Coleman was a Republican congressman from Missouri from 1976 to 1993. He is an advisor to Protect Democracy, an anti-authoritarian watchdog group.
The congressional district I represented for 16 years was a microcosm of the nation. It contained the biggest urban center in the state, Kansas City, as well as many of its suburbs. But the vast majority of the remaining 14,000 square miles was made up of small towns and rural communities.
Like most rural areas in the United States it was dependent on small businesses and farming. That's why this city boy sought a seat on the House Agriculture Committee and eventually became the GOP minority's ranking member. From that spot I was able to pass important rural development programs, designed to provide rural schools with broadband capability as personal computers were becoming more common three decades ago.
The main idea, then as now, is that federal investment in rural economic development opportunities will create local jobs, allowing people to stay in their home communities instead of heading to the cities.
The challenges facing rural America today indicate more needs to be done — and bolstering our fragile democracy is a big reason why.
During my visits with constituents in their small towns and on courthouse squares, I would often seek out the local editor of the local newspaper. Even the least populated counties had a weekly paper, while communities with as few as 10,000 residents often had a daily paper. That is no longer the case.
Many small towns and rural communities no longer have their own community newspapers. These lost sources of news had served as critical engines of American democracy, by giving voice to local concerns and providing a source of objective information for local citizens to consider.
Instead, today there are too many communities where there is a lack of civic cohesion and leadership — and, at the same time, a reliance on information from media sources that care nothing about local news. These sources include national cable and network television as well as homogenized features from self-interested parties. Equally concerning is the reliance on social media for local, state and national "news." Social media has frequently replaced local newspapers with misinformation, conspiracy theories and prejudicial views.
Tucked away in President Biden's infrastructure bill — which he will campaign for Wednesday night in his nationally televised speech to Congress — is a proposed $100 billion program to once again deliver high speed broadband to rural areas. Most of the money would appropriately go to improve rural education and enhance cyber capabilities for local businesses. But that is not enough.
There is no question our democracy has been, and continues to be, under attack. Many of its guardrails have been bent or demolished altogether. They must be reinstalled and replaced. Like the education of our young people and updating businesses, the rural infrastructure of our democracy must also be strengthened and protected.
It's necessary and proper to use the infrastructure legislation to strengthen our democracy. Roads and bridges — that's what infrastructure is all about. American democracy depends on factual information highways and bridges that span conflicting political viewpoints. Broadband is the way to deliver them.
That's why funds in the bill should be set aside to strengthen our democracy through a program that would deliver local news through broadband.
Individual schools of journalism, as well as state and national associations of schools of journalism, would be eligible to receive federal grants to establish and run nonprofit digital services to deliver local news to underserved rural areas. Retired news editors and journalism professors could be employed to review and approve students' work before publication. The program could start as a pilot program to assure its long-term success. Federal funding might be supplemented with funds from state and local governments and by foundations.
Failure to support small town digital news initiatives will allow the continuing decline of our rural areas and the passing of a way of life that many who live there wish to continue.
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Lightman is professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
Seven week ago now, I listened to President Biden's inaugural address with appreciation and hope. His message of unification was welcome after many years of divisive rhetoric and sowing seeds of mistrust and fear.
While I agree that we can unify this nation and work together toward common objectives, it will take time and require unconventional thinking. And it will come at a cost. The nation is highly polarized because of both radicalization, on both ends of the political spectrum, and the flow of disinformation. How our information is produced, shared and consumed is at the core of both problems.
What were once trusted sources of information have been supplanted by hyper-targeted and directed information flows through social media platforms. And those inadvertently foster echo chambers and sustain online communities that seek to reinforce their own political beliefs to the exclusion of divergent opinions.
We are also facing a veritable witches' brew of social stresses that have come to a boil the past year: racial tension, pandemic uncertainties and economic disparity. The new administration has many ambitious ideas for calming the storm. Many of Biden's proposals are acutely needed but fraught with challenges — not just in getting them through Congress, but in getting them embraced or at least accepted across a divided nation.
