Tag Archives: polarization

The Crux Of The Problem

I was reading an article about Substack–the digital platform that has increasingly recruited media personnel to write newsletters for which recipients pay. (The only one I receive is the free version of Heather Cox Richardson’s.) The article considered Substack’s claim to be the “future of journalism.”

If that claim intrigues you, you should click through and read the whole article, which was interesting. But it was the very last sentence that grabbed me, because it is, in my opinion, the crux of the problem–“the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.

How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

As regular readers of this blog know, for several years, I taught a university course in Media and Public Affairs, and I was fond of complaining that every time I taught that course, our constantly-morphing media environment required a new preparation.  It isn’t simply “a media landscape comprised of individual writers and their followers”–it is a dramatically fragmented media landscape that includes not just those individuals (with their individual and contending “takes” on the news of the day) but literally hundreds of media news sites focused upon different aspects of human activity, and doing so through a lens of different partisan and ideological commitments.

As I used to tell my students, this is truly uncharted territory. When printed-on-paper newspapers and three television networks served communities, residents of those communities at least occupied the same news environment. Good or bad, right or wrong, the local newspaper provided the only reporting most of us saw. Even if some people picked up the paper only to look for sports scores or wedding announcements or whatever, they had to browse past the same headlines that their friends and neighbors were seeing. 

People in a given city or town thus occupied the same general reality.

The same phenomenon played out on a national scale. Edward R. Murrow and his two counterparts delivered much the same information to a majority of Americans via the evening news on television, and a few “national” magazines and newspapers–notably the New York Times and the Washington Post–homogenized the national news.

Those days are long gone.

One of the books I urged my media and policy students to read was The Filter Bubble.It was an early analysis of the most challenging effect of the online media environment–our new ability to “shop” for news that feeds our preconceptions, and to construct a “bubble” within which we are comfortable. (As I used to tell my students, if you want to believe that the aliens really did land in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites offering pictures of the aliens…)

The angry souls who want to believe that the election was stolen and Donald Trump really won can find sites that reinforce that fantasy. People susceptible to conspiracy theories can  find “evidence” that Hillary Clinton is abusing and eating small children in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, or confirmation that those California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. Whatever the deficits of newspapers “back in the day”–and those deficits were very real–this sort of “reporting” was relegated to widely-scorned rags like the National Enquirer that graced supermarket checkout counters. (My favorite headline: Osama and Saddam’s Gay Wedding.)

When the digital counterparts of those scandal sheets are visually indistinguishable from credible sites, not to mention easily and privately accessed (your neighbor isn’t watching you purchase the Enquirer as you check out), is it any wonder that the very human trait of confirmation bias leads us to occupy different–and incommensurate–realities?

And if that’s where we are– if Americans currently reside in dramatically different realities– how will we ever be able to talk to each other?

Can We Talk?

If there is one thing about which Americans of all political persuasions agree, it is that the electorate is dramatically polarized. Our differences are so profound that a one recent poll found parents more accepting of  a child’s inter-racial or inter-religious marriage than a marriage to a member of the opposing political party.

A commenter recently made me aware of an effort to bridge our political abyss. The organization is called “Braver Angels,” and its website explains its purpose:

The days after the election could begin a dark time of polarization in the land—unless we act together to make it otherwise.  That’s where the With Malice Toward None initiative comes in. The goal is to create a space for people to deal with their emotions (positive and negative), to build our capacities for working together to address our common challenges, and to commit ourselves to a renewed citizenship.  

The organization has mounted what appears to be a sincere and well-meaning effort at understanding and rapprochement. I have not been privy to any of the discussion sessions, and if they have managed to moderate some of the animus that definitely exists between right and left wing voters, more power to them, but I don’t hold out much hope for a kumbaya outcome, for reasons I have previously explained.

The problem is the nature, rather than the extent, of America’s current divisions. 

Discussions of policy differences can be very productive–not only generating increased understanding of where the “other guy” is coming from, but enabling reasonable compromises. I am a big proponent of mass transit, but I have engaged in informative discussions with people who are leery of its appeal to sufficient numbers of riders. I am firmly opposed to gerrymandering, but I understand those who argue that the problem is really the country’s “big sort” into urban Democratic areas and rural Republican precincts. I’m pro-choice, and I’ve had civil conversations with at least some people adamantly opposed to abortion. 

When our political discussions address these and numerous other policy differences, I absolutely agree that they should be encouraged, and that deepened understandings of  others’ positions can result.

