Polarization in US politics: doesn’t that go against their idea of “rugged individualism”?

There have been a few articles lately on the polarization of politics in the US, where the middle ground—people with views from both Democrat and Republican sides—has been eroded. William Shepherd linked this one on Twitter, from the Pew Research Center.
   My theory, sent on Twitter, was this:

You are correct, and it is something that we’ve observed in online behaviour for many years. It’s been dividing because of online tribes and the need to identify, short of having alternatives. Despite the national image of rugged individualism, the political system is so broken that it prevents this, leaving Americans needing to group behind one or the other. It is deeply dangerous, because it leads to institutionalization. It’s almost like saying that one has to support a secret police because it’s the only game in town.

   Jaklumen noted, in response to this:

My understanding (from professorial lectures) is that the U.S. political parties ideologically sorted themselves first but that the electorate on average is not so ideologically sorted. I see that may be changing.

to which I responded:

I suspect so, when I look online. The extremes are also the most vocal, and the moderate position doesn’t get support. Certain people want validation over having conviction, which is why you may see more tend toward the extremes. To the point where the other side is vilified.

   The first part (obviously these were compiled from about seven Tweets) is indeed something I’ve seen for a while: those willing to argue about both sides, and see the wood for the trees, are relatively few in number. This has definitely been the case online since I had a blog on Vox, where people took sides. But over time that hasn’t really changed—two presidential elections later, even the admission of compromise seems to cost elections. It certainly didn’t help John McCain or Eric Cantor.
   Yet the image of the US is one where individualism is glorified, and that still seems to hold true in most endeavours, certainly in commerce. It’s even something which the National Party here once tried to pursue (in 1999), because it wanted to champion innovation, seeing that the best ideas often came from the individual. However, the David Brat win in Virginia for the Republican primary in the Seventh Congressional District in Virginia, was less about a swing to the right than a candidate who publicly stated he was adhering to the principles of his party—whereas his rival, who raised twenty-fold the amount and spent similarly, was tarnished with both the impression of a willingness to compromise and distancing himself from his electorate.
   Of course it’s not the sole example. However, we are in an age where taking a political stance—or any stance—takes place in part in social media. Many years ago, I said to Bill that we are in a ‘headline culture’, where analysis is light and the belief in what a news headline says becomes the generally accepted viewpoint. One friend, in a friends-only comment on Facebook, wrote that he saw the media as complicit in giving false impressions of candidates. That headline culture deems certain people to think they are experts on a given topic, likes are given to someone who might repeat the headlines’ position, and there you have validation. It’s not just young people, as PBS might want us to think with its ‘Generation Like’ Frontline edition a few months back, but all of us who interact. Social media have simply brought this behaviour to the fore, where we might feel secure about a viewpoint because it comes with the backing of a group of people. And in politics, that group of people are driven by parties, the ones that have managed to get a collective view out there.
   To make us feel even more validated about our political choices, Google exacerbates this feelgood factor, inside a search bubble, by delivering us the results that seem to support the extremes. It has, after all, monitored us for ages, so its search results are customized to suit. Did you like David Brat over Eric Cantor? Here’s a link to Sean Hannity. This method of delivering search results, just like 24-hour mainstream news, isn’t making us more intelligent or better-informed: it’s potentially leaving us less willing to take an individualistic stand on a political viewpoint.
   But thinking for ourselves is hard, right? Well, not really. We all do it. It’s just that many of us need to feel confident for taking a stand that might not be popular, not worry when something doesn’t get likes, and be prepared to support our position when we feel it needs it.
   It doesn’t end at “rugged individualism”. One where taking a stand and allowing a viewpoint to be refined, attacked, and even altered is a good thing, if what results is a clearer understanding of how a society can move forward. Innovation, contrary to what one might think, doesn’t necessarily come from the individual—depending on the type of person you are, it often comes from the individual who interacts, not being altered by a mob, but by decent reasoning. Haven’t we also been told that innovation has often come from collaboration, and that agglomeration leads to stronger economies and societies? The same applies to politics.
   Therefore, those making comment on a position would do well to be civilized and polite, so that we can find a better way. For sometimes it’s easier not to defend a position because it takes time, or the other side comes across as immovable, uncompromising, and too blind or fixed in their way to see the alternative—or, as I found during the 2013 election, the trolls, who also do no one any favours, especially their own candidate, came forth. We need to permit decent discussions in political discourse, especially in a society where there’s potential that mob thinking and misinformation can drive it.

