We tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses and think the time in which we live is uniquely challenging. When comparing current times to the past, I usually remind people that “these are not unique times.” However, I do not think that is the case this time. This is novel. In the 2010 election, we elected a congress full of people unwilling to compromise. With “Don’t raise taxes!” as their battle cry, we are stuck in a gridlock with neither side willing to compromise. In an interview with The Daily Show, Tom Brokaw says “There is more polarization than any time I’ve ever seen it and I’ve checked with my friends in Washington and many of them feel the same about our institutions.”
Our favorite social networking sites are not helping either. Sites like facebook and twitter are customizing the content that we see to show people and links that likely align with our personal political beliefs (and consequentially are hiding the content that we will likely disagree with).
The Internet allows the otherwise unheard crazies in the extreme polls to gather together and be heard. This creates the impression that the “unheard crazies” are a larger group than they really are. On both fiscal and social political issues, we still fall into a nice bell curve with few people in the extreme poles and many people in the middle or slightly to the left or right of middle. In reality, we are not “standing in the wings.” However, with the amplification of those in extreme poles, we are led to believe that we are more polarized than is accurate.
Whether I want my content to be customized or not, it is customized. Most of the time, this customized content is advantageous to me. For instance, when I search for “nuggets” I appreciate that Google is smart enough to give me results for the Denver Nuggets basketball team rather than results about gold nuggets. However, when it comes to how I access sources of news and political information, I would prefer that results to be untarnished. If I look up “2011 Election Results” for instance, Google knows that I am white, in my-mid 20s, college-educated, liberal and live in Denver. Google then tailors the results it gives me to my specific demographic.
All this means is that my political viewpoints are constantly being reinforced by my peers and news sources rather than respectfully challenged. We are losing the skill of civil discourse. We are losing the ability to speak with those whose opinions differ from our own. When I am surrounded by people and ideas that agree with me, I have no need to defend my own stances nor challenge those who disagree with me. “This phenomenon is not exclusive to either liberals or conservatives; each seems susceptible to a group’s polarization effects. It is in our nature to utilize the advances of technology to further narrow down our viewing and reading choices to suit our personalities and beliefs.”
What is the solution? An easy place to start is to seek out news sources that historically differ politically from your own. For “fun” I enjoy listening to conservative talk radio sometimes while driving and forcing myself to come up with rebuttals to what the radio hosts are saying. For my day-to-day news, I also strive to seek my news from sources as close to the political middle as possible. While digesting the news, I recognize the bias a news source may have based on who owns it and what they have to gain by portraying the news in a certain light.
Although I think my political bent is the correct one (as we all do) I also recognize that in order for change to happen we need to work together and compromise. We can form temporary coalitions on specific issues where we agree and then form new coalitions when we disagree. Let us bring back the conversation and move from a political binary back into what we really are: a political spectrum.