The problem today–at least as I see it–is that Americans are not arguing about policy. We aren’t quibbling about what the evidence says about job losses when the minimum wage is raised, or about the specifics of needed immigration reforms. Instead, our truly profound differences are about values.

It is simply not possible–at least for me–to “understand and appreciate” the worldview of someone who is just fine with caging brown children. I cannot overlook the hypocrisy of “family values” voters who are ardent Trump supporters despite his sexual and marital behaviors, or of the “good Christians” who enthusiastically endorse White Nationalism and Trump’s belief that there are “good people” among self-identified Nazis. I cannot imagine  an amicable conversation with QAnon folks who believe that Democrats are sexually abusing and then eating small children. 

Interestingly, in 2012, The Atlantic reported on a team of academic researchers who have collaborated at a website — “www.YourMorals.org” — designed to ferret out value differences, rather than focusing on policy disputes.

Their findings show how profound the chasm is on values questions between liberals and conservatives. Generally speaking, not only do liberals place high importance on peace, mutual understanding, and empathy for those who have difficulty prevailing in competition, they demonstrate concern for equality of outcome, while conservatives place pointedly low or negative importance on such values.  On the other side, conservatives believe that the use of force is a legitimate method of conflict resolution across a range of domains, from war to law enforcement to the discipline of children. Conservatives are more likely to believe in an “eye for an eye,” are more likely to respect received tradition, and are overwhelmingly committed to the proposition that individuals are responsible for their own economic condition — all views rejected by liberals. 

The article was titled “Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus.”

Liberals who want to reach out and pursue understanding with today’s Republicans undoubtedly believe that not everyone in the GOP endorses the Trump administration’s racism, lack of integrity and contempt for the common good. What they fail to recognize is the significant exodus of reasonable, genuinely conservative voters from the GOP over the past four years. It isn’t simply the “Never Trumpers”–although they symbolize that exodus.

As my youngest son says, the people who are left in today’s Republican Party either share Trump’s racism, or don’t consider it disqualifying. I think the likelihood of finding common ground with such people–the likelihood of singing kumbaya with them–is vanishingly small.


About “Those People” (Political Version)

Long one today…sorry. I’m nervous.

Time Magazine recently published an article exploring recent research on political polarization. It will surprise practically no one to find that the gulf between Republican and Democratic Americans is wide and our mutual animosities bitter, or that we harbor feelings of “distrust, dislike and disdain” for people who belong to the opposing political party.

Researchers point out that at least some of the animosity is based on factual errors: Democrats believe that Republicans are much richer than they really are; Republicans in one study thought that a full third of Democrats were LGBTQ.

The article ended with the usual concerns about the need to dispel the hostility, which the study attributed primarily to three things:  the rise of partisan and social media allowing people to live in information and opinion bubbles (making those with opposing views seem more abnormal); the tendency of political operatives and elites to emphasize “cudgel” social issues, such as abortion or LGBTQ rights, to make members of the other party seem inhumane; and the rise of the political “mega-identity,” where–rather than “big tents”– the parties have become philosophically distinct and internally aligned.

I get all this. We all do. We’ve all seen similar studies, opinion pieces and polls. They all engage in textual hand-wringing: this is an untenable situation, we need to listen to people outside our bubbles, and we need to be less judgmental of those with whom we disagree.

Well and good. But what if there’s another aspect of those current “mega-identities”? One that defies–or at least complicates– those pat admonitions?

Frank Bruni recently wrote a column that summed up my feelings perfectly. It was titled, “After Trump, How Will I Ever Look at America the Same Way?” You really need to read it in its entirety. Here’s his lede:

It’s always assumed that those of us who felt certain of Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016 were putting too much trust in polls.

I was putting too much trust in Americans.

I’d seen us err. I’d watched us stray. Still I didn’t think that enough of us would indulge a would-be leader as proudly hateful, patently fraudulent and flamboyantly dishonest as Donald Trump.

We had episodes of ugliness, but this? No way. We were better than Trump.

Except, it turned out, we weren’t.

Bruni is struggling with the question that has animated far too many of my posts and your comments over these last four years: how could large numbers of Americans, people I’d always considered open-hearted and possessed of decency and common sense, support this ignorant, hateful, utterly pathetic excuse for a man? Bruni says it was a populace he didn’t recognize, or at least didn’t want to recognize, and I had the same reaction.

In a sane and civil country, of the kind I long thought I lived in, his favorability ratings would have fallen to negative integers, a mathematical impossibility but a moral imperative. In this one, they never changed all that much.

