Public Judgment, New Citizens, and Relearning How to Talk to Each Other
-By Ximena Hartsock, co-founder of Phone2Action
In a democracy, crises should start uncomfortable but with necessary discussions about what happened and how to move forward. The coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, the wildfires in the west — these tragedies should initiate healthy debates and legislative responses.
Unfortunately, these debates are going extinct in the U.S. and in many fellow democracies. Dogmatism, ideology, and partisan posturing have usurped constructive debate, deliberation, and policy discussions. This increasingly toxic discourse has suppressed one of the most important mechanisms of democratic governance: the advance from raw, reactive public opinion to stable public judgment on how to solve complex societal issues. This concept comes from the late public opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich, author of Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World, published in 1991.
Our society has debated and deliberated its way to public judgment many times — with women’s suffrage, the Space Race, civil rights, the CFC ban, and gay marriage, among other issues. Not everyone agreed on the outcome of these movements, but enough people understood the urgency of action and made compromises and sacrifices for the common good.
Since 2017, the world has seen countless anti-government protests that have rattled the status quo and held lawmakers accountable for corruption, social injustice, and economic stagnation. In most cases, however, this activism has not led to meaningful change. As I explored the forces behind these protests, I identified a new political actor: the New Citizen. To understand why democracies have become inhospitable to public judgment, we must explore the culture of New Citizens.
Although New Citizens demonstrate courage and the value of free expression, they threaten political stability because they act on public opinion, not public judgment. Indeed, New Citizens have unlearned the art of debate, deliberation, and discussion that fosters public judgment and negotiation between conflicting groups. But I believe they can relearn it. If I’m wrong, democracy is lost.
The New Citizen Model
New Citizens are leaderless, self-directed activists who are angry with their political establishment. They understand the world through digital networks of like-minded individuals. From public platforms like Twitter and Facebook to private channels on Telegram and WhatsApp, New Citizens circulate political photos, videos, and text. Isolated from diverse, conflicting perspectives, New Citizens form rigid opinions that manifest in peaceful protests and digital advocacy, but also in violence, looting, and vigilantism.
The clearest way to see the New Citizen is through data. They are the overlap of five major trends well-documented by U.S. pollsters and researchers:
- Anger: 70 percent of Americans reported being “angry” at the political establishment because it only seems to “…work for insiders with money and power” (a number more or less unchanged since 2015).
- Confusion: Only half of Americans find it easy to “understand the difference between fact and fiction,” and even fewer find it easy to get factual information on topics that interest them. 47% of Americans believe it’s difficult to know if the information they encounter is true.
- Distrust: American trust in government has fallen from upwards of 70 percent between 1958 and 1964 to less than 20 percent today. Trust in each other has fallen from 45 to 30 percent since the 1970s. Moreover, 69 percent of Americans say their trust in news media has decreased over the past decade.
- Fear: 62 percent of Americans say the political climate prevents them from saying what they believe for fear of repercussions. Nearly a third fear they’d lose their job if these views became known. 45% of Americans say they have stopped talking politics with someone because of something they said.
- Activism: One-third of social media users say they have used Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to post pictures for a cause, research rallies or protests in their area, or encourage others to take action. About four in ten users — and more than half of those ages 18 to 29 — say social media is important for finding like-minded people, getting involved in causes, and expressing political opinions.
To sum up, New Citizens in the U.S. and beyond are people who’ve grown angry, confused, and distrustful. They also are afraid of speaking their minds because of social repercussions. Is it any wonder, then, that an overwhelming majority of Americans say political debate in the U.S. has become more negative (85%), less respectful (85%), less fact-based (76%), and less focused on issues (60%)? Is it any wonder that New Citizens want to speak only with like-minded individuals and avoid the productive discomfort of debate?
New Citizens have learned to circulate political content and perform activism within safe, closed networks and algorithmic echo chambers. Public backlash towards their views — sometimes expressed as “cancel culture” — only intensifies their Anger, Confusion, Distrust, and Fear.
Where Public Judgment Breaks Down
The New Citizen is politically active but indisposed to public judgment. According to Yankelovich’s model, public judgment happens in three stages, paraphrased below:
- Consciousness Raising: An individual becomes aware of an issue — often through news or these days, social media — and then feels urgency to do something about it.
- Working Through: The individual grapples with the cognitive, emotional, and moral complexities at the heart of the issue.
- Resolution: The individual reaches a stable, considered perspective on the issue, accepting the tradeoffs inherent to a solution. Digital and social media are the most powerful tools ever created for Consciousness Raising. However, social media in particular short circuits the process of Working Through the issues. Often, it does this by enforcing one right interpretation of events and punishing or silencing anyone who would dare question it. People who indiscriminately loot stores, burn buildings, or throw Molotov cocktails into police cars probably haven’t worked through anything.
Anger, Confusion, Distrust, and Fear lead to Activism before anyone reaches a Resolution — about police brutality, pandemic management, wildfires or, most disturbingly, about how to handle a presidential election that may be undecided on election night and contested for weeks. Activism without public judgment risks becoming ineffective at best, but violent and tyrannical at worst.
Reviving the Lost Art of Debate
Will Friedman, PhD, a public opinion researcher who worked alongside Yankelovich, writes: “To develop public judgment, people need to encounter and understand diverse perspectives in meaningful ways, move beyond simplistic scapegoats and magic bullets and work through the cognitive and emotional dissonances of the inevitable tradeoffs embedded in thorny public problems.”
Twitter, Facebook, and private messaging apps generally are not meaningful ways to encounter, understand, and discuss diverse perspectives. The quality of dialogue on these mediums is terrible.
It is time for Americans to exercise our atrophied muscles of debate, deliberation, and discussion in person (or digitally if we must). We cannot overcome our Anger, Confusion, Distrust, and Fear any other way. We cannot depend on content factories, infotainers, and social networks to change a political discourse from which they have profited immensely. We must do it.
It begins at the dinner table. If your family and friends binge smartphone content the whole meal, no one is practicing — or learning how — to have substantive conversations. We must relearn how to talk about difficult subjects with people who don’t agree with us. It takes discipline to explore someone’s political views in a way that makes them feel empathetically understood rather than attacked.
It also begins in schools, where courses in civics should be updated to help students navigate digital misinformation, surveillance capitalism, and behavioral manipulation. Students need critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and debate skills to form public judgement on the complex issues of our time.
To be clear, debate is rarely what you see on TV. That is infotainment. Debate is an intellectual exercise to test and refine our understanding of difficult issues. Debate is about creating spaces in which raw public opinions can advance into public judgment, negotiations, and enduring policies.
We have a patriotic duty to resurrect the debate, deliberation, and discussion that historically fostered public judgment. New Citizens have the courage and conviction to change democracies for the better. But can they do so without public judgment?