After the recent republican electoral victory, many commentators are bracing for gridlock in Washington. It seems as though our elected leaders seated across such a narrow isle from one another now seem further apart than they have been in recent history. These divisions in Washington mirror the divisions throughout the country, with Tea Partiers heeding the battle cry to take back their country from the socialist “others” who have infiltrated Washington, and liberals and progressives responding with accusations of racism, bigotry and disingenuity on the part of their conservative opponents. On either side, the most prominent voices seem to be preparing for a battle that threatens to bring the country to a standstill just as we’re struggling and slowly searching for a recovery from the great recession that knocked us to our knees.
How did we get here?
In the last decade, we have witnessed an explosion of ideas across the internet. By bringing people from all around the country and the world together through one common forum for exchanging ideas and sharing views, the web promised the potential for a large step forward by knocking down previous barriers to the flow of information and transfer of ideas and facilitating greater communication and cultural exchange. But could it be that while the internet has become a truly revolutionary tool in creating an increasingly global village, where we are all just a click away from billions of others, where through facebook, twitter feeds and buzzes we can instantly poke, connect and share ideas with millions of “friends” instantaneously, somehow it seems to have simultaneously magnified our disagreements and fostered a new kind of intellectual clustering? Somehow, through our increased ability to interact across a wider spectrum of people, we have actually widened the ideological chasms that separate us.
To begin with, we now have access to many more people and talking heads who share our beliefs, biases and idiologies: it is much easier to find ourselves in a choir being preached to – the blogosphere is filled with a myriad of voices linking to others who share their principles, and repeat partisan ideas borrowed from other members of the authors’ in-group. In so doing, we quickly find ourselves with greater reinforcement for our own views, to the extent that we can easily start to feel that “everyone” agrees with us. Our perceptions become more and more entrenched as we find ourselves subscribing and following authors who share our sentiments, but perhaps more troubling, our opponents views’ simultaneously start seeming less and less credible, more and more dangerous and crazy and representative of alien viewpoints that pose a threat to us, as we receive them filtered through authors and bloggers who (mis)quote them in order to discredit them (a useful tactic when you’re competing for an audience). If your primary experience of Obama is through the words of Rush Limbaugh, you may find it a lot harder to believe he shares your basic love of country, much less any values you may have. And if your only exposure to conservative economic principles is through the critiques from the dailykos, you might readily ascribe to them the worst intentions of unbridled self-interest.
There’s an aspect to which some of this polarization stems from the basic form of web debates. In person conversations (and to a lesser extent, even phone conversations or a radio interview) allow real-time back and forth, adjustments and clarifications that are conducive to mutual respect and understanding and lend themselves more easily towards an audience receiving a clear understanding of each participant’s views straight from the horse’s mouth, rather than as rehashed by their opponents. Debates with greater levels of personal interaction also foment a respect for ones opponents and their views that it is harder to caricature to the point of absurdity, and yet harder to portray as undemocracy, enemies of freedom or generally evil malevolent charlatans and conspirators intent on bringing the country to its knees or greedily sucking up all the country’s wealth for themselves. For that matter, it is also that much harder to do that sort of thing when your opponent is sat directly opposite you – certainly her ability to respond immediately also curbs the temptation to do so.
The blogosphere has however changed this. Each camp can distort and modify their opponents stance to ridicule, devalue, and misrepresent, such that a reader may at best easily reject their opponents’ views, and at worst come to loathe or hate their opponents themselves (especially with the ease with which commentators label their opponents as greedy, evil, unamerican and/or socialists). It is no surprise that we see more civility between political opponents in televized debates than on the blogosphere. But I expect that to change soon once we as a culture embrace and come to expect the increased hostility and heated rhetoric as simply part and parcel of political dialogue.
There was once a time where people could disagree on the best path to a mutually shared destination, and through their dialogue some sort of compromise would emerge. This was more feasible when they began with a mutual respect for one another as patriots with a common interest in the success and welfare of their country. However, now, through the prism of the blogosphere and the increasingly partisan myriad opinions on the internet, a difference of opinion quickly degenerates into allegations of “otherness” (he must hate America, he is anti-american, they hate our values, the rich hate the poor, Bush hates black people, etc.).
What hope is there for compromise and dialogue in washington, when prior to arrival, the representatives from either party (and their numerous proxies and partisan commentators) engage in the most bitter and vitriolic animosity filled exchanges via the web? When the very basis of their mutual respect and shared beliefs in their common purpose is gradually eroded by constant battle and mutual demonization, how likely are they to sit together and calmly discuss the merits of each other’s proposals with a view towards the kinds of meaningful compromises that bring about positive change?
The internet, like any other technology, came to us as a very powerful, if double edged sword. It has carved open barriers to communication and allowed a greater exchange of ideas than was ever previously possible in human history. And yet it has also threatened to bring out some of our most base tribal instincts by magnifying our differences and fuelling our conflicts. By providing a forum that caters to our base appreciation for conflicts and controversy, in which often the loudest most aggressive, fear mongering and rabble rowsing voices on either side attract the largest audiences and the more moderate voices get drowned out in a sea of vitriole, hatred, mistrust and suspicion, it has made compromise that much harder to achieve. We find ourselves wondering how we found ourselves so divided, and it may be that the medium through which we now increasingly interact and exchange ideas, has weakened the incentives for civil dialogue and made mutual understanding and respect that much harder to achieve.