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NOTE: This piece is part of a collection of local essays on elections and trust.

I’ve worked as an election judge in both Christian County (many years ago) and Greene County (in 2020). I’ve personally witnessed how professionally the County Clerks of both counties took the process. I’ve seen how seriously my fellow election judges took their duties to ensure the integrity of the process.

I wonder how many people who question the integrity of the election process have ever worked as an election judge and seen the process up-close and from the inside. Or are they relying on conspiracy theories from talking heads on their television or their aunt’s hairdresser’s neighbor who posts on Facebook?

I have confidence in our electoral system. I trust our election process. But I realize we live in a country where not everyone feels this way. Trust is critical, but our current situation goes way beyond just a lack of trust.

A 2019 paper by Kalmoe and Mason reported survey results that were shocking (at least to me):  42 percent of the people from each of our two primary political parties perceive the other party as “downright evil.”  Let that sink in for a moment.

We no longer respectfully disagree; we feel the “other side” is evil and morally depraved. We are so polarized and become entrenched in our positions that we cannot conceive of changing our position. I have my reality; you have yours. It seems a political argument no longer requires actual facts. My “information” source has armed me with talking points (or yelling points) designed to confirm my position and solidify my membership in the club. Compromise is now a dirty word and shows weakness.

According to surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization in 1958 and 2016, our level of displeasure if our children married someone outside our political party has grown significantly more severe. In 1958, 72 percent of survey respondents “didn’t care” whether their son or daughter married someone from the other political party. By 2016, that percentage had dropped to 45 percent. We are less tolerant. Much less tolerant.

As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, confirmation bias is another epidemic in our country. Via traditional news sources and social media, we tend to gravitate toward those sources that reinforce our preconceived notions about how the world works. Does it seem unbelievable today that a television newscaster could be considered the most trusted person in America? But Walter Cronkite was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Due to confirmation bias, we have reached the point of predictability. If you tell me your primary sources of news, I have a high likelihood of predicting your position on many polarizing topics. Anger sells, so let me get you worked up about something. It will keep you coming back for more and you will feel like you belong on the team.

As we have seen, many of us believe we know more about RNA science than the health care professionals. This is part of the death of expertise. Many passengers now feel they should be allowed to fly the plane.

If you mix high levels of distrust (including the death of expertise) with feelings of alienation and anger by those who feel unheard, feel they have been left behind or are being stirred up by media sources, then sprinkle in a heavy dose of intolerance, demonization of the other side, confirmation bias and a strong need for a sense of belonging, and you get a fairly toxic stew. And here we are.

There have always been misinformation campaigns. There will always be misinformation campaigns. Going forward, we must try to figure out how to better separate the information wheat from the misinformation chaff. Perhaps critical thinking needs to be boosted. But how? To start, I suggest we all take a break from social media platforms — many contribute toward the current misinformation pandemic.

Within their book, How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four behavioral warning signs that help identify authoritarianism. While we are already experiencing all four, the first on the list is when politicians “reject, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game.” The authors argue we need to respect political legitimacy, which includes accepting the results of a free and fair election, even if your candidate does not win.

Democracy is a fragile thing... and easy to take for granted. It’s not assured. And it will atrophy if we don’t exercise it. History is full of examples of bad things happening while good people stood on the sidelines quietly. I am guilty of taking democracy for granted. But our current situation has my attention.

Greg Burris | Guest author

Greg Burris, President and CEO, United Way of the Ozarks