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Matthew Baum

Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications

American democracy is in crisis. Politicians talk past each other, national policymaking is increasingly calcified, and states pursue wildly diverging policies that frequently contradict, or even directly challenge, one another. Traditionally apolitical policies are politicized. People tune in to separate and distinct information streams from which they receive contradictory messages about what constitute the nation’s problems, and how best to fix them. They increasingly don’t like each other and seem unable or unwilling to communicate across partisan or ideological lines. Policy disagreement becomes personal animus. More Americans embrace seemingly outlandish conspiracy theories, while it grows difficult for even attentive citizens to distinguish truth from falsehood. All of this is reflected in everything from our lifestyles and social interactions to our consumer behaviors to our politics and public policy. How did we get here? And, most important, what can we do about it? This course will explore these questions through the lens of political communication. To do so, we will consider political communication from the perspectives of three sets of actors: the public, the media -- including traditional (e.g., TV, newspaper, radio), partisan (e.g., cable TV news and online) and social (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) media -- and policymakers/politicians. In each case, we will consider why the actors make the choices they make. Specifically, we will assess the strategic incentives of all three groups of actors (citizens, journalists, policymakers) and how those incentives can interact to produce unanticipated, and sometimes undesirable, consequences. As we begin to understand the nature of political communication and the causes of our current political communication breakdown, we will consider its effects on various aspects of American democracy, from social justice issues, to voting and elections, to public policymaking. Finally, we will explore various possible solutions to some of the most vexing communication-related challenges we face, from eroding trust in democratic institutions, to hyper-polarization to misinformation and conspiracy beliefs.