Why Partisanship is the New Normal

The ferociously partisan atmosphere in America these days isn’t limited to Washington D.C., though it certainly is epitomized there. No, the divisive, bitter ambience in this country exists everywhere, from sea to shining sea. A few minutes on cable news or a cursory scroll through one’s social media feed at any given moment (but especially on days like this) confirms it. And it’s getting worse.

“Moderate” is increasingly a relic in American culture. The ouster of Indiana senator (and moderate, bipartisan-minded Republican) Dick Luger is just the latest evidence of this. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats are getting more liberal. The country’s middle ground is quickly becoming no man’s land.

Issues like gay marriage are further entrenching both sides. The day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a ban on gay marriage, President Obama  ended his “evolving views” stalling and admitted to supporting the opposite view, thrilling liberals and stealing some of the spotlight from what happened in North Carolina. For Obama and his ever bluer base, opposition to gay marriage is seen as gradually eroding. The expectation is that soon enough gay marriage will be completely acceptable in society. But there are signs that, for red state America, the opposite trend is occurring. Voters in North Carolina–a swing state that went blue for Obama in 2008–actually voted for the ban on gay marriage by a larger margin (61-39%) than expected, and seven percentage points larger than the 2006 margin (57-42%) of another gay marriage ban in fellow Southern swing state Virginia (also went blue for Obama in 2008). This appears to be another sign that the red base is getting redder on wedge issues like gay marriage, even while the blue base is becoming bolder and louder on such divisive issue.

Why are we experiencing such unprecedented ideological divergence in our culture? Why is it looking–tragically–as if the recovery of a middle ground and a bipartisan, cordial public discourse is increasingly unlikely?

It may sound obvious, and it may be old hat by now, but I believe a huge factor contributing to all of this is the Internet. Namely: the way that it has fragmented and niche-ified our media consumption. For former generations, “news” was the thing everyone watched at the same time at night on TV. It was the local newspaper. There were far fewer options, so everyone tended to learn about the news from the same sources. Some big cities had multiple newspapers with slightly divergent political bents, but for the most part normal folks didn’t have easy access to “news” with a decidedly partisan bent.

Not so today. Now, we have 24/7 access to it. Whatever one’s political leaning may be, an entire personalized media landscape can be constructed to reinforce it. There are TV channels, YouTube channels, websites, tumblrs, blogs, e-newsletters,  newspapers and radio stations for whatever political opinion you may have. Everyone processes media narratives that are as infinitely different from one another as snowflakes. Each of us has a totally unique combination of blogs we follow, news sites we read, and social media connections who shape our media intake. No wonder “consensus” is a thing of the past. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. We live in our own iNews bubbles of self-perpetuating, fragmentary and volatile media flows.

And it creates a snowball effect. Given the choice, liberal-leaning folks naturally will spend more time watching MSNBC and filling their Twitter feeds with people of a similar bent. Conservatives will naturally choose to watch Fox News and populate their feeds with advocates of GOP-friendly ideals. In a world where it’s as easy as clicking “unfollow” whenever someone says something that challenges our beliefs, our “feeds” of self-selected narratives of reality will make us neither educated nor enriched; they’ll simply make us more ardent in the beliefs we already hold.

In this “million little narratives” world of individually curated and (often) hyper-politicized media experiences, it’s easy to see how fringe groups and all manner of Anders Breivek-style zealotry may develop. It’s easy to see how ideology-oriented communities can become dangerously insulated and prone to “no compromise!” hostility to the Other. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so bad at talking cordially with those who are different than us. There are just so few forums for us to learn how to productively converse with a plurality of differing voices. And even if there were, would we willingly enter those forums when there are unlimited options of lesser resistance at our disposal?

