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Poisoning The Well Helps No One

After last week's Bernie v. Hillary dustup, can we please not fall into the conservative trap of reinforcing distrust of the government we hope to lead?
Poisoning The Well Helps No One

God help me, I am about to agree with Carly Fiorina. During Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, Fiorina interrupted other bickering candidates to say, "This is why the nation is fed up..."

It is an article of faith on the left that "both sides do it" is a systematic dodge by the mainstream media to keep from calling out the right for reflexive dishonesty and worse. The media fears being accused of bias and losing precious "access." For the most part, that is true. But something finally got under my skin this week about something both sides really do do: poisoning the well.

Distrust of government is already endemic. Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post declared that last Friday's "What was fake on the Internet this week" would be her last column debunking Internet hoaxes, pranks, and urban legends (emphasis mine):

Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.


The NGP VAN data breach this week triggered the same kind of bickering on the left that Fiorina was calling out on the right. DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz claimed the Sanders campaign not only "inappropriately and systematically accessed Clinton campaign data," but had exported and downloaded it. Sanders partisans immediately assumed their candidate had been set up by a calculating Hillary Clinton, and that Wasserman Schultz used the incident to materially harm Sanders and help Clinton, the party insiders' favorite.

I have used VoteBuilder for years. I have never seen a table delineating what functions and features come with what levels of access, or even what those levels are (and there are many). The fact that few civilians understand the nuts and bolts of how VoteBuilder works makes it easy to distort what actually happened. Even explaining it won't help most people. In the current environment Dewey described, people on both the left and right are primed to assume the worst.

What finally struck me is that institutional distrust has led to the unexamined assumption that whenever something untoward happens to our team in politics we assume the worst motives on the part of our opponents, even among our own partisans. Nothing is an accident. Nothing ever happens because of raw stupidity, bad judgement, or carelessness. Everything becomes a plot by dark, malevolent forces too big and too powerful to stop.

Then we wonder why people don't vote even as we model reasons for them not to. We reinforce the meme in ourselves and in the wider culture every time we jump to the cynical conclusion that shit never just happens; shit has an agenda. We purposefully misinterpret opponents' remarks so as to damage them or to advantage ourselves. We assume the worst motives and deny the possibility of people even having better angels. Until, as Springsteen wrote, You end up like a dog that's been beat too much / Until you spend half your life just covering up.

Listen, I am no fan of the DNC hierarchy. I am not even all that engaged with Bernie v. Hillary, as I have said. What is more important to me than others' real or imagined motives is that elligible voters get off their couches, go down to their polling places, and exercise their franchise as citizens in America's democracy. And it just pisses me off to have people on our side (and both sides) poisoning the well by reflexively assuming the worst of their opponents, souring fellow citizens on the process and ultimately depressing that vote.

I'm not arguing for naïveté. Just perhaps a little more Bob Cratchit and a little less Scrooge.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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