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.