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6 thoughts on “Polarization in US politics: doesn’t that go against their idea of “rugged individualism”?

  1. One of the frustrating things I found about the Pew Research study (but was not at all surprised by) was that this ideological divide influences residential and community choices by their adherents.

    Specifically: http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-3-political-polarization-and-personal-life/

    I say this is not a surprise because I live in southeastern Washington, and Eastern Washington generally is considered to be the “red” side of the state. The towns outside of the “Tri-Cities” (Kennewick, Pasco, Richland) and Spokane are small and rural. Most of the nation considers us to be “nowhere”; while Spokane has some metropolitan amenities, it’s considered “sleepy”, and my hometown area, by contrast, is labeled an “emerging area”. The fact that Washington is called “blue” at all is primarily by way of population concentration in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Other areas in Western Washington have some leanings to Independent and libertarian political persuasions.

    I can tell you that there’s already been a “Seattle vs. us” mentality that’s been festering for many years; ironically, I think it’s gotten better as time has worn on and the Tri-Cities has grown. Of course, I think it somewhat helps that our current governor, Jay Inslee, has worked to bridge that divide.

  2. Several quick points to lay a foundational response. Indeed, we have moved to a headline culture. I’m not sure how much social media and Twitter has effected, or affected the movement. However, it is clearly a phenomenon. It shifts the manner that news is broadcast, the way children learn, the quantity of books sold and the daily surge(s) of online uproar.

    I was writing some notes on popular culture earlier this evening on the desktop computer, when my tablet device began to vibrate. Looking at the screen notification… “Jack Yan replied on Twitter”..yes, another short burst of information, a personalized headline. Turning away, and toward the TV screen.. John McCain was delivering a sound bite on CNN. He mentioned that President Obama should fire some staff and I thought he was muttering something about air strikes in Iraqi. And just that quick, the attention on screen shifted from migrant children crossing the border from Mexico into America. Wow!

    An American viewer would need real skills in geo-politics to comprehend the meta. Talking heads shared their [opinions] on Iraqi’s ideology, if it was just that simple and if Iraq simply had one ideology. One person stated “We should have keep the troops in Iraq.. and created a country like South Korea” And, people nodded in agreement.. OMG!

    America has become a country with a hyper focus on ideology, or a search for a unified ideology that fits a 21st century narrative. Religion was in one era, a common source of personalized oneness, but even the faithful are left to now question their meaning of faith, and life purpose.

    Some flee America’s urban centers in hope of a sameness in suburban cores, malls sitting empty.. a forgotten headstone to ole Americana? “jaklumen ~ ideological divide influences residential and community choices by their adherents.”

    And, ideology, also impacts hiring and inclusion during national economic downturns http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/how-economic-scarcity-affects-perceptions-of-race/372438/

    I use this as an example because we live in a global society that hired, and voted an American President that is both African and American, by blood. Hardly could we as Americans be classified as race biased, maybe? So it must be ideology that creates the division, now. Perhaps by chance, maybe.

    But, anyway America’s historical foundation has been rugged and two six-guns on a General’s hip. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and the illustration of cinematic politics as a spectacle. Or the presentation of ideological fiction as an epic scale of history? I’m not sure how President Obama’s professorial legal experience and tone of voice fits the wild wild west, and its scene of a bugle trumpeting charge. It was our 43rd President, George Bush was a cowboy and stated on a worldwide stage at the United Nations on September 17th 2001 that he wanted Osama bin Laden dead or alive.

    Americans are, or have been considered hard workers, some came on ships from Europe, some from China, others came cramped down below, as chained slaves. But, who created this rugged narrative called brand America? Most importantly, who owns the story and who is willing to defend it’s virtues, globally as wealthy Chinese migrants buy American residential investments?

    That is one heck of a title, Jack.. in all its “rugged individualism”

  3. William: I think one of the biggest comparisons between the U.S. and other First World governments is that we do not have a parliamentary system for our legislative branch of government. I recall a right-wing idealogue I knew say that a parlimentary system would mean powersharing (between political parties, I assume), and that would be *insert melodramatic music here* BAD. So I can only imagine that the very way we in the U.S. pursue legislation isn’t even comparable to other goverments in the world. With globalization, I would think it would behoove us to consider global paradigms and perspectives, but some voices here seem to long to return to isolationism.

