Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
If you are reading this sentence, you participate in a minority cultural practice. You get your news by reading traditional newspapers, whether in print or online.
Let some facts sink in.
Barely more than a decade ago, the majority of Americans with a high school degree or above were daily readers of traditional print newspapers and their news sites. This is no longer true. Now, at best, about 40 percent of American adults “often” get their news from newspapers and their websites. In contrast, roughly 60 percent often get their news from television. Of course, television has dominated since the era of the broadcast big three. What’s new is reading’s precipitous decline.
The country’s conversational universe has split between those who primarily get their news by reading and those who primarily depend on watching and listening. I say primarily because of course few people are exclusively in one camp or the other, and many of us also participate in circulating news via social media. But where we spend most of our time matters. On that we are split.
For the past 12 months, the professional classes have been lamenting their failure to foresee the sea changes that lifted up Donald Trump’s candidacy. I believe we failed to see what was coming because we who are readers first failed to notice our new minority status. The pages of America’s newspapers and their websites offer a minority report.
Understanding American public opinion now means discerning three things: what the conversation sounds like on TV and radio, what it sounds like in traditional text-based journalism, and how these two conversations differ. Understanding our political dynamics means spotting how those streams do or don’t mingle, and tracking the eddies, riptides and surf storms their convergences generate.
Trump’s crusade against “political correctness” makes sense against the backdrop of this split in the public conversation.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of political scientists described the rapidity of the change in the Eastern bloc and the seeming surprise of the sudden crumbling of the Soviet Union as the result of a puncturing of “spirals of silence.” A spiral of silence emerges when people hide their genuine preferences, and everyone comes to believe that he or she is alone in thinking a particular thing. For instance, if everybody hates a tyrant, but no one says so out loud, then no one can see the actual spread of public opinion, and everyone believes that the size of the resistance to the tyranny is smaller than it actually is. Then, when someone happens to say out loud that they hate the tyrant, and gets away with it, everyone else who agrees comes out of the woodwork, and there is a seismic shift in the perceived distribution of public opinion.
My hypothesis is that, as of summer 2015, the conversations in TV and radio land were barely visible within text-based journalism. Some of those conversations involved sustained criticism of the cultural authority of newspapers and universities. That criticism targeted the professional norms of these sectors, which now include a widespread commitment to gender and racial equality as well as to social equality in relation to sexual identity. That TV and radio land conversation also stirs up great attraction for towering figures of that landscape — Trump, for instance.
In launching his campaign, TV-titan Trump routinely exhibited disdain for the professional norms of newspapers and universities that require respectful language. He got away with it. A sizable number of Americans answered his call.
In the primary, his campaign tried to deploy the idea that he was puncturing a spiral of silence. They made widespread use of posters and signs claiming that Trump spoke for a “silent majority.” But those who answered Trump’s call throughout the primary were neither silent nor a majority. In the primaries, he crossed over the threshold to victory by means of a plurality, not a majority. And his supporters do participate in a big, public conversation — whether through Fox News or on talk radio or by passing pieces of the Drudge Report and Breitbart through social media.
In this campaign, we haven’t seen a silent majority suddenly awoken. Instead, we’ve seen a coming-of-age of a vocal minority that was nearly invisible to another vocal minority, the community of readers of traditional text-based journalism, a community dominated by the professional classes. Over the past nine months, these two minorities have been battling for the country’s soul.
Where do we go from here? This democracy clearly needs transformation in its media, academic and cultural landscape to reunite streams of discourse that have separated. This is not a suggestion that we steer toward consensus or homogenization. The point is merely that we would be better off if divergent streams of discourse were visible to all of us and cut across each other. None of us can understand what this country is, or make good decisions about where we should go and how to get there, if we can’t see the full spread of American opinion.
In this regard, Trump has done us all a service. Painful though it has been, he has obliged us to see and to talk to one another. Thanks to this convergence, we have, for instance, recently been litigating at a truly national scale the question of how we should talk to and about women. We will not come to full agreement about that, but because our divergent conversational streams have for once flowed together, we have the possibility of achieving a genuinely majoritarian view on that question, not limited to the perspective of any minority culture within our society.
On Nov. 8, we will know what the majority view is. It will not, however, rise to the level of a mandate. Such an outcome is impossible in a cultural universe this fragmented. In its approach to governance, may our new administration recognize our fragmentation and seek its remedies.