of the 10 newspapers I have worked for during my journalism career, only two remain in operation. The two surviving newspapers have enacted extreme cost cutting measures by relocating to smaller offices, reducing the number of days they print, reducing the width and number of pages of the printed paper, laying off the majority of their staff, and moving their printing operations to remote sites shared with other publications. When the trusted source of local news is gone, misinformation fills the spot left behind. After all, nature abhors a vacuum.
As a journalist, I am sickened by the decline in the news profession. As an American citizen, I am worried by what the loss of local trustworthy news means for the future. So, how does a classically trained journalist navigate the politically charged waters of 2023 without alienating half of their readers?
As noted above, I still try to avoid writing about politics. However, as any long-term reader will recall, during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, I dedicated many columns to discussing the shear lunacy of the politicians and sports leagues who were denying the science of the COVID-19 virus for their own selfish gains. Some politicians even went so far as encouraging their
constituents to ingest bleach and inject themselves with horse dewormer.
As the world slowly emerged from under the COVID-19 fog, I had hoped that the deep divisions along party lines had been caused by the hysteria of dealing with a once in a century pandemic, and were not the new normal. I even went so far as to suggest that society would emerge stronger and a “Coronaissance” that would leave society in a better place then it entered it would occur after the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2023, I can sadly report that my predicted Coronaissance did not arrive. If anything, society is even more divided than it was in the before times.
Which, of course, brings me to trying to identify strategies and tactics to use when engaging in conversations about difficult and charged political and social topics. One could argue that the simplest approach to trying to engage with people who have vastly different political ideals would be to channel the Captain from the movie Cool Hand Luke and just throw your hands in
the air and say, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men, you just can’t reach.”
It is certainly true that some people will never be swayed, or “reached” to change their opinions no matter what the preponderance of evidence says. Some people will always prefer to stick their heads in the sand ostrich style while enjoying some tasty horse dewormer. As tempting as it might be to just channel your inner Captain, some people can indeed be reached in the moveable middle.
In my experience, when trying to have a constructive conversation it is always important to not attack someone’s beliefs directly. Going in with the verbal barrage telling someone all the ways that their point of view is wrong will only cause them to build a wall and stop listening to anything you have to say. This can be especially uncomfortable at family dinners when the
person that you have just alienated is the one in charge of passing the ham.
Instead, I will ask the person why they believe a certain way and inject opposing and truthful views while gently pointing out along the way that a Facebook post or meme should not be the basis of a life philosophy. I also will usually point out that as a news junkie myself, I recommended that everyone get their news from multiple sources to avoid the news silo and echo chamber effect caused by only drawing from a single news well. I have also discovered that it can be good practice to point out that in a functioning democracy one should be able to have a spirited disagreement on policy issues without it leading to a need to storm a Capitol or consider everyone who does not think exactly like they do to be the enemy.
As sound as those practices can be, to quote the late Kenny Rogers, one also must know when to fold them and when to walk away. This can be walking away from a conversation to salvage a friendship, or it can also be to walk away from the person entirely if their views are just too extreme to discuss rationally. It is never worth stooping to the level of someone who just will not
see reason no matter how hard you try to present the truth.
The state of the union is definitely divided, and I miss those carefree days early in my career when politics was not so front and center in my writing. I would like to think that society will return from the brink and move back towards the middle. Until then, one just must continue to try building a bridge across the expanse in an attempt to find common ground and hope that
those who would want to tear the bridge down are silenced by the voices of those who want to find common ground. After all, at the end of the day, failure to communicate is not an option that anyone should accept.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have this sudden urge to watch Cool Hand Luke for some reason.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Anderson is a former Collegiate Sports Information Director (SID), Newspaper Editor and Reporter who currently works as a freelance journalist. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Central Florida with a minor in Advertising/Public Relation. He also earned a Master of Science Degrees in Sport Management from Houston Christian University.
Currently, Ryan is working on a Master of Arts degree in Mass Communication with a concentration in Public Interest Communication and a Graduate Certificate in Global Strategic Communication from the University of Florida.