Students of American history know that polarization is nothing new. We have been at odds from the beginning and on a wide range of issues to include independence, slavery, the purpose and powers of government, foreign policy, taxation, multiple entries into wars, civil rights, women’s rights, LBGTQ+ rights and the list goes on. That is the gristmill of democracy, and we have managed to survive even the most divisive and jugular of issues because in the end we believed in E pluribus unum and that we are all Americans.
I consider that unity to be more threatened now than at any point in my lifetime, and I do not believe it has been caused by any changes in ourselves, but rather by radical changes in how we receive information. The 24-hour news cycle was initiated by CNN in 1980 — then came social media. We no longer have to wait for the 6 o’clock news. In addition, the bright red line that used to separate straight unbiased reporting from opinion and commentary has been largely obliterated. That has resulted in a plethora of hyper-politicized programming that is custom designed to cater to particular audiences. With respect to any controversial issue, say for example a confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court justice, we can do boutique shopping for the take on the news that best fits in with our existing narratives. That is as much motivated by a desire for reinforcement as it is a desire for information. As a result, we become victims of bias, one-sided information and nut-picking (showcasing the nuttiest members of a group) and have no one to blame but ourselves. Those are self-inflicted wounds.
Our tendency to gravitate to and over-rely upon particular news and opinion outlets, as well as our online news feeds, has resulted in a phenomenon that is extremely problematic, and that is the entirely false assumptions we make about our political opposites.
A study by More in Common revealed some data that should concern all of us. Here are some troubling figures:
Republicans’ views of Democrats:
- Brainwashed: 75% agree
- Hateful: 73% agree
- Racist: 56% agree
- Arrogant: 81% agree
Democrats’ views of Republicans:
- Brainwashed: 75% agree
- Hateful: 78% agree
- Racist: 74% agree
- Arrogant: 79% agree
The figures above are even higher for “committed conservatives” and “progressive activists.” I only included the lower numbers, which are awful enough. The problem is that both groups are wrong. We’re led to believe the worst about one another by those who profit from division. There are vast areas of general agreement among the American people that are well within the mainstream. Our problem is not so much that we are divided between left and right as we are divided between mainstream and extremism, but the extremists make all the noise, get all the press and have us at each other’s throats, which, by the way, is a good way to raise money and gain political power.
Many of my friends and neighbors are aware of my column and sometimes want to discuss politics. Same with some of my readers. At least 95% of them, left, right and center, are entirely reasonable and open to ideas. Let’s not allow the extremists to create the poisonous atmosphere and ugly stereotyping represented by the survey results above.
Joseph B. Filko has taught economics and American government and lives in Williamsburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.