2 November 2020

Uncivil War in Uncertain Times

In 2016, many Americans watched the US presidential campaign with dismay, wondering what had become of our democracy.  Little did we know at the time, that the erosion of trust in democratic institutions, and the institutions themselves, would accelerate at a blinding pace under the administration of President Donald Trump.  And while it would be easy to pin the blame for the current state of American democracy on the 45th President, that wouldn’t tell you the whole story.  The truth is, democracy in the United States has been under siege since its founding by structural and systemic factors that have chipped away at the republic over generations.  And this is where our documentary project, Uncivil War, began.

It will take decades to complete the full accounting of President Trump’s legacy, so we’ll leave that to others.  In this film, we examined three factors that have done significant damage to American democracy: gerrymandering, voter suppression, and disinformation.  The idea of gerrymandering goes back two centuries, and has been used by both political parties to draw Congressional district maps to gain the greatest partisan advantage possible, and to control political power in 10-year increments.  Voter suppression has been a scourge on the United States since the 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave former slaves the right to vote.  Since then, states have employed deviously imaginative ways to sidestep the law to keep certain voters from participating in the electoral process, and continues to this day.  Disinformation has been in the news in recent years, largely due to the reports of malign influence campaigns conducted by Russia and others to stoke division and chaos in American society.  The reality, however, is that disinformation has been a political tool for much longer.  In the past it was disseminated by word-of-mouth, then by newspaper, radio and TV. Today, it is primarily circulated via social media platforms that have the speed and the reach to make disinformation more pernicious than ever.

Rather than give you the viewer just a series of facts and figures, we decided to tell stories of how these factors are impacting American democracy through the voices and experiences of the people fighting on the frontline of these battles every day.  This mission took us around the United States.  For gerrymandering, we filmed interviews in Maryland and Indiana to get Republican and Democratic perspectives on a practice that has become a majoritarian tool, rather than a partisan one.  Then we headed south to Mississippi to examine voter suppression while the Magnolia State was in the midst of its 2019 local and statewide elections.  Our final leg brought us home to Washington, DC, to delve deeper into the information space to understand why disinformation has been so successful, despite Americans being warned ad nauseum of its impact.  And yet, it still gained traction because Americans are unsure what to believe anymore.

The absence of common facts, and the deliberate act of casting doubt on what is true and what is not, became the raison d’etre for this film.  If we achieved nothing else, we were committed to educating the American public with information that was factual, balanced and credible.  My hope is that we did more than that.  Voters need to understand how gerrymandering leads to voter apathy, how voter suppression leaves entire communities underrepresented, and how disinformation poisons the political bloodstream.  As we head into perhaps the most consequential election in the US since the Civil War, we aimed to prepare Americans for the immense responsibility they have as they cast their votes.

For many years, the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington operated like many of the 300 think tanks toiling in the US capital.  We conducted research, wrote publications and tried to shape the policy environment to strengthen ties between Europe and the United States.  But along the way we noticed that something had changed.  Policymakers and the public were spending less time with white papers and more time with Twitter.  Attention spans were getting shorter, and the demand for instant information was getting louder.  As an organization, we could either continue to do things the way they’ve always been done, or we could pivot 180 degrees, and change our content to meet the needs of our consumers.  It is that realization that launched our Foundation into the realm of infographics, digital animations and documentary filmmaking.  Uncivil War, and its corresponding education guide, was just the latest addition in our library of content that endeavors to not just educate in the moment, but to bend the trajectory of democracy in uncertain times.


Anthony T. Silberfeld

Director, Transatlantic Relations, Bertelsmann Foundation