Based on a career working on digital marketing and analytics campaigns with dozens of organizations, here are seven tenets of marketing that Biden and his allies could adopt and thereby promote greater probability of success.
People act irrationally. And they do so especially under duress. Whether a patient sitting in a doctor's office, a student getting ready for an exam or a voter waiting for election results, stressful times result in irrational actions and decisions. Considering this is key when trying to develop and implement policies. It is also critical in terms of understanding communication and engagement.
Complex issues must be simplified. That's the only way to ensure widespread understanding. Many policies today are intermingled with data and have far-reaching and multifaceted implications — economically, technically, socially and politically. Simplifying and communicating to a variety of different stakeholders is a skill that needs to be taught and put into practice. People are bombarded with a slew of information; they need to cognitively process and comprehend the desired messaging in a manner that makes sense.
Motivation and persuasion are different. One size does not fit all. There are vastly different motivations (both extrinsic and intrinsic) that could help define a value proposition in order to develop the right persuasive arguments. Knowing how they differ across targeted segments is vitally important to engagement..
Trust is a prerequisite. Re-establishing trust in our government and our mechanism of governing has to happen before the sale. We are suffering from a collective lack of trust in our bedrock institutions. The many reasons include societal disruption, lack of consumer relevance and absence of transparency. And, of course, the previous president conditioned the public not to trust even the very government he headed.
There are many ways to measure and assess trust. This can serve as a baseline to understand changes within different target audiences. In order to rebuild trust, actions speak louder than words. But this takes time, especially when it comes to sweeping policy changes, so interim measures associated with engagement, public input and continuous transparency are needed.
We are all on the spectrum. Everyone exists in a unique place along a spectrum of attitudinal profiles. At one end are people who believe a government official's role is to have strong opinions and take bold action. At the other end are people who abhor politicians and would rather watch problems burn than engage in a discussion to find commonality. A majority of people exist somewhere in the middle.
Identifying the groups at the poles is critical, so leaders do not waste their effort trying to engage those groups for naught. Given our highly polarized society, with groups of citizens who feel disenfranchised to an extent where they see no common ground, leaders must instead focus time and energy on segments of society that will at least be willing to engage.
Big data helps a lot. Segmenting individuals has gotten a bit of negative press due to the increased use of personal data to monetize activities through advertising. The federal government has quite a bit of transactional data and demographic data associated with citizens. But what about psychographics — personality, values and attitudes? Social media platforms use these marketing characteristics to deliver targeted messaging, advertise products and services and make recommendations for connecting to others.
The administration could benefit greatly from this type of data, because it could help with engaging different constituents. But any effort to collect it would be met with public hesitancy and criticism. Doing so could succeed only with complete transparency, a convincing value proposition for citizens — and their complete control over whatever information is shared.
Social media is the future. Historically, elected officials and policymakers have used direct engagement with constituents as their main venue for persuasion. A more effective approach could include creating a program of social media ambassadors, those who not only understand the details of legislative or regulatory changes but also have a sophisticated understanding of how to communicate with different groups. This is critical not only for engagement, but perhaps more importantly, agreement on what constitutes "ground truth."
These tenets are in no way mutually exclusive, Indeed, they need to be embraced concurrently. For example, you cannot rebuild trust without an understanding of how to engage, which is predicated on knowing more about the community with which you want to engage.
These are not trivial matters. Applying these precepts will involve considerable commitments of time and resources — and ample determination. But the effort ultimately can drive engagement, advocacy commonality and a boost in national unity.
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Still, it's worth acknowledging the guardrails that have held fast against the nation's severe democracy stress test, and against Trump's specious and ongoing fraud allegations. There's no guarantee these railings would hold against a more sophisticated adversary, and the need to shore up voting rights and election administration remains urgent.
But the fundamentals of American democracy appear to have prevailed, thanks to key institutions that upheld the law and relied on the facts. These are the six most important:
The military: As early as August, Congress received assurances from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the military would play "no role" in any post-election disputes.
And after Trump raised fresh alarms with his post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and some of his top Pentagon aides, Milley declared pointedly on Veterans Day: "We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king, or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. ... We take an oath to the Constitution."
