With our politics increasingly polarized and democracy in retreat, worried Americans are responding in all manner of ways. Some, such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have mounted a fight against voter suppression. Others, such as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, are lobbying social networks to change their products and policies to promote transparency and accuracy in political advertising.
And then there’s the actor Chris Evans, best known for playing Captain America in 10 Marvel movies. According to an earnest new cover story that came out today in Wired, Evans is doing …….. this:
He would build an online platform organized into tidy sections—immigration, health care, education, the economy—each with a series of questions of the kind most Americans can’t succinctly answer themselves. What, exactly, is a tariff? What’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? Evans would invite politicians to answer the questions in minute-long videos. He’d conduct the interviews himself, but always from behind the camera. The site would be a place to hear both sides of an issue, to get the TL;DR on WTF was happening in American politics.
The origin story of A Starting Point, as the site will be called, is as follows. One day during a break from filming Avengers: Infinity War, Evans was watching the news. He heard an unfamiliar acronym — NAFTA, or maybe DACA. He Googled the term, and was met with headlines that took multiple, competing points of view. He clicked on the Wikipedia entry, but found that it was very long. “It’s this never-ending thing,” Evans told Arielle Pardes, “and you’re just like, who is going to read 12 pages on something?”
I don’t know — someone who cares?
In any case, Evans was crushed by the realization that to answer his question, he might have to read for several minutes. And so he decided to solve his problem in the next-most-logical way: by flying to Washington every six weeks, recording more than 1,000 videos of members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates, and posting them on a website that he built with an actor friend and “the founder and CEO of a medical technology company called Masimo.”
And when all the videos are posted, what then?
If Evans got it right, he believed, this wouldn’t be some small-fry website. He’d be helping “create informed, responsible, and empathetic citizens.” He would “reduce partisanship and promote respectful discourse.” At the very least, he would “get more people involved” in politics.
Of course, all that assumes that people who won’t read a Wikipedia entry will watch videos instead. I would always rather read a few sentences about an unfamiliar subject than listen to a congressman filibuster about it until the camera shuts off, but maybe you’re a big fan of C-SPAN.
Still, there are a few obvious problems with Evans’ brainchild. One, it presumes that citizens can best be informed by hearing directly from politicians. Certainly politicians have a privileged viewpoint when it comes to some subjects — primarily their own opinions. But on most subjects, the median member of Congress can only repeat what they were told in briefings by staffers and lobbyists. To suggest that they have a monopoly on the truth is naive.
Two, A Starting Point assumes that you can reduce partisanship by exposing people to multiple points of view. In fact, the opposite is true. Human beings are fact-resistant, never more so than when a fact contradicts a closely held belief. Earlier studies found a so-called “backfire effect” in which seeing a fact contrary to your opinion would make you believe your erroneous opinion even more. Later studies have struggled to replicate that finding, but at the very least it seems fair to say that changing people’s views is extremely hard to do, especially with mere facts.
Finally, A Starting Point begins from the premise that voters are all basically the same, and differ primarily in how much information they have about candidates and issues. In reality, politics is tribal. As Ezra Klein explains in a book coming out later this month, Americans are increasingly polarized around their identities, with partisan affiliation representing a large and growing portion of that identity. Thus the inclination to dismiss what members of the opposing political party say out of hand, based on what they represent.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Evans here: there are worse ways to spend your time than trying to increase participation in the political process. (For example, Evans’ Avengers co-star Chris Hemsworth has a subscription-based fitness app.) But if you’re worried about democracy, you’re probably better off banding together with existing civil society groups, activists, and political scientists than you are going it alone. Defeating Thanos required that the Avengers work together with heroes even stronger than themselves. Captain America knew that. It’s a shame Evans doesn’t.