I think we must. The landscape of new media, I believe, is such that society is only going to become more divided. There will be more turnover in Congress. Less ability to “reach across the aisle” without dire political consequences. It will not be easy to recover cordiality, and the values of respect and moderation in the public square will be lost, to disastrous effect. That is, unless we each make a point of combatting this in our own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this:

  • If you watch news on TV, watch a different channel every night, even if it pains you.
  • Don’t just pack your social media feeds with people who agree with you. Curate a diverse plurality of voices.
  • Avoid commenting on articles, Facebook posts or other online forums when you are angered or upset. Take time to think it over, and if you still want to say something, say it with care and nuance.
  • Just say no to the social media “instant commentary!” impulse.
  • Do you have at least some friends who have different political views than you? You should. Engage them in friendly, loving debate.
  • Avoid watching the “crazies” too much (whether on Fox News, MSNBC, or any other channel… you know of whom I speak).
  • Read books on complicated subjects, not just news articles or tweets.
  • Learn to value humility and (gasp!) be willing to change your views on something, if reason (not peer pressure) leads you there.
  • Read Marilynne Robinson.

And on that note, a wise quote by Marilynne Robinson’s stellar, prescient essay for our times, “Austerity as Ideology“:

Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase…

In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems like a thinning atmosphere. Who would have thought that a thing so central to human life could prove so vulnerable to human choices?

7 responses to “Why Partisanship is the New Normal

  1. Hey Brett, these are some great thoughts. I’m not one who thinks that political polarization is an inherently bad thing. If anything, there is something attractive about political parties having cognizable and coherent platforms to which all members are expected to stick. But the problem in the US is that while we have drifted toward European-style rigid party discipline (either tow the line, or get out), we maintain a divided form of checks-and-balances governance. A strong expectation of party orthodoxy works much better in a parliamentary system, where one party — or an expressly negotiated coalition — controls the unified government. What we have now represents a recipe for ongoing gridlock: parties less willing to compromise, working within a system whose functioning entirely depends on bipartisan cooperation.

    Against that backdrop, I think we’d all do well to heed your suggestions.

    It’s also worth pointing out that there has not been an equivalency in polarization. If we are going to get serious about restoring a functioning government and civil polity, we should try to understand what’s really going on. In case not seen, this piece merits sharing (excuse the inflammatory headline):


  2. amatterofmiles

    MR’s essays have been incredibly helpful and convicting to me as I’ve navigated the political landscape and my own philosophies this election cycle. I think my favorite bit of message from “Austerity as Ideology” is that, because we are fallen, no ideology is perfect or correct; our ideologies will not create a utopia for us, no matter how right we think we or our opinions are. That is incredibly humbling for me, and I think the tips you’ve laid out for combating political fragmentation are quite solid.The wanna-be neo-Luddite in me, though, would add “Read a newspaper!” to the list.

    Great thoughts.


  3. It’s interesting that the assumption is that exposure to the “other side” will naturally be a tempering influence. I find the opposite to be the case (e.g., every time I read a complaint like Mark’s, I come away more than ever committed to and appreciative of our system’s checks and balances).

    Also, I wish it were true that (honest, civilized) partisanship were the new normal. Perhaps it is among folks who blog and tweet and comment on blogs and tweets (minus the two parenthetical qualifiers of course). But from here it looks like the new normal is the same as the old normal, and that’s lazy self-satisfaction in being above the fray.

  4. I hasten to add that that last sentence is not directed toward anyone in particular.

  5. @Matthew: I’m not entirely sure why you would characterize my statement as a ‘complaint.’ I do not find our system of government unsatisfactory or unacceptable. I merely offered the observation that polarization does not in itself merit opprobrium; much depends on the particular system in which it manifests itself. For what it’s worth, I’m a fan of checks and balances.

    I’ll also note: there’s an argument to be made for polarization not working so well in Westminster systems either:

  6. Anybody who quotes Marilynne Robinson has to be taken seriously. Even so while blame can be laid widely, I am convinced with the conversation with Ornstein last week on the NPR Diane Rehm, and the several articles by Jill Lepore, Karl Rove, theKoch Brothers and the Tea Party, cauterized in the fundamentalists takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention is where the great weight of opprobrium and nefarity resides in this matter of polarization. And add to Robinson, Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer, Diarmaid McCulloch’s last 150 pages of his magisterial Christianity and the thoughts of John Irving who join Robinson as adding light in this Great Fog of our current national moment

  7. Pingback: Loon’s linkage (April/May ’12) « The Common Loon

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