Thomas Patterson, a co-founder of the Boston Global Forum, has a new book, How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy.
Misinformation is at its highest level in the history of polling. On everything from climate change and immigration to vaccines and social security, tens of millions of Americans have views of reality that are wildly at odds with the facts, rendering them unable to think sensibly about public issues and making them susceptible to leaders who exploit their vulnerability.
In How America Lost Its Mind, Patterson explores the forces that are misleading us and tearing us apart: politicians for whom division is a strategy; talk show hosts who have made an industry of outrage; news outlets that act as megaphones for unproven claims, and partisan outlets and foreign agents who spout disinformation to advance a cause, make a buck, or simply amuse themselves.
As Patterson shows, the problem was in place long before Donald Trump became president. Trump has aggravated the problem, but he is more the symptom than the cause of it. America’s misinformation disorder has roots in changes in politics and the media that began in the 1960s. The problem worsened as cable and the internet gave rise to media outlets that had little fidelity to traditional standards and as the divide between the Republican and Democratic parties grew ever wider. Americans now had access to sources that told them what they wanted to believe and had more reason to believe what their side of the partisan divide was claiming.
The corruption of information is eroding governing institutions and traditions that took more than two centuries and ten generations of Americans to build. And
he consequences are severe. How America Lost Its Mind maps a political landscape convulsed with distrust, gridlock, brinksmanship, petty feuding, and deceptive messaging. It’s also a landscape that fosters abuse of power. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote decades ago, demagogues thrive when “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
Age-old incentives – the lure of power, celebrity, and money – underlie America’s misinformation problem, and they guarantee that the problem will not soon disappear.