HOW AMERICA LOST ITS MIND: Meet Thomas Patterson

HOW AMERICA LOST ITS MIND: Meet Thomas Patterson

Does it seem like Americans are more divided than ever, especially when it comes to politics and moral issues? If you think so, you are correct, according to Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson. Dr. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of numerous articles and award-winning books. This past year, Patterson published a small, seminal book entitled How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy. It’s an excellent read, offering essential, cultural exegesis at this moment in history.

Here’s Patterson’s main thesis: Americans are losing touch with reality. On virtually every issue, from climate change to immigration, tens of millions of Americans hold opinions that are wildly at odds with the facts, rendering them unable to think sensibly about politics and moral issues in general. In his book, Patterson explains the rise of a world of “alternative facts” and the slow-motion cultural shift that is taking place all around us. He acts as a tour guide to help us navigate the cultural landscape which is clogged with distrust, cynicism, petty feuding, anger and misinformation.

Here’s one fascinating example of Patterson’s analysis: He traces a lot of our current polarization and misinformation to the advent of prime-time, partisan talk shows which replaced sitcoms several decades ago. In other words, there’s a big difference between people sitting on their couches watching I Love Lucy or Home Improvement vs Sean Hannity or Don Lemon. Partisan talk show hosts indulge in outrage, seeking to convince their listeners that the “other side” is hell-bent on destroying America. While aspects of this may be true, Patterson asks what effect this kind of television programming has on a culture night after night…year in and year out.

Partisan talk shows are clearly not a healthy thing to binge on. They inflame and divide people. The incessant name calling, belittling of others, character assassination and demonization of those we disagree with cannot but misinform and polarize the electorate. He reminds us that human beings are not driven by a desire for accuracy. Instead we are driven by a desire to “belong to a tribe.” That’s what partisan talk shows are all about. Patterson certainly has a point! These kinds of cultural shifts often take place incrementally, but the effects can be seismic.

Bottom line: this is the kind of book that thinking Christians need to read, from time to time, to help us stay alert and to discern the times.