The courts: The long list of judges who rejected Trump's election challenges include several conservatives nominated by Trump and his GOP predecessors, who debunked the president's legal claims as baseless in the extreme.
As attorney Mark Aronchick, who represented Philadelphia in several Trump campaign cases, told The New York Times, the president's legal challenges were "very much a stress test on what I will shout from the rooftops is the best legal system the world has ever seen, in terms of independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. And at both the state and federal level, the system has come through with flying colors."
The states: Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, has drawn justifiable notice for withstanding personal threats and calls for his resignation to certify his state's election results, stating memorably: "Numbers don't lie."
But Raffensperger is only one of more than two dozen GOP secretaries of state who rejected Trump's false fraud allegations. Rank-and-file election administrators, poll workers and even volunteers, who managed to run an election that generated record turnout amid a pandemic with few significant problems, also carried democracy on their shoulders. State legislators, too, refused to step in and overrule voters, sensing public backlash but also in some cases resisting White House pressure.
The media: Mainstream news outlets, and even in some instances conservative Fox News, have choked the Trump campaign's Russia-style firehose of campaign disinformation with relentless fact checks and around-the-clock reporting.
The misrepresentations continue, and the president's fabrications of voter fraud have been swallowed whole by millions of Republican voters. But fact-based reporting has made it harder for the Trump campaign to advance its false claims in court, and helped mobilize voters to hold public officials accountable.
The hardware: An estimated 95 percent of votes this year were cast either using a mail-in paper ballot or a voting machine that produced a verifiable and auditable paper trail — equipment installed thanks to decades of lobbying by voting rights advocates and election security experts.
Voter-verifiable paper trails are considered an essential backstop against voting machine breakdowns, the best possible guard against hacking and as a crucial tool for audits and recounts. Existing state requirements vary, and counties in some states still use paperless voting machines despite the risk, pointing to the need for federal guidelines. But in Georgia, where a new system this year allowed voters to cast ballots with a verifiable paper trail statewide for the first time, paper records proved crucial in facilitating not one but two watertight recounts, and in debunking on its face Trump's unfounded claim that Dominion Voting Systems had somehow altered the state tally.
The voters: Almost 160 million voters turned out in this election, at almost 67 percent the highest percentage of the eligible population since the first presidential election of the 20th century.
Thousands of public and private players helped turn out voters, from business leaders to campus organizers. High turnout is at least one reason why President-elect Joe Biden's win over Trump — a margin of 4 percentage points, or 6.2 million nationwide, translating to 306 electoral votes — was sufficiently solid to withstand almost three dozen legal challenges in the past month. A closer margin could have made it much easier for Trump to manipulate the outcome. Voters have also remained engaged, exerting public pressure on GOP legislators to refrain from intervening in election certifications.
The success of these and other democracy guardrails may be small consolation, given the extent of Trump's assault on the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power and the basic right to vote. Trump has created a playbook for some future would-be autocrat to follow, election law experts warn, and recent Supreme Court rulings may also jeopardize voting rights by giving state legislatures new powers to restrict access to the polls.
In the minds of good-governance advocates, all this points to the need to shore up democracy's guardrails still further in plenty of time for the 2022 midterm election.
The likeliest place to start is with the revival of HR 1, the House's catchall democracy reform package. That bill proposes automatic voter registration nationwide, expanded early and absentee voting, and funding to modernize election systems, among other changes. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled she'll move it to the front burner early in the new Congress, but even if her narrowed House Democratic majority passes it again the measure would still face stiff opposition in a Senate where the GOP will hold at least 50 seats.
Many other policy changes will be needed as well -- including the sort of new executive branch ethics rules that Biden advocated during the campaign — in the wake of Trump's destructive presidency. But for the moment, at least, the system's guardrails have held.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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Sarat is associate provost, associate dean of the faculty and a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College.
The reporting done on election night 2018 offers a cautionary tale for the news media as we approach Nov. 3.
Because more than a quarter of that year's 116 million votes were mailed, initial projections of the midterm results turned out to be wildly inaccurate. They showed Democrats making only modest gains in the House, far less than the historical average for the party not in the White House. As Jake Tapper announced on CNN that night, "This is not a blue wave."