Bruni reminds us that Trump didn’t create the people who support him–instead, he tapped into more pre-existing cynicism and nihilism and conspiratorialism “than this land of boundless tomorrows was supposed to contain.” It was already there, burbling beneath the surface.

He didn’t sire white supremacists. He didn’t script the dark fantasies of QAnon. He didn’t create all the Americans who rebelled against protective masks and mocked those who wore them, a selfish mind-set that helps explain our tragic lot. It just flourished under him.

A number of pundits have attributed continued support of Trump to a burning desire by a segment of the country to “own the libs” no matter how damaging to the country. According to National Review’s Rich Lowry, for many on the Right, Trump is “the only middle finger available.”

In a recent column, David Brooks considered the consequences of Trump’s norm-shattering indecencies:

Today, many Trump opponents look at the moral degradation Trump supporters tolerate, the bigotry they endorse or tolerate, and they conclude that such people are beyond the pale. Simultaneously, many Trump supporters conclude that Trump opponents have such viciously anti-American ideas, that they too lack legitimacy. We’ve long had polarization, but we now have in America a crisis of legitimacy, which is a different creature.

The political chasm, the mutual antagonism, and the threat this situation poses to a democratic system are all too real. But “healing” and mutual respect are hard to come by when the gulf really is moral as well as political.

Americans aren’t arguing about differing tax or trade policies. We are arguing about truly fundamental moral and ethical questions: should skin color or religion or gender privilege one’s civic status? Are poor people entitled to medical care? Is America part of a global community, and if so, what does that membership require? Do we have an obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a livable planet? 

As one Republican defector put it, just after voting for Biden,

 I did not vote in this election based on policy. Neither should you. The election of 2020 is about the moral future of the American nation, and so I voted for a good man with whom I have some political disagreements over an evil man with whom I share not a single value as a human being. Trump is the most morally defective human being ever to hold the office of the presidency, worse by every measure than any of the rascals, satyrs or racists who have sat in the Oval Office. This is vastly more important than marginal tax rates or federal judges.

Yes. So–I’m torn.

I do want a country where people respect each other, are kind to each other, give opponents the benefit of the doubt. But I also want a country where most people deserve that respect. Try as I might, I am unable to summon respect for Americans who have lived through the last four years–who have read the tweets, heard the lies, seen the racism, the bizarre behavior, the corruption and ugliness– and still fervently support Donald Trump.

I’ll be worried about how many of those people there are while the votes are being counted.



Increasing Intensity–For Profit

Remember when Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known unknowns”? It was a clunky phrase, but in a weird way, it describes much of today’s world.

Take social media, for example. What we know is that pretty much everyone is on one or another (or many) social media platforms. What we don’t know is how the various algorithms those sites employ are affecting our opinions, our relationships and our politics. (Just one of the many reasons to be nervous about the reach of wacko conspiracies like QAnon, not to mention the upcoming election…)

A recent essay in the “subscriber only” section of Talking Points Memo focused on those algorithms, and especially on the effect of those used by Facebook. The analysis suggested that the algorithms were designed to increase users’ intensities and Facebook’s profits, designs that have contributed mightily to the current polarization of American voters.

The essay referenced recent peer-reviewed research confirming something we probably all could have guessed: the more time people spend on Facebook the more polarized their beliefs become. What most of us wouldn’t have guessed is the finding that the effect is  five times greater for conservatives than for liberals–an effect that was not found for other social media sites.

The study looked at the effect on conservatives of Facebook usage and Reddit usage. The gist is that when conservatives binge on Facebook the concentration of opinion-affirming content goes up (more consistently conservative content) but on Reddit it goes down significantly. This is basically a measure of an echo chamber. And remember too that these are both algorithmic, automated sites. Reddit isn’t curated by editors. It’s another social network in which user actions, both collectively and individually, determine what you see. If you’ve never visited Reddit let’s also just say it’s not all for the faint of heart. There’s stuff there every bit as crazy and offensive as anything you’ll find on Facebook.

The difference is in the algorithms and what the two sites privilege in content. Read the article for the details but the gist is that Reddit focuses more on interest areas and viewers’ subjective evaluations of quality and interesting-ness whereas Facebook focuses on intensity of response.

Why the difference? Reddit is primarily a “social” site; Facebook is an advertising site. Its interest in stoking intensity is in service of that advertising–the longer you are engaged with the platform, the more time you spend on it, and especially how intensely you are engaged, all translate into increased profit.

