Ohio State University

Memo-Drama: The Danger of Government Misinformation for Democracy by Garrett Rethman @ Ohio State University

Who is telling the truth? Two memos with radically different ramifications are currently at the center of American political discussion. On one side, the Nunes memo , written by Rep. Devin Nunes and approved for release by President Donald Trump, claims that the FBI abused its surveillance authority to spy on the Trump campaign. Democrats disagree, having produced their own document rebutting the Nunes memo as a partisan hit-piece. The Democrat memo’s release is currently blocked by President Trump, though, citing national security concerns.

Given contradictory claims from the FBI, White House, Rep. Schiff, and Rep. Nunes regarding the FBI’s surveillance of Carter Page, it can be difficult for any reader to be confident in understanding the current controversy on Capitol Hill. This is dangerous for democracy. Specifically, I argue that the issuing of misinformation by either or both of the main United States political parties contributes to a decline in the quality of United States democracy.

To assess democracy, we need to be certain of what democracy entails. Dahl posits that a key mechanism in any democracy is the government’s response to the preferences of the people. For the people to express preferences, they must be unimpeded in their (1) formulation of preferences, (2) signification of preferences to contemporaries and government, and (3) equality of political preferences. In simpler terms, a democratic government must respond to the preferences expressed by an equal and free body of informed voters. The present danger to democracy in the United States thus stems from the difficulty, if not impossibility, of voters to be properly informed and how this subsequently affects voter preferences.

The controversy surrounding these conflicting memos should affect voter preferences. If the information presented in the Nunes memo is wholly accurate and no information has been omitted, informed voters could be expected to vote against those implicated in the memo. On the other hand, if the Nunes memo is inaccurate and intentionally misleading, informed voters could be expected to reject Rep. Nunes and those who propagated the memo at the polls. With both Republicans and Democrats disagreeing over objective information, though, voters cannot formulate preferences based on reality. This risks democracy as facts and accountability are subverted by emotion and preconceptions.

The disagreement in how Democrats and Republicans perceive events is potentially shown in polling data regarding the fairness of special counsel Robert Mueller. A recent Marist poll explores this difference between the two major political parties. Per the poll, 77% of Democrats believe special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a fair investigation, compared to just 35% of Republicans. In recent months, elected Democrats have been supportive of Mueller’s independence, while elected Republicans and conservative pundits have been mixed on his neutrality. While it is unclear what the truth is, it is clear that there is a partisan divide in what people believe.

Given the greater ideological consolidation of the American political parties and growing political antipathy, intentional governmental misinformation becomes only more dangerous. The Pew Research Center found the share of Americans with consistently conservative or liberal opinions doubled from 1994 to 2014. Additionally, as of 2014, 27% of Democrats saw the Republican party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being” while 36% of Republicans believed the same of Democrats. These numbers present a worrying sign for democracy. If political opposition is seen as treasonous, actions which limit the future competitiveness of the opposing party can be passed, or potentially even welcomed. The continued disagreement between the political parties, with a lack of consensus on objective facts, is unlikely to help democracy. Rather, a loss of confidence in the character of the opposition and an increased distrust in the ideological basis of the opposition will only serve to erode democracy.

Consequently, government misinformation both damages democracy by impeding the ability of citizens to form preferences and by increasing disdain for the other political party. By impeding the ability of citizens to formulate preferences, democracy is weakened without any formal measures being taken to erode checks and balances. Rather, elected officials are simply not being held properly accountable. On the other hand, increased partisanship and the introduction of a disloyal opposition could lead to the erosion of the actual checks and balances which create the democratic foundation of our nation. A government where leaders from both sides of the aisle agree on the true nature of events is necessary to prevent this damage to democracy.

This is not to say that partisanship or disagreement is bad for democracy. Rather, people with different but organized preferences should be expected to form groups which will naturally be in opposition with each other. To be clear, the threat to democracy occurs when elected officials publicly disagree about objective facts. If an ideal voter—one who votes purely based on how elected officials respond to his or her preferences—cannot know which candidate to support, a democracy is in danger.

Per Dahl’s definition of democracy, a democracy requires an electorate which can knowingly express equally weighted preferences. If disagreement over the very nature of facts continues, American voters will lose their ability to properly evaluate their elected officials. The fundamental disagreement between the Nunes and Democrat memos thus represents the growing divide, both in ideology and in confidence, between Democrats and Republicans. This divide presents a real and serious threat to democracy in the United States.


Photo by Gage Skidmore, “U.S. Capitol building”, Creative Commons Zero License

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