Only when all the votes were counted, three weeks later, did Americans learn precisely how wrong that was. The Democrats prevailed by unprecedented margins and picked up many more seats (40 of them) than usual for the out party.
Now, with some 80 million mail-in ballots expected, accurately predicting winners before the count is complete looks to be even more perilous than two years ago. This is because millions of those envelopes will not even have been opened — let alone the contents tabulated — when the news anchors sign off the morning after Election Day.
Absent the sort of landslide that polling doesn't now foresee, it may be many days before enough votes have been counted to make clear whether the winner is President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden.
As a result, we need new norms to govern what the media does two weeks from now.
All news media, especially cable and broadcast TV, must exercise restraint and avoid the customary scramble to be first to declare a victor. Such caution does not come naturally to many journalists or the organizations where they work. And it runs against the grain of a culture increasingly attuned to receiving instant information, even if it later turns out to be inaccurate.
Yet, for the country to have any chance of avoiding post-election chaos, it is crucial for the media to resist premature declarations.
The race to announce the result, and the dangers of doing so, are not new. In 1948, because of an impending printers' strike, The Chicago Tribune went to press before all the votes were in to get out their morning edition. Editors relied on polls favoring Republican Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York over President Harry Truman and went with the infamous headline, "Dewey Beats Truman."
Four years later TV coverage of election night began in earnest. Right from the start, ABC, CBS, and NBC competed to see which of them would be the first to project the winner.
Each network used new technology to produce what one commentator has called "the illusion of simultaneity," namely the sense that viewers were watching returns tallied in real time.
CBS anchor Walter Cronkite proudly informed viewers that his network would rely on UNIVAC, one of the world's first commercial computers, to determine who won. And, early in the evening, with just over 3 million votes counted, the machine calculated that there was a 99 percent chance that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would defeat Sen. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. (It ended up a rout.)
During those early years, networks made such projections based on early returns from "key precincts." By 1980, they had come to rely more on surveys of voters who had just cast ballots. While using key precincts meant projections could not be made until polls closed and some results were tabulated, exit polling could be completed long before all the votes were in.
That year, in fact, the networks knew early on Election Day that Republican Ronald Reagan would win in a landslide. But NBC waited until 8:15 p.m. on the East Coast to announce the results. That was still rush hour on the West Coast, before millions cast their ballots for or against President Jimmy Carter.
One result was that, four years later, the networks agreed to wait until polls closed before projecting a winner. And, since then, some states have tried to discourage the use of exit polling by regulating where and when the necessary surveys could be conducted.
Reliance on polls and computers has remained a staple of what is broadcast on election night. Even the notoriously fumbling, error-filled coverage on election night 2000 did little to change the media's approach.
And now, the night has been made more compelling by computer graphics which offer both a visually appealing spectacle and minute-by-minute updates on the results.
This year, surveys suggest that those preferring Trump are more likely to cast their votes on Election Day while Biden backers will cast their ballots by mail. And so 2020, like 2018, is likely to see a massive "blue switch" as the mail gets opened.
Knowing this, news executives should marshal their self-discipline. They need to refrain from offering viewers the illusion of simultaneity, even if it means that they do not project a presidential victor on Nov. 3. At the very least, they should only declare a winner of a state once there are fewer outstanding votes than the official margin separating Trump and Biden.
Such restraint, particularly after the mistakes of two years ago, might be warranted by simple prudence. But there is a political argument to be made here. Some commentators suggest election night projections will favor Biden. It is more likely that projections of state-by-state winners — if based too much on the in-person tallies — will play into Trump's hands. They will allow him to prematurely claim victory and insist that any further counting of ballots would be fraudulent and illegitimate.
American democracy will not be well served if the media does business as usual, which would make it complicit in a president's unprecedented effort to discredit the election.
As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics notes, journalists in a democracy should never sacrifice accuracy for speed. They have a duty to "gather, update, and correct information throughout the life of a news story." That will never be more important, for our democracy, than in the weeks ahead.
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