Americans are politically polarized. The current impasse in Washington is proof of that. But what exactly has gone wrong?
There’s a widely espoused theory that the Internet is partly responsible. According to this theory, put forward in its most sophisticated form by Cass Sunstein, the Internet allows individuals of like mind who are geographically dispersed to get together, and indeed to associate with no one else. As Robert Reich recently put it, “we increasingly live in hermetically sealed ideological zones that are almost immune to compromise or nuance. Internet algorithms and the proliferation of media have let us surround ourselves with opinions that confirm our biases.”
Social science research has demonstrated that this sort of opinion isolation has two negative effects; first, people who associate only with like-minded individuals become more extreme in their views. Second, it warps their definition of deviance, so that when they encounter someone who thinks differently — even with moderate opposing views — they perceive that person as beyond the pale of acceptable opinion. Nichification is therefore the root cause of our current problems.
I don’t buy it. I’m hardly the first to express skepticism about this theory. Jack Balkin has been taking swings at it for almost a decade (see here and here), and Sunstein’s Republic.com received a number of critical reviews when it first came out. My own skepticism stems from the fact that I don’t see much evidence of hermetically sealed bubbles. In fact, what I see is almost the opposite. Far from never being exposed to other views, and living in a peaceful la-la land where everyone agrees with them, it appears that many people are being continuously exposed to the most extreme opposing views. Modern media is not a utopia of the like-minded; it’s Clockwork-Orange-style, unremitting display of anger-inducing horrors. The point of most cable and Internet commentary appears to be not to inform, and not to affirm, but to raise blood pressures.
It’s difficult not to be cynical about this enterprise. There’s a mercenary motive behind what news and commentary sites do: people who are angry stick around longer. This is why so many online publications have comment sections. It’s not because the comment sections produce worthwhile content. Far from it; most comment sections are cesspools. But extreme comments in comment sections make people angry, and angry people return to a site again and again to argue their point. And each time they visit, new ads are served, and possibly clicked on, generating revenue for the site. Cable news sites work the same way. And lately, network news broadcasts have also gotten into the business of trying to make their viewers angry. This is why there are so many stories about wasteful uses of tax dollars, even miniscule wastes, of the sort memorably satirized by the Daily Show.
And woe be unto you if you’ve let on, as I mistakenly did in the past, that you share the views of one or more political parties or advocacy groups. Soon your inbox and your mailbox will be inundated with the latest outrageous thing this or that senator or CEO said. The idea, of course, is to provoke you into donating to the cause. “Those people on the other side — they’re animals!” you say to yourself. “They must be stopped!” A real cynic might suspect that liberal groups and conservative politicians, and conservative groups and liberal politicians, have a “Wag the Dog”-style kickback scheme going — you say outrageous stuff that riles my base, and I’ll give you a cut of the action.
The problem of modern media is, I think, not isolation but demonization. But I doubt that is the complete explanation; I’m generally skeptical of top-down narratives. People would reject demonizing media if it was not something they were interested in. Why are people so quick to become angry at others for their political views? Why do they enjoy being enraged? I suspect the answer to that is a much deeper shift than simply a switch in the way the media covers politics. Here’s Reich again:
Scholars who track these things say the partisan divide is sharper today than it has been in almost a century. The typical Republican agrees with the typical Democrat on almost no major issue. . . .
At the same time, polls show Americans to be more contemptuous and less trusting of major institutions: government, big business, unions, Wall Street, the media.
I’m 67 and have lived through some angry times: Joseph R. McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath in the 1970s. But I don’t recall the degree of generalized bile that seems to have gripped the nation in recent years.
I believe the second and the third paragraphs are related. Watergate, Vietnam, and the scandals of the ’60s and ’70s (including the Church Committee — plus ça change…) slowly eroded American faith in government, or indeed in all institutions. The change was generational. By the 1990s, Americans had become a fairly cynical, disenchanted, and apathetic lot than they were during the “angry times” Reich remembers. Cynical and disenchanted people do not try to persuade, or appeal to reason, or negotiate; they question the worth of the entire system, and believe they have little to lose. Those are the people that are quick to anger, that refuse to negotiate, that seek to oust moderates from their own camp. And they contribute money, they vote, they yell in comment sections and on blogs, they eagerly consume any story about the other side’s evilness. And they are leading us all into an abyss.
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Good post. I blame Ronald Ray-Gun. He turned this country mean. For him it was his way or no way. Breaking the law meant nothing to him. See the Iran-Contra scandal. He spent most of his time militarizing the country and provoking war from small scale “threats” like Greneda to his Star Wars program that threatened preemptive nuclear war. I remember this guy claimed Nicaragua was a threat and was getting ready to invade. As Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone with the Wind: “All you men talk about is war, war, war.” Is it any surprise that 30+ years of constant war has people bummed out? Reagan set the tone that Presidents are free to break the law with impunity. Is it any surprise that people who obey the law are dumbfounded by a government that constantly breaks it? Not to me.
