Monday, October 27, 2008

American Politics

I was just watching a very good MIT panel on Media coverage of the presidential election when I heard a quote (1:56:50) I just had to transcribe and post here. John Carroll says:
I would like to think that actual reasoned conversation and argument might actually have some effect on people's perceptions and how they vote. I mean, that would be a giant step forward I think. But I'm not sure that's actually going to happen because the two sides have hardened so much. I think Tom [Rosenstiel] writes about this in his book, that there used to be a shared set of facts that people would argue from. They would agree on some basic facts and then, they would argue from there. I think people don't agree on basic facts anymore and I don't think that anybody allows for the possibility that someone who disagrees with them can have a reasonable point of view, a legitimate point of view. I think it's all about delegitimizing the opposition. I think that that makes a very hard dynamic for anything positive to happen.
This inspired me to make a post I've been meaning to add for some time. I've been feeling more and more in the past couple of months that the political climate in the US is becoming fatally ossified and polarized. Political discussion seems to be pretty much dead.

I don't own a TV, and I don't feel that either of the major parties comes comes close to representing me, so I haven't been following the election closely. I do however do some occasional reading at the Economist, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. What has gradually given me this creeping, skin crawling, feeling that political discourse has fallen into the abyss, is reading the comments which are ubiquitously attached to online articles. These pain me deeply.

I've been a long time user of the internet. Trolling and flaming on boards, forums, and news sites are nothing new to me. That is, I have a baseline. Yet, of late, I've found the comments on site like those I mentioned above to be particularly discouraging. A very high percentage of comments are incredibly hostile, loaded with vitriol and ad hominem attacks. It really doesn't depend on the article. Left or Right leaning articles tend to draw the predictable attacks from the opposing side (though it's disappointing that these are being phrased less and less in constructive and reasonable ways), but the really scary thing is that the articles that draw the most fire are those that take a neutral or centrist position. That is, the sides have become so polarized that any viewpoint that does not openly align with one camp or the other is fair game for vicious assaults from both.

The above panel helped me to think about why this is happening. The proliferation of the media, the creation of new cable channels and the new media, while adding depth and breadth to the discourse available to the average media consumer, has actually had a tendency to narrow their field of view. There are so many sources of information from any given perspective that a person can read many blogs and news sites, and watch several political TV shows while never actually exposing themselves any alternative viewpoints. While, a few decades ago, there may have only been a handful choices in terms of channels and papers, the very universality of these media sources required that they cater to both sides of the political divide. Today's media sources are so extensively diversified that we can each choose to steep in a carefully selected set of opinions that precisely support the very perspective that we have already chosen to adhere to.

My gut feeling is that this is leading us toward further calamity. I think that this trend toward polarization and the disappearance of sincere public discussion and debate has been underway for some time. I think our current circumstances (the Iraq war and the financial crises, the biggest political and economic disasters in recent memory) are the fruits of this trend. We are reaping disaster, and yet what we are sowing today is far more corrupted and virulent than the seeds that brought us our current sorrows.

I think this relates to what I have described in the past as the anthropomorphization of our problems. That is, we tend to blame the problems we see on the direct action and intention of other people. We implicitly believe that, if we can counteract the actions of these evil people, we can undo the problems of the world. Hence it makes sense to mobilize the base of our party at whatever cost. In our all out war we sacrifice the truth for political expediency. But if the problems are in fact much more complicated than we appreciate, the ends do not justify the means. In fact, the means do not lead us to our ends at all, but rather to folly and destruction.

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