Facebook argues that the platform is akin to the telephone; no one blames telephone when people use them to spread extremist views. It argues that the site is simply facilitating communication. But–as the essay points out– that’s clearly not true. Facebook’s search engine is designed to encourage and amplify some emotions and responses–something your telephone doesn’t do.  It’s a “polarization/extremism generating machine.”

The essay ends with an intriguing–and apt–analogy to the economic description of externalities:

Producing nuclear energy is insanely profitable if you sell the energy, take no safety precautions and dump the radioactive waste into the local river. In other words, if the profits remain private and the costs are socialized. What makes nuclear energy an iffy financial proposition is the massive financial costs associated with doing otherwise. Facebook is like a scofflaw nuclear power company that makes insane profits because it runs its reactor in the open and dumps the waste in the bog behind the local high school.

Facebook’s externality is political polarization.

The question–as always–is “what should we do about it?”


Are States Outmoded?

Indiana residents who follow state economic trends probably know the name Morton Marcus. Marcus–who sometimes comments here– used to head up a business school think tank at Indiana University, and even though he’s retired, remains a popular public speaker–not just because he is very knowledgable, but because he’s always been willing to speak his mind and share his often “unorthodox” opinions.

When I first joined the faculty at IUPUI, Morton’s office was down the hall, and he would sometimes pop in to discuss those opinions. I still remember a conversation in which he argued that states–whose boundaries have always been artificial–no longer made sense. Instead, he thought the U.S. should be governed through designated areas of economic influence: the Chicago region, the Boston region, etc.

I thought back to that conversation when I read a recent paper issued by the Brookings Institution. Many years later, Brookings scholars have evidently come to the same conclusion.

The paper began by noting the country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by the failure to coordinate governance across local and state lines.

There are a number of ways in which the patchwork of state responses–and the tendency of many Republican governors and legislators to treat the pandemic as a political and economic problem rather than a public health crisis–is leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. The recent majority decision by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court justices to the effect that the state’s Democratic governor lacked the authority to order a uniform state response is just an extreme example of the chaos caused by internal state political struggles.

Even without the politicization of Covid-19, however, state lines complicate government’s response. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the problem during a  briefing about plans to deploy contact tracing:

“If I turn up positive, yeah, my residence is in Westchester County, but I work in New York City, and I would have contacted many more people in New York City than I did in Westchester…If you’re going to do these tracing operations, you can’t do it within just your own county, because you will quickly run into people who are cross-jurisdictional.”

The paper pointed out that the multiple governance dysfunctions caused by state lines aren’t limited to those highlighted by the pandemic:

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, our planning processes formalized many inequities within and across regions, ranging from hospital bed availability to housing inventory to environmental racism…

Before the coronavirus arrived, both established metropolitan regions and “megaregions”—combinations of two or more metro areas—were consolidating at unprecedented levels. This brief presents evidence documenting these trends, and makes the case for new state and federal policy frameworks to address cross-jurisdictional equity problems that emerge when everyday activities happen in a mega-region.

The paper describes the changes in residential and commercial activity over the past decades, resulting in the creation of what the authors call “large polycentric regions, or a “megapolitan America.” Jobs, housing, and consumption now occur across multiple state and municipal jurisdictions. Significant numbers of people commute between cities or town centers. Etc.

The paper describes several of these regions, and the inequities within them, and I encourage those of you who are interested in the data to click through and read the entire paper. But living in Indiana, I was particularly struck by this description of one problem caused by the mismatch between legal jurisdictions and contemporary realities:

The lack of regional governance institutions is particularly problematic for addressing equity problems within regions. For example, a worker may live in a lower-cost municipality and work in a wealthier one. The revenues generated in the wealthy area will not normally support the services available in the worker’s lower-cost neighborhood if it is in a different county.

We have the opposite situation in the Indianapolis region: workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis (where state government agencies and nonprofit statewide organizations occupy roughly 25% of the real estate and are exempt from property taxation), but their taxes go to their already flush home counties.

The Brookings paper provides one more example of an over-arching and increasingly dire problem–the failure of America’s governing institutions to keep pace with contemporary realities. Structures like the Electoral College, the filibuster, the way we conduct and finance elections, and the way we allocate governance responsibilities among local, state and federal authorities are just a few of the systems that no longer serve their intended purposes.

A blue wave in November is an absolutely essential first step toward addressing America’s creaky governing infrastructure.  Given the percentage of voters who remain in the cult that was once the GOP, however, I don’t have high hopes for the thoroughgoing reforms we need.