Sitting on over 47,000 acres of pristine land off the coast of Maine, Acadia National Park is one of the crown jewels of the National Park system. Within this primordial acreage, tourists from all over the world are wooed by the dramatic crashing of the Atlantic against jutting, rocky cliffs. Due to its height and location on the eastern tip of the country, Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain offers early risers a chance to catch the first glimpses of the morning sun shining on the United States. More than two million visitors flock the area each year, creating about $200 million in economic benefit to the local community and thousands of jobs. A fine mix of public and private cooperation, preservation, and economic stimulation, Acadia, much like a stop sign, is an example of government that simply works.
However, on October 1, 2013, a severely diminished corps of four park rangers reluctantly set up barricades blocking entry to Acadia. By all accounts, it was a beautiful day in northeast Maine. Clear skies and highs of 75 degrees. But seven hundred miles to the south, in Washington, D.C., a political tangle that could not be unraveled reached its ultimate, drastic outcome: a rare shutdown of the Federal government. With it came a myriad of closures, stoppages, and screeching halts. National Parks, from Acadia to Zion, were not spared.
What happened in D.C. was perhaps the most pronounced symptom of a political climate defined by dysfunction. The specific events leading up to the shutdown have no doubt, and will continue to be, documented in arcane detail (just what the heck is reconciliation?) by political commentators and historians. I’ll try to offer my own, admittedly limited, B.A.-pedigree explanation. For the most part, compromise drives American democracy and its legislative processes. When compromise utterly fails, like in the face of a spending battle and absolutely polarizing health care reform, the system sputters and runs out of gas. And the Federal Government of the United States, you know, the guys who brought us this, has to shut down because it can’t figure out a way to pay its bills.
However, it isn’t fair to say that this came out of nowhere. After all, American democracy is representative. Those appropriators who couldn’t manage to fund the government for another fiscal year? Yeah, voters, like you and me, put them there. The picture becomes simultaneously clearer and more perplexing by looking at what voters actually want. With turnout, trust in government, and approval of Congress at all-time lows, the answer is a clear rejection of the status quo, but beyond that: confusion.
The details might be easier to wade through if we were all reading from the same script, but we aren’t—and that’s crucial. Without going into an official history of American media habits of the past century, it’s plain to see how digitization has completely reshaped the media industry. A dense thicket of websites, cable news channels, terrestrial and satellite radio stations, and more, has largely achieved preeminence over your city’s newspaper and the big TV networks. With a growing list of content delivery systems, more sources than ever are competing for your attention on a daily basis.
What’s more, liberals and conservatives closer to their respective ends of the ideological spectrum don’t trust each other’s preferred sources of information. They also don’t agree on which issues matter the most. These two factors alone show how healthy national debate has stalled. It reminds me of what the Federal government did for those 16 days in October of 2013.
Using polling data, election results, and commentary from experts, this blog series will attempt to shed light on the current state of affairs in national politics through the lens of messaging and communication. Without taking sides, I will expose how recent trends in politics and communication are intertwined, and hopefully derive constructive insights from my comparisons. Next week we’ll take a closer look at the election cycles of the past 13 years along with some opinion polls and information on social media use. Are liberals or conservatives more likely to “un-friend” you on Facebook over a political post they disagree with? To find out: