It’s no secret that our political system is broken. House Republicans are using the threat of a government shutdown as an acceptable means of negotiation. Gun background checks supported by more than 90 percent of Americans were tabled by lobbyists. Disapproval ratings of Congress hit an all-time high this past summer — and have hardly budged. Political scientists say that misinformed voters, who are often the most partisan, are becoming a growing concern and pose a risk to the integrity of our democratic process.
At UC Berkeley, we’re not immune to problems stemming from misinformation. Last week, a story ran on the front page of the Daily Cal about a complaint filed against the Berkeley Democratic Club alleging the group had illegally hired homeless people to hand out misleading campaign literature nearby voting stations. According to the complaint, the literature was paid for under the counter and inaccurately said that the Democratic Party supported Measure S, the sit-lie ordinance on the Berkeley ballot.
Although the information in the article was factual, the headline was gravely misleading. The title, “Berkeley Democratic Club under investigation for alleged illegal activities,” caused much confusion. Many students inaccurately assumed that Cal Berkeley Democrats was the same club. However, Cal Berkeley Democrats and the Berkeley Democratic Club are two completely separate organizations, both in name and in values. While the Berkeley Democratic Club endorsed the sit-lie ordinance, we voted to oppose it and actively campaigned against it. We opposed Measure S because it immorally sought to evict the homeless from their communities on our streets, foreclosing on the lives of those who looked to Berkeley as a beacon of social justice and fairness.
The dedication and persistence of countless campaign volunteers defeated the sit-lie ordinance — one of the only sit-lie ordinances in the country to be rejected by voters — which is something Berkeley should be very proud of. Our communities are better off when we refuse to support the kicking of community members out of our cities.
The troublesome allegations against the Berkeley Democratic Club are a microcosm of the disturbing trend of misinforming the public to sway political outcomes. Power-hungry politicians and sensationalized media outlets are pushing boundaries to keep our eyes glued to their content, often using biased studies, reports and out-of-context statistics to win points with voters — and yes, lying by omission is still lying.
For example, take the birther movement: a group trying to prove that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Due in part to the coverage of the birthers by pundits on the evening cable news, this movement was able to continue to the point where the president had to release his birth certificate. While the news continued to focus on a movement whose sole purpose was exposing a lie when there clearly wasn’t one to expose, it distracted voters from other pressing events, such as the ongoing debates over budget cuts.
Or for example, take Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour speech from the Senate floor last week, in which he made various misleading statements. In the speech, Cruz stated that Rutgers student John Connelly was an example of someone who would soon graduate into a job market destroyed by the Affordable Care Act. However, Connelly later appeared on MSNBC to clarify that, not only does he strongly support the Affordable Care Act, he is in fact a direct beneficiary of the legislation. The bill’s provisions allow him to stay on his parents’ plan until age 26 and cover his younger sister’s pre-existing conditions, which Connelly said made him “the worst example of the point (Ted Cruz) was trying to quote.”
Research has shown that people often take political positions without knowing any facts or statistics about the topic and that it’s much more difficult to change someone’s mind once they’ve taken a stance. Even when confronted with indisputable facts, instead of changing their positions, voters will actually strengthen their convictions to avoid the discomfort of subscribing to contradicting viewpoints or losing pride and credibility. Providing misleading information about unfamiliar topics — such as sit-lie ordinances — jeopardizes the ability of our citizens to make informed choices, damaging the fundamental fabric of our democracy.
Distrust and distaste for politicians is at an all-time high. The fact that our country is facing a sluggish recovery from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, imminent environmental degradation from climate change and eroding educational opportunities as student debt continues to rise past $1 trillion doesn’t help. Yet our country’s ability to survive these challenges rests largely on the decisions made by our elected representatives, rendering reliable channels of information necessary as ever in the battle for control of the political system. We must hold our institutions accountable to disseminating all the news that is fit to print — for our democracy’s very survival depends upon it.
Sofie Karasek is the president of Cal Berkeley Democrats.