A few readers are objecting to a portion of today’s Morning Jolt about the Iowa farmer who said he had never heard of Joe Biden. I can understand readers wishing they had never heard of Joe Biden, and my aim is not to mock this particular farmer. But the choice that farmer has made — to be so inattentive to news and current events that he doesn’t recognize the name of the immediately preceding vice president, a man who’s been in the news for about four decades — has consequences.
I get why people would rather not pay attention to news about government and the people who are in it. What government does can be boring, confusing, full of jargon, with lots of promises that never pan out, deliberate lies and clever obfuscations, flip-flops, gaslighting, and just endless amounts of negativity, finger-pointing, scapegoating, and anger. It’s easy to understand why so many Americans would prefer to watch, read about, and think about almost any other topic.
It’s a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation — each individual can choose to tune out the news and coverage of what government is doing, but once enough people make that choice, everyone gets hurt by politicians and officeholders who think the public will be fine with whatever choices they make.
We’re approaching a perfect storm to minimize public accountability of government’s actions. Journalism layoffs are at the highest level since the Great Recession. In Oregon, California, Connecticut and most other states, the number of reporters covering state government is dwindling. Social media generates all-too-perfect, shallow “you won’t believe what this customer wrote on her receipt to the waitress” stories all the time. Negative polarization stirs partisans to dismiss, downplay, or excuse scandals involving politicians on “their side.”
It’s a bit surprising that any elected official resigns anymore, because a lot of scandal-ridden pols have demonstrated that they can hunker down and ride out the storm. Their shamelessness can often outlast public outrage.
That farmer in the restaurant isn’t the biggest problem in modern America. But anyone who genuinely tunes out news to the point where they don’t even recognize the name “Joe Biden” isn’t really part of the solution, either.