Thought Provoking – wish there was some mechanism in which I could share some of these Blog Posts so others could enjoy 🙂
I take a hybrid form of the first hypothesis as the reason for this anger. Narcissism and simultaneously a dumbing down due sheer laziness or attachment to the MO that “I Know Best” is a reason that when a alternate view enters our world it becomes an affront to the self, and because we can’t fully articulate why, then anger becomes the most accessible response. It also provides instant gratification but of course no answers or fulfilment. I consider myself to be a well read individual – I don’t say that in pride I say that to say that the more I learn from others the more I see nuance and grey and the possibility that I could be wrong. In short, it means I become empathetic to others and the reasons behind their beliefs.
There is NO polarization, and we should stop using this bogus term that the media constantly parrots. People aren’t disillusioned with government because of Watergate or war. Most of them don’t remember Watergate and most of them were quite eager to go to war because of the violence at the heart of American culture. If you want to blame the media, blame them for constantly telling the public that there is gridlock, polarization, and that government doesn’t work. People repeat this line that they’re fed by pundits both liberal and conservative—just like they repeat the pathetic cliches of sports announcers!
The fundamental problem is the absolute recalcitrance of today’s Republican party. It’s more than recalcitrance, really, it’s nihilistic. You have to go back further than McCarthyite witch hunts and Reaganism to find its equal. The Republican refusal to play by the rules resembles more closely the adamant negativity and rage of the Confederate politicians when they stalked out of the halls of government and seceded from the Union. Unlike this crowd and its contemporary incarnation, even a right-winger like Ronald Reagan actually did make compromises and played by the rules. In fact, there are many problems that the Republicans and conservatives should quite logically seek to remedy, e.g., excessive government subsidies, a bloated military that is spending twice as much, adjusted for inflation, as at the height of the cold war; the useless war on drugs; the inefficiency and waste in our energy system; our nauseating role as the world’s largest arms exporter; the hugely expensive and ineffective prison system, etc. These are issues that are perfectly reasonable for conservatives to embrace. But the Republicans do little or nothing about them because they are slaves to the MONEY handed them by corporations and plutocrats who have a vested interest in DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT THESE PROBLEMS. Follow the money and you’ll understand why the Republicans are the real cause of so-called gridlock! For this reason, I believe the Republican party must disband, and, like the European communist parties. It could then reconstitute itself as something of use to humanity as a LEGITIMATE conservative force.
It’s rare to see the heart and truth of an argument demonstrated so quickly.
Popular Science recently eliminated the comments section from the majority of its articles. Their reasoning was that an uncivil comment section changes the way the reader perceives the actual story. I suspect the bombastic way of presenting news issues “to raise blood pressures” (as Bruce says) has a similar effect.
Also, I don’t think that news outlets reporting politics in the same way as sports, where there always has to be a winner or loser, helps to promote an environment that is welcoming to compromise.
But the problem goes go deeper than the Internet, because, as I’ve noted before, there have been periods of tremendous polarization, the most depressing example being secession from the Union itself. The fact that the news is reported like sports events is reprehensible, not simply because it reinforces a right win/lose mentality, but because of its preoccupation with performance and tactics over substance. We often hear far more about plans on how to win a vote than about the actual content of what is being voted on. If the Supreme Court destroys limits on campaign spending this problem will become even worse, because the discussion will focus on whether a politician is “getting enough bang for his buck,” or, just as the sports pages constantly debate whether an overpaid prima donna athlete is delivering what he’s being paid for. The travesty of the system will be even worse with this Republican-led attempt to legalize the buying of election outcomes.
Campaigning seems to be causing a huge distortion. Enough with campaigning and accepting contributions. Equal airtime, equal exposure publicly broadcast.
Some people believe in work, others believe in welfare.
DISCLOSURE: [I’m the guy Boyden’s talking about] – The closest that Mr. Boyden comes to identifying a root cause of all this anger is when he says, “By the 1990s, Americans had become a fairly cynical, disenchanted, and apathetic lot.” He ultimately declares, “And they are leading us all into an abyss.” I think he substantially underestimates the membership numbers of the Royal Order of the Cynical & Disenchanted. Additionally, the well-heeled not-with-standing, everyone I know is cynical and disenchanted; if you’re not, well, . . . you’re not paying attention. Neither cynicism nor disenchantment are new, so the question is begged, ‘Why so angry? ‘ I submit that sentient humans, (you know, people who actually exercise the mental gears on occasion), recognize that we are not simply going through another predictable period of challenging economics and unease, but that we might just possibly be at the proverbial crossroads. With the undeniable collapse of the middle class, the laundry list of reasons why jobs will not ‘return’, the shameful and transparent collusion of government and business (see lobbying and Citizens United), and the preposterous political situation that prevails–I can easily understand the rancor. Mr. Boyden bemoans the media, the cynical, the disenchanted, and ultimately their collective bellowing in chat boxes and social site postings. I think he’s missed the point.