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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Stupid over politics

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, March 23, 2017 09:22 am

It's not the Internet's fault you're a jerk about politics, writes Jeff Guo in a Washington Post analysis, despite all the hand-wringing about "the social-media echo chamber and its corrosive effects on society."

If the Internet were to blame, he writes, we would see this polarizing effect mostly in young people because, you know, the old fogies don't go online much. But we are all, young and old, jerks about politics these days.

He says a more likely suspect is cable TV, which is something older Americans do consume a lot of. Fox News has its fans and MSNBC has its and don't ever put them in the same roon and expect everybody to leave alive. But that's not a good answer, either, because cable news is still not a satisfying culprit because the media don't operate in a vacuum. Television responds to audience ratings, and partisan networks such as Fox News and MSNBC "exist to satisfy a thirst for opinionated news."

In actuality, he finally concludes, the trend of rising partisanship predates even the partisan cable networks.

As Boxell, Gentzkow and Shapiro show, political polarization has been increasing since at least the 1970s. Researchers still disagree on the underlying mix of causes, but here's a pattern that stands out:  As political scientists Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes pointed out in 2012, Americans haven't shifted their political opinions as much as they have changed their attitudes toward members of the opposing party. In other words, the tone of U.S. politics has gotten more vicious.

One widely cited example: In 1960, only about 5 percent of Americans said they would disapprove their children married someone of the opposite party. But in 2010, 40 percent of parents said they would be “upset” at such a marriage.

This sharp turn in public opinion may be a sign of how party divisions in America now reflect deeper societal fissures. In the early 1960s, Republicans and Democrats were more mixed up, both geographically and socially. "No matter what you were, there were people in the other party who looked like you and had the same cultural values and believed more or less the same thing as you," Stanford professor Mo Fiorina told Vox recently.

In other words, we've always been jerks about politics (or at least for a very long time), but now we're even bigger jerks. On our Facebook pages and in our Twitter accounts, we can hang out with only like-minded people and/or endlessly insult those who dare not to think like us.

I've sure seen this in my life. I'm someone on the right who's had a lot of friends on the left. And we argued all the time, occasionally passionately and heatedly. But when the arguing ended, it was forgotten, just one part of our lives and our relationships, and not a very big one at that. My friend Cynthia and I got into a political argument almsot every time we met, and no matter what the starting point was, we always ended up in a "government is too big"/"government doesn't do enough" stalemate. I wasn't gonna budge, she wasn't gonna budge, but it was nothing to get bent out of shape about. In fact, it was fun.

It's not fun these days. After The News-Sentinel had the temerity to publish a pro-Donald Trump editorial before the general election, a friend, or at least someone I had considered a friend, went on social media and said, basically, "F—- The News-Sentinel and f—- Leo Morris and the horse he rode in on." We have not spoken since, and I doubt we ever will again. I have seen members of my own family at odds in ways I had never experienced before. Politics before family? Inconceivable.

And this kind of bitter divide is self-reinforcing. When a friend is so deep into the partisan well that it brings out a "F—- y—," that's pretty much all-out war. And when you think the other side is pulling out all the stops, taking no prisoners, then that's what you do, too. As regular readers know, I was pretty much a "Never Trump" guy right up till the time he won the Republican primary. I finally voted for him, reluctantly and with more than a few reservations, because I thought Hillary Clinton would be worse. But the more batcrap crazy the left gets in demonizing both Trump and his supporters, the more unhinged its members become, the better I feel about my vote.

The real danger is that, caught in the throes of that reactionary fever, I join everybody else in the ad hominem swamp, writing and talking and thinking about personalities instead of ideas. The things President Trump does will either be right or wrong, good for the country or bad, and I want to be able to judge that regardless of what I think about Trump or his supporters or his detractors. 

The irony is that we're in the nascent stages of a revolution the likes of which we have not seen since the Industrial Age. Because of rapidly evolving technology, people are taking more control over their own lives and decisions and looking less and less to intermediaries and giant institutions. They are, every day, inventing new ways to do things and thereby making old institutions less important and needed. So in a time when government is becoming less and less relevant, when its main goal will be to hold on to the power its practioners can feel slipping away, we are tearing ourselves apart over which authoritarian jerkwad will be at the helm when the ship goes down. 


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