It is not my normal experience to devote more than a single column to reviewing any book, but the book that has just been published by the Annenberg IOD Collaborative, Democracy Amid Crises, Polarization, Pandemic, Protests & Persuasion, deserves multiple columns simply because it contains too much consequential information to be discussed in a brief space.
The group which conducted and publishes the research for this work, calling themselves the Institutions of Democracy (IOD) Collaborative, are 11 scholars representing 5 academic disciplines and resident at 6 different academic institutions, who joined together beginning in 2019 under the aegis of the Annenberg School to study the interplay of democratic institutions and electoral politics during a period which enclosed four great crisis: the Pandemic, the economic collapse, the widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd and the events of January 6th.
The research consisted of eleven surveys, each one engaging more than 9,000 respondents but here was the first most crucial and most brilliant choice made by the authors of this book. Rather than conducting the usual ‘nationally-representative’ surveys whose results have to be qualified by all kinds of ‘maybe this’ or ‘maybe that’ assertions, these surveys covered residents of only four states - Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - considered the crucial ‘battleground’ or ‘swing’ states for the 2020 Presidential election and beyond.
Moreover, by running the surveys in nine different ‘waves,’ beginning in April 2020 and ending in February, 2021 the researchers could see how voting attitudes and voting behavior changed as the country experienced and ultimately surmounted all four crisis periods and events.
But remember that the Annenberg Center exists primarily for the study of media in all its forms, and what makes this book so remarkable is that it is the first work which attempts to evaluate how Americans form their opinions and how they behave politically based on what has become a media infrastructure and communications panoply which didn’t exist all that many years ago, and certainly never played the role that it played in any election prior to the 2020 vote.
On June 17, 1994 I took a non-stop, day flight from LAX back to New York City. When I walked into LAX for the very first time I saw television monitors hanging from the ceiling above the waiting area of every gate. What attracted me to the monitors were the crowds standing underneath each screen, so I walked over and joined one group.
What was so important that was taking place in the middle of the day? It happened to be the day that O.J. Simpson led a posse of Los Angeles cops across town before he finally gave himself up.
When I boarded my New York flight the chase was still going on. About an hour our of LAX, the pilot got on the intercom and announced that OJ had surrendered outside his home. The passengers on the plane broke out in applause.
Now if that event had taken place last year instead of nearly twenty-five years ago, everyone in LAX and on every flight crossing the United States would have been watching the whole thing on their droid, their iPad, their laptop, their whatever. More important, they could have been tuned in to God knows how many networks, blogs and data-sharing apps are out there. During the Super Bowl, YouTube announced the birth of its own sports network which will feature pro football games.
What is remarkable about the Annenberg IOD Collaborative group is their recognition that to understand how we think about politics and politicians, we now have to focus our research on the content and messaging of a myriad of venues which goes far beyond anything which ever existed before, and certainly must be acknowledged and understood in order to make any sense out of the functioning of our political institutions, in particular an institution known as the ‘vote.’
I have voted in every national election since 1968. In other words, I have gone into a booth and pulled a lever or marked a ballot 27 different times. I have never asked myself why I go to vote or how come I always vote for the blue team. I do it because I do it and that’s the be-all and end-all of that.
But not only very consciously made sure to vote on November 3, 2020 because there was simply too much rhetoric floating around that maybe my vote wouldn’t count or shouldn’t count.
In that respect, I have to agree with the Annenberg IOD Collaborative that there was a political crisis in 2020, at least in rhetorical terms.
Which is why Democracy Amid Crises is so important and why I am going to spend multiple columns discussing its contents at length.
Please stay tuned.