Bucknell Forum Speaker Jake Tapper Offers Insight Into Polarization, Disinformation, Media in American Politics
December 1, 2022
by Brooke Thames
CNN anchor Jake Tapper joined Bucknell President John Bravman for an hourlong discussion on "The State of American Democracy." Photo by Emily Paine, Communications
Facts and lies. Political polarization and the democratic process. The influence of media, social and otherwise, on the mind of the voter.
These were the prevailing themes of the Nov. 30 Bucknell Forum discussion featuring CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper. Held in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, the conversation with President John Bravman marked the second of four events in the speaker series, which welcomes nationally renowned experts to Bucknell to discuss "The State of American Democracy."
A staple figure at CNN, Tapper anchors a two-hour weekday program, The Lead with Jake Tapper, in addition to hosting CNN's Sunday morning show, State of the Union. In April 2021, he became CNN's lead anchor for Washington, D.C., coverage.
During the hourlong question-and-answer session, which included town-hall style audience questions, the careerlong journalist shared his perspective on the prevalence of disinformation and conspiracy theories in the political landscape.
"Conspiracy theories have been a part of American politics from the beginning of American politics. Social media obviously plays a huge role in mainstreaming conspiracy theories. […] Having a [former] American president that screams conspiracy theories has made them more accessible," Tapper said. "But I think that they turned off a lot of the voters [in the midterm elections]."
Jake Tapper's conversation with President John Bravman was the second of four events in the Bucknell Forum Speaker series. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications
While pollsters predicted a red wave in the 2022 midterms, the Democrats maintained a larger than expected number of seats in the Senate and saw single-digit losses in the House — a performance that's been called "history defying." (Only in three instances has the party controlling the White House seen similar results in the past century.)
For Tapper, blue wins over far-right candidates in states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania suggest that voters are attentive to candidate quality, and hot-button ballot issues like reproductive rights are propelling voters to the polls. He recalled election-day insight from a Michigan congresswoman, who described predominately female lines at polling sites because there was a referendum on the ballot to enshrine reproductive rights in the state's constitution.
"Despite high inflation and low confidence in President Biden's handling of the economy, we saw mixed results because people recognize there are other issues," Tapper said. "At the end of the day, voters can surprise you, [and] that's the great thing about America. It's up to the voters. It's not up to the politburo. It's not up to [foreign nations] telling people how to vote. It really is Pennsylvanians going to the ballot box and saying, 'This is what I want.' We [as journalists] just report the results."
Challenging the Echo Chamber
Still, a lack of public trust in the democratic process has dominated political rhetoric since the 2020 presidential election. Tapper's perspective is straightforward: Lies can be powerful.
"I think the majority of Americans trust the electoral process. I think the majority of Republican voters don't. […] It is based on years of lies about the integrity of the  election told to them," said Tapper, who said he is politically independent. "What's difficult in an environment like this is to say [that something is a lie] and not have people think that you are liberal. There's nothing liberal about [saying something isn't true] […] but it is difficult in the polarized way that people interpret the news to [say that] and not have people judge everything through, 'Oh, he's a liberal' or 'He's conservative.' "
Ahead of the Forum event, Tapper spoke with a small group of Bucknell students at a question-and-answer session. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications
One countermeasure to this extreme polarization, Tapper suggested, comes back to social media and the sources from which individuals receive thoughts, opinions and news. As a "ravenous news consumer," he recommended users diversify their feeds as much as possible. The CNN anchor follows upwards of 10,000 Twitter accounts, ranging from trans activists in metropolitan cities to religious conservatives in the southern states.
It's the same advice he imparted to a small group of Bucknellians who were invited to participate in a student question-and-answer session with Tapper in the Elaine Langone Center ahead of the Forum event. In addition to lending his opinion on the role of political journalists and the state of American media, Tapper encouraged the students — some aspiring journalists and political leaders themselves — to keep their minds open and take struggles they may face in their future careers in stride.
"Figure out what you can provide. It can be as easy as a good attitude or a willingness to work hard," he said. "Overnight successes don't exist. So don't take rejection personally [and] be kind to yourselves."
The Bucknell Forum speaker series will continue into spring 2023, featuring conversations with:
John Kasich, former Republican governor of Ohio, and David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. Both serve as senior political commentators at CNN and will appear together Tuesday, Feb. 28, in the Weis Center.
Barbara F. Walter '86, a leading scholar of civil wars and the author of The New York Times best-seller How Civil Wars Start (and How to Stop Them), who will speak Tuesday, April 4, in Trout Auditorium.