The fallout from the 2022 midterm elections continues to shape competing narratives about the return to politics as usual, threats to democracy and political dysfunction exemplified by infighting within the Republican party. 2023 will bring us increased stories on the erosion of trust in institutions, particularly government, public service organizations and news media. Most stories will highlight the impact ongoing mistrust has on democracy and society. Conversations that convey skepticism or wariness about the government’s ability to serve people; stories that center competition between regions, groups, or political parties; and stories that treat moderates/bipartisanship as main characters will increase.
We’re also likely to see an increase in interpersonal mistrust fueled by different reactions to the pandemic, political polarization, and the proliferation of snitch bills over the last several years. These narrative conditions will increase the volume of stories about individuals taking care of themselves first and making decisions about how to move in the world based on self-interest.
The sentiment of mistrust is operating across conversations about governance in the U.S. and beyond. This year, we’ll continue to see conversations about democracy operating at a very high volume, spiking at peak moments when democratic norms and practices are being tested, like the SCOTUS ruling on Roe or the next round of elections. Within those conversations, we’ll see quieter trends about the specter of authoritarianism and Christian nationalism driven by both Christian Nationalists and those who cover and/or study authoritarianism. Bipartisanship will trend during legislative fights and elections - both local and national - as either a punching bag or the gold standard of democracy.
Total Mentions by Issue within Conversations about Democracy
The chart below compares the conversational volume between Democracy, Bipartisanship, Authoritarianism, and Christian Nationalism. Conversations about democracy are typically the loudest, spiking during elections and critical events. While mentions of bipartisanship are lower, they follow a similar pattern, suggesting conversations about democracy and bipartisanship are connected. Conversations about authoritarianism and Christian nationalism also experience spikes in volume but operate at a lower volume.
NARRATIVES AT PLAY
- Governments and politicians are corrupt
- We are returning to the American democracy we know
- Political division is destroying our society
- Good governance requires moderation and civility
- Democracy isn’t a guarantee
- We take care of us
- A free and fair press is essential to democracy
- Free speech is essential to democracy
- All media institutions are biased
- Seeking and finding the truth is a personal responsibility
Promote and elevate success stories about good governance. Weave together local and national stories to combat the idea that everything is broken. Highlight how residents actively participate in community governance both with local and state government officials, as well as outside of state institutions, to address societal conditions, including institutional accountability.
Leverage community care into political power. In a world fatigued by COVID-19, stories highlighting mutual aid efforts are back to occurring mostly during extreme weather events or community tragedies. Elevate these stories and highlight the organized people power that makes them possible without undermining stories of good governance. Weave these stories into local organizing strategies to support both power-building and good governance narratives.
Invest in media, even if it’s small-scale and at the local level. Local media is often more trusted than national outlets, and it can be used as a vehicle for building both community and power. Take advantage of the growing interest in platforms like YouTube, Twitch, analog radio and podcasts.
Mistrust is felt deeply across most communities. Regardless of who you’re talking to and what your purpose is, be prepared to navigate and address feelings of mistrust. When holding institutions accountable, offer legitimate critique while also putting forth a vision of more responsive, responsible governance. Use trusted messengers to talk to specific audiences. Critique individuals, policies, and government practices rather than the character of governance or journalism as a whole.
Claim organizing and policy wins while acknowledging the fatigue around civic participation and voting. It is hard to mobilize people while they are also holding the shortcomings of broken promises. Focus on elevating stories and values that cultivate trust in being a part of organizations or movements beyond elections. When appropriate, lift up examples of candidates and electeds who demonstrate accountable governance.
Don’t downplay the continued threat of fascism, but it can’t be the only story we’re telling. Pundits and politicians will likely downplay the political threats we are facing as a country in order to promote a false sense of normalcy and security. While we need to continue to elevate stories that take this threat seriously, it will be a challenge to motivate civic participation by solely relying on crisis-based narratives. Focusing solely on the continued threats to democracy and sowing doubt about the future may push some audiences to disillusionment or the archetypal boy who cried wolf story. This can affect everyone, regardless of ideology or party affiliation.