By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President
March 5, 2014

Are things really getting worse? Or does it just seem that way?

CNN Money writer Katherine Reynolds Lewis addresses those questions in a recent article, “Five Economic Myths That Just Won’t Die.” It turns out that many Americans latch onto the same negative narratives:

  • “Young people have no work ethic,”
  • “There’s a leadership vacuum in corporate America,”
  • “Schools are in crisis,”
  • “Technology is destroying the way we communicate” and
  • “Our country’s prosperity is under attack.”

If those memes sound familiar, that’s because they have permeated our culture and our discourse. We read them in media headlines and on the covers of best-selling books, and we hear them from talk show hosts and politicians. (Quick tip: If you want to run for Congress, string these phrases together in no apparent order. You now have a stump speech.)

And yet, the five narratives aren’t completely true. Or, to be more precise, they are no more true now than they were long ago. Older generations have always grumbled that young people don’t work hard enough. “As far back as the fourth century B.C.,” writes Lewis, “Plato complained about the lack of respect and discipline among youth.” 

There’s no hard evidence to prove that corporate leaders lack morals, that our education system is on the verge of collapse or that new communication technologies ruin human interaction. And yet these fears persist. 

Whether common narratives are false or only partly true, why do we let them dominate our conversations? And why do we allow them to be recycled from generation to generation? “All five themes appeal to our anxieties and fears over the future, whether it’s our own prosperity or the financial security of the world our children will inherit,” says Lewis. Human beings are “wired” to listen to their emotions more than to their intellect. 

Certain myths are broad enough to affect everyone, so they connect us in a common experience. This makes it easy for a reporter or a politician to tie a news item about China to a larger, scary trend about Asian countries threatening our prosperity. If we hear a meme that sounds familiar, at some level we feel comforted, writes Lewis. That’s because our brains look for patterns. 

When we hear evidence that contradicts the stories we believe, confirmation bias causes us to discount it. And when we feel threatened or worried, attribution bias makes us more likely to say it’s someone else’s fault. 

Some of our common assumptions are more serious than others, and some have greater implications for public policy. 

Here’s another popular narrative that has a huge negative impact on American politics: “Everyone in Washington is corrupt.”

The corruption myth is so universal that, as I’m sitting here typing this sentence, I’m picturing everyone outside the D.C. Beltway saying, “What myth?” In a recent Gallup poll, only 8 percent of respondents said members of Congress have high levels of honesty and ethics, and only 6 percent said the same of lobbyists. That places both categories at the bottom of the credibility list, right behind car salespeople.

Yet political scandals are less common now than they were years ago. If you find that hard to believe, take a trip to Wikipedia and read about the Credit Mobilier Scandal (1872), the Whiskey Ring Scandal (1875), the Teapot Dome Scandal (1922) and, of course, Watergate (1972). 

I would argue that because of campaign finance and lobbying laws, as well as fundamental changes in the political and lobbying professions, corruption is really not a widespread problem. But the corruption myth persists because it serves many purposes. It’s a fundraising tool for activists on the left, a rallying cry for the tea party on the right, a headline grabber for the media and a conversation starter for just about everyone else.

Americans have always complained about politics. In a nation where skepticism of government is in everyone’s DNA, many may not see harm in blaming the “crooks” in Washington for the country’s ills. But there is harm in this meme.

When people don’t trust the honesty and ethics of elected leaders or advocates, they assume every policy decision is made for money and power. That gives them an excuse not to vote or voice their opinions. It frees them from responsibility to force compromise. It threatens the First Amendment rights of groups and individuals. And it opens the door for candidates who breed further distrust. This strengthens our biases and continues the cycle. Belief in the corruption myth makes the country less capable of confronting its most serious problems. 

Despite the fact that narratives are pervasive, I do think it’s possible to weaken them. The trick is not to fight myths with facts — as tempting as that strategy may seem — but to appeal to the same emotions that created the myths in the first place. Perhaps, as a nation, we should be concerned that we haven’t placed more faith in our youth or in the private sector. We should be anxious that our leaders haven’t recognized the efforts of hard-working educators. And we should be worried about the economic consequences of isolationism.

In Washington, we ought to be fearful that we all haven’t done our part to support free expression, reach compromise, build trust and focus on policies that consider the needs of all Americans.

Or are we just more comfortable saying this is all someone else’s fault?

Comments? Email me.