Mistrust and the ‘polarisation industry’: Kotkin on what’s ailing the US

Moral degradation and dramatic fall in social cohesion has fundamentally weakened US society leading into this week’s US election, according to Stephen Kotkin, and any efforts to rebuild will need to include action against the “polarisation industry” that profits from division and mistrust.

Kotkin, a professor in history and international affairs at Princeton University and the director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, believes that “badly frayed” trust and social solidarity are the principal issues facing the US on the eve of the election.

Kotkin explained the origins of the deep polarisation dividing the US during a recent podcast interview with Top1000Funds.

Kotkin will feature in a keynote session entitled ‘The polarisation industry: How can our divisions be overcome?’ at Investment Magazine‘s upcoming Fiduciary Investors Symposium online digital conference on November 17 and 18.

“The polarisation is not about opinion, the problem is that the polarisation is about who or what you think the other side is,” he said. “It’s not that people identify as liberal or conservative, it’s that they identify their opponents as illegitimate.”

There has been a de-legitimisation of political disagreement across the US, he explains, that is leading to “massive” degradation of trust across society.

“If you disagree, it’s not that you disagree that you might be wrong… it’s that you’re evil, you’re trying to subvert, you’re against the American way of life,” Kotkin said. “This is the highly corrosive political virus that we’re dealing with.”

In this emotive atmosphere, he explained, trust in the institutions such as the postal service, the judiciary and the media has been eroded, leading to instability and unrest.

“If the other side is [seen as] evil and they have control over the institutions… there’s a de-legitimisation of those institutions,” Kotkin said.

The first order, then, for the US in the wake of the election, will be to regain an understanding that the other side is not the enemy and that these institutions are not corrupt or illegitimate. “They’re the reason we can have disagreement at all,” the professor adds.

The polarisation industry

Entrepreneurs and business leaders have a big role to play in helping the US gain some sense of solidarity – especially those in technology in social media – but Kotkin says the “polarisation industry” will continue to disrupt this effort.

The polarisation industry, he explained, has a business model that relies on conflict and the degradation of the public sphere. In other words, these are the forces that benefit from chaos and division.

“The appetite is there for entrepreneurs to come in and move us back to trust and social solidarity, but the countervailing tendency of the polarisation industry is very, very strong,” Kotkin said. “The more extreme, the more money they make [and] the more viewers and listeners and revenue they accumulate. That’s a very deep problem.”

Suppressing toxic and divisive views is problematic, especially in a nation that clings to freedom of speech as tightly as the US does. You can’t take away freedoms, Kotkin says, or regulate everything people say or do in the public sphere. “However, a laissez faire approach hasn’t worked either.”

What’s needed, Kotkin believes, is a smarter way to manage the technological interruptions in the public sphere that balance the freedoms Americans cherish with the negative effects of business models that promote extremism.

“It’s not as easy as replacing the CEO of twitter or facebook,” he adds. “Once you see how difficult the problem is mechanically… then you see it’s not just a problem of bad intentions.”

Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning.
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