*Photo Credit: AP/Ben Margot
If you discuss the current state of politics with another person for any length of time, chances are that someone will say that the country is more divided now than it’s ever been before. At a time when violence erupting at political rallies has seemingly become the norm, it’s easy to think that we are in an unprecedented era of partisan division.
Debates between political adversaries on our favorite cable news stations rarely occur without an exchange of personal attacks. A study published by the Pew Research Center last month examines the myriad ways the political rift in this country is growing. Without any sense of irony, conservative and liberal members of media have gleefully dissected the study’s findings searching for ways to blame their opponents for the growing divide.
While I disagree that we are currently experiencing the worst period of political division in our history, I do acknowledge that there are many forces at play that exacerbate our differences, and that our current course is leading in a dangerous direction. Partisan media outlets peddle sensationalist, subjective, half-truths in a battle for ratings supremacy. Self-proclaimed activists on social media post hateful tirades that alienate their friends and family, and spread spurious rumors and conspiracy theories in an effort to incite outrage against their political foes.
The most powerful factor driving our divide is the popularity of openly partisan news outlets. Prior to the rise of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and later conservative news aggregate sites on the internet, consumers only got one side of the story. The journalists, who were indoctrinated with left-leaning ideology at major universities, projected their biased views of world events through a veil of objectivity, one which most Americans saw right through. A desire for a balanced presentation of the news created a market for a different perspective, and a savvy media mogul named Rupert Murdoch seized on the opportunity. In October 1996, Fox News was born, and the media landscape changed forever. While giving a platform to differing points of view can hardly be considered a bad thing, it has had some unintended consequences.
Firstly, it has eroded the average news consumer’s ability to think critically. Generally speaking, they only consume news from outlets that align with their world view, and rarely question any information put out by their favorite media personalities. Meanwhile, when confronted with information from a rival outlet, they will often immediately dismiss it as partisan propaganda.
Secondly, driven by a desire to appease their consumer base, objective journalism is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Any story that can be construed as remotely unfavorable to the audiences’ preferred political figure is met with unbridled outrage. To further pacify their target demographic, media personalities frequently target members of their own parties who refuse to toe the ideological line. Any attempts to reach a consensus on issues are viewed as acts of treason, and as such, the most respected parliamentarians and the most venerated statesmen in our government become pariahs within their own caucuses. John McCain, who is noted for his efforts to reach across the aisle to secure compromises on important legislation, and is apprehensive to ram through bills without bipartisan support is one of the favorite targets of right-wing commentators. Any leader who dares to speak out against outrageous behavior of members of their own party face a similar fate. Donna Brazile’s attempts to blow the whistle on alleged corruption within the Democratic National Committee has drawn the ire of leftist media outlets.
Finally, the intense competition between news outlets is changing how news is being presented and how it’s being consumed. In an effort to stay one step ahead of their competition, cable news outlets run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The need to fill that time with actual content leads to unvetted and oftentimes inaccurate information being put out to viewers. This information only poisons the political debate. Additionally, consumers often no longer watch news to be informed, but rather to be entertained, and media personalities seem all too happy to oblige them by turning news and politics into a twisted form of theater. Political leaders play their part by grandstanding in front of cable news cameras in shameless displays of self-promotion in an effort to demonstrate to their voter base that they are stalwarts for their cause.
Social media also plays an enormous role in stoking the flames of political division. Social media is a powerful tool that allows for the free exchange of ideas more so than any other innovation in human history. The ability to instantly connect with millions of people makes for an appealing medium for amateur polemicists of all political stripes. With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, everyone has a public platform to air their political grievances. Armed with the information from their favorite partisan news outlet, millions of people every day take to their keyboards to do their best impersonation of Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow. Inevitably, another user takes umbrage with their opinion and retorts. The ensuing exchange often leads to bitterness and strained relationships. Everyone who is an active social media user has engaged in a political debate online at least once, and I would venture to say that everyone has lost at least one friend due to their political opinions. Ironically, those who are the worst offenders of this form of provocation are the ones who lament the most about how divided our country has become. They recognize that they are contributing to the problem, and yet they continue to incite political strife every time they log into Facebook.
The effects of these two powerful influences have been seen in our ever-deteriorating political rhetoric. The use of words like “evil” and “enemy” are being used more commonly to describe our political opponents. These incendiary words not only worsen the partisan divide, but they also dehumanize those on the other side of the debate. It is this dehumanization that makes violence against political adversaries appear justifiable in the eyes of devotees of any given ideology. As we have seen in recent months, political discourse in America has already descended into violence in the form of clashes between demonstrators at political rallies, and the attempted assassination of several members of congress in June.
The state of our political culture was addressed in a speech by former President George W. Bush at a Bush Institute event in New York last month.
In the speech, Bush observes:
We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.
In a stunning display of a lack of self-awareness, the so-called “Spirit of Liberty” speech has been praised by left-wing media outlets who framed it as an attack on President Trump, ignoring the role that leftist elected officials and college professors have played in the deterioration of our political discourse. In a move that is equally astonishing, right-wing media outlets have echoed the left’s talking points in an effort to further the narrative that President Trump’s agenda is being sabotaged by a nefarious establishment cabal. The hypocritical, myopic praise and the paranoid, delusional criticism is rooted in the same condition; an unwillingness to engage in self-examination.
Honestly critiquing the state of our current political culture requires serious introspection. As such, one must look at his or her own actions when engaging in political discourse. I admit that I am guilty of contributing to the political divide in my own way. I certainly have stayed up too late arguing with a political adversary via social media, and my opinions have been the ruin of more than one friendship. And yes, I realize that I come off as hypocritical, but by publicly owning my previous mistakes, I am challenging myself to be better. This is not to say that I won’t continue to share my opinions and challenge others on theirs, but I will try to avoid the tropes commonly used by those who try to vilify their opponents — something that I encourage everyone to do.
I want to close on a positive note. In recent months, we as a people have borne witness to the absolute best our society has to offer. In the aftermath of devastating natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria as well as the wildfires that engulfed much of the Pacific Northwest, we saw average people making extraordinary efforts to help their fellow citizens in their time of need without regard for political affiliation or racial identity.
Republican governors worked with Democrat mayors to ensure that their constituents’ suffering would not be prolonged due to partisan bickering. People of all races donated their time, personal property, and their hard-earned money to rescue, recovery, and relief efforts. And upon seeing this phenomenon of generosity and unpatrolled human decency, talking heads from all sides of the political landscape proclaimed almost in unison that it takes tragedies on this monumental scale to bring our country together. I fervently disagree with that sentiment. These tragedies reveal that we are not as deeply divided as the political pundits would have us believe.