National politics has always had strong divisions and partisanship, but it sure seems like things are as divided as they can get right now. The loudest and most “engaged” of the partisans stake their position and are quickly joined in lockstep by their followers. The followers then parrot all the correct talking points about each of their sides’ previously decided positions. No one is trying to convince the other side that they are right by making sound arguments—instead, they just go around searching (the internet, mostly) for articles that either prove their position or disparage the other sides’ position.
It’s a no-win game, and nothing can be solved by this. In fact, it reminds me more of the incessant one-upsmanship of fans of rival sports teams than it does of real politics, with the fans of each party lining up behind their favorite issues and battling it out with the other side, seeing them only as imbeciles who have nothing good to show for themselves.
I think one of the best ways to see the difference between real politics and our current cable-news and social media driven situation is to go to a meeting in your local town hall. Maybe not a contentious school budget meeting, but one of the commission meetings—where the ramifications can be important, but the polarizing divide of national politics doesn’t bleed into the local arena. Here, you’ll see Republicans, Democrats, and whoever else having real discussions about issues. Their underlying political philosophy may color their opinions on said issues being discussed, but the discussion is still centered around coming to agreement on the issue at hand.
I think this healthy discussion can occur because everyone participating in these debates is much more informed than they are of issues at the national level. They have been to the school that might be expanded, they have driven by the proposed development site, they have fished in the river that flows under Main Street. They see the owner of the biggest employer in town at the local bar, they talk to the teacher who wants more funding for the music program, they trip over the frost heave in the sidewalk that’s slated for replacement. They have real discussions about real issues that they are informed about. Their underlying political philosophy does not predetermine their position (like it may on national issues they have little knowledge about)—instead, it merely affects their thought process when proposing a solution to these problems.
What was described above is the opposite of what happens when polarized partisans discuss national issues. National issues are exponentially more complicated because of the size and varying nature of the towns and cities in our country. The mining town of Battle Mountain, Nevada is quite different than the Washington D.C. suburb of Springfield, Virginia. Residents of the two towns have different goals, priorities, and interests. Can every national policy make the residents of a mining town AND a suburb full of federal employees and government contractors satisfied? Obviously not. Would residents of each of the two towns have the same opinions on gun control? Healthcare? Immigration?
The variety of lifestyles and cultures in this vast country make agreement and honest, informed debate on national issues almost impossible. Further, influential people across america use social media to draw lines of group identity. These group identities increase the likelihood of followers making up their mind about an issue before they even know much about it.
Would a person who identifies themselves as “progressive” be more likely or less likely to agree with someone, if that someone was the host of a Fox News show? Most likely, they’d have their mind made up already before they turned on the channel.
I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I can tell you how I try to keep myself insulated from the noise and emotion. First, I try to get most of my national news from foreign news outlets like the BBC, Radio France, and others. They (obviously) have less ties to our country than our news outlets, so they tend to take an “outsiders” view of our issues.
Next–when I do hear a story on the news, I try to determine whether the reporter wants to convince me of something, or just wants to report what happened. I’m not looking for a “both sides of an issue” type of argument—as I stated before, most federal issues are way too complex to explain in a short news story. Instead, I’m looking at how the writer presents what happened, and if they are trying to persuade or trigger certain emotional responses within the story.
Here’s an example of two headlines:
“The President issued a statement regarding the ongoing impeachment inquiry.”
“The President latched on to a debunked conspiracy theory when asked about the impeachment inquiry.”
These two headlines may talk about the same issue, but it’s presented in very different ways. In today’s media environment, headlines need to be attention-grabbing—so the more polarizing and angering, the better. The first headline is vague and neutral—not as likely to be read as the second headline.
Both articles may prove to be informative, but I try to pay attention to what the writer is attempting to do. Are they trying to make me mad? Disgusted? Afraid? If so, I keep that in mind when reading the article, and don’t let my emotional reaction cloud my judgement—after all, that’s probably what the writer is trying to do.
I am always aware that media outlets are in an intense competition for our attention. Keeping this in mind, I can read and watch the news without overreacting emotionally. The writers and hosts often have a goal to enrage, anger, frighten, or sadden me. It’s the best way for them to get my attention, but only if I’m not aware of their game.