    Furthermore, from what I understand, the two major political parties do not like it when third party candidates make it to the elections, because they believe that disrupts the debate format. I find that a bit sardonically amusing because politicians today don’t even follow the classical debate format, i.e., they are unwilling to be skillful enough to argue both sides (which some politicians in the past would do to educate the electorate on the issues). So political discussion with multiple viewpoints is actually discouraged.

    Another point I have observed is the rise of C-SPAN, i.e., the fact that politicians may be posturing for the ever-present videocameras and media feeds. And then there is the idea that our litigous society further perpetuates an “us vs. them” mentality, not to mention that it likely shapes the way politicians debate, as I mentioned earlier.

  4. J.: on your first comment, I believe some politicians work to enhance the divide for their own status and position.
       Bill, you’re right: with the headline culture, analysis is dead. That means one needs a massive, well educated (not necessarily a formal education) context to see the links between things, or the causes and effects of policies. And not everyone does, not because they’re stupid or lazy, but quite the opposite: as the income divide grows, they’re harder-working than ever and have to rely on the narrative spun by political parties or by the media. Everything is a shortcut: just like consumer brands, ideologies become branded. Iraq is a great example: the mention of the nation conjures up a false impression in many people’s minds—as you say, of the single ideology. And yet one only has to look at our own nations to realize that no single ideology pervades—or if one were to, it must be all-encompassing and refreshed for new, changing realities.
       And on your third comment, J.: I think you’ve got it right on all counts. Those who work both sides—John McCain and Joe Lieberman come to mind—are seen as the old guard, and the present ones all love the camera a little too much. How to get more air time? Be more extreme. The third parties disrupt the status quo too much because they are used to working the system by spouting ever-crazier positions or have ridiculous filibusters. A third-party candidate risks ruining all of that by speaking logical truths on an issue.

  5. Well then, Jack, what can we do? Right now, I think the last dregs of analysis lie somewhere with public television news sources, and comedy– with the latter, I mean like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Yet, we are often criticized, I think often by the more liberal, that these comedians are not credible sources. And do we have to wait until the cycle turns for the “old guard” to come back into fashion?

  6. Jaklumen: ~ “the last dregs of analysis lie somewhere with public television news sources, and comedy.”

    This is a surreal point, and interestingly – the genie is out of the bottle.. the genie is a shift in global cultural views, tastes and that assumed value to news networks. In the past few years, and I’m not sure when; everything is salted with a POP culture flavor of entertainment. Entertainment is the sweet spot of America’s greatest export product, far beyond FaceBook.

    America limped along during their economic meltdown partially because of a quasi infusion of [POP] entertainment into the social brand called America. In doing so, it opened the door for everyone to become an expert. Maybe, when experts aren’t heard they turn extreme in a quest to influence the flow of news, and public opinion. Their shrill outrage burns hot, out of control and rages daily in the social media sphere. Honestly – they simply mimic the opinions of pundits that deliver 24 hours of news around the globe, fair and balanced, well I don’t know.

    Razor sharp point, Jack Yan ~ “the old guard, and the present ones all love the camera a little too much”

    Who are politicians, and why do they love the camera so much, even President Obama was considered a “Rock Star” in his early years as POTUS. That is not new, Ronald Regan was a actor, Arnold was the primary actor in THE TERMINATOR movie, and Governor in California; Bill Clinton played a Blues Brother on national TV with his saxophone, how fun? Thinking the list is somewhat long, the blur of politic and entertainment has been a theme all of my life.

    Yet, one thing is a fact – people are streaming around the globe, Transculturalism is shifting the meaning of authentic culture, as it merges and converges. People borrow style, and society is impacted by cultural diffusion. Americans are afraid, and they are yelling really loud. Their extreme views are huddled in the fear of isolationism.

    I once heard someone call America a beacon, one that attracted the best and brightest from around the world. Then, 9/11 hit, and the wall was erected under the premise of exceptionalism, and or protectionism. I wish that was a original thought. Jack Yan mentioned that many, many years ago.

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