A Promise of Enlightenment Turned To Polarization

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Another political season is building momentum, though in some ways it hardly seems it ever stopped. As we move toward the 2020 presidential election, Democrats are fielding an increasingly large number of candidates. We will see candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, state House and Senate, and local offices file for office and hit the campaign trail in the coming months.

The atmosphere in which they seek election is going to be supercharged with division in a nation more polarized on political and social issues than ever before. This division can be attributed to the internet, which was once praised for its potential to unite the nation with a common and enlightening knowledge. It has turned out to be the opposite.

In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, it was found that internet and the social media that dominate it are putting us at each other’s throats with less tolerance and more anger with each passing day.

Among the findings of the poll:

- 61 percent say social media spreads unfair attacks and rumors against public figures and corporations rather than holding them accountable as it should;

- 57 percent of Americans say social media divides the country rather than unite it;

- 55 percent say it spreads lies and falsehoods rather than news and information.

And, despite these negative trends is social meeting a rewarding experience for its users? Hardly, an overwhelming 82 percent of Americans says it wastes time rather than being a source of rewarding knowledge and connection. Does that turn them away from social media? Not a chance. Seventy percent of Americans say they use it every day. Those numbers could be low.

In his book,  “The Myth of Digital Democracy” published in 2008 Matthew Hindman takes an in-depth look into the promise that the internet was going to be the great equalizer. It was going to give voices to the voiceless. It was going to empower and mobilize average citizens. It was going to eliminate the gatekeepers in the old media and replace them with free-flowing information that was more rich, more diverse and more participatory. How has that worked out?

What we have learned is that the national conversation has become far less civil as a few social media sources – Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter – dominate where those discussions take place.

At the same time, the derided gatekeepers of the traditional news media – principally print newspapers, continue to fade. What researchers have discovered from the more than 1,800 communities that have lost their newspapers is that people now rely on the internet and social media for their news. They also turn to the news networks that reflect their social media influences. Fox News for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals.

It is no surprise that the result is a more polarized nation and electorate.

That polarization shows up in our increasing rigidity in the way we vote. Back in 1992, 37 percent of states in America with Senate races elected a senator from a different party than that of the presidential candidate on the ticket, the Associated Press reports. “In 2016, for the first time in a century, no state did that,” they report.

This polarization reflects hardening ideologies on both sides as they are fed what they believe are “facts” on social media sites. Too often those facts are wrong, but that doesn’t matter. Whatever reinforces what we already believe is taken to heart, and even when we are presented with the truth, we reject it.

“American politics is trapped in a feedback loop that reinforces polarization in the mass public: media coverage of polarization increases citizens’ dislike of the opposite party, and new research shows that people go beyond relying on party cues as a cognitive shortcut: They consider partisanship a central part of their identity and put effort into expressing it,” media professors and researchers Matthew P. Hitt, Joshua Darr, and Johanna Dunaway, write.

We may be seeing this growing rigidity playing out in the 7th Congressional District. A founding member of the fiscally conservative and socially moderate Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, Collin Peterson isn’t afraid to side with his Republican colleagues from time to time, angering the more liberal wing of his party.

Back in 2008, when the internet and social media were in their adolescence, Peterson won the Republican-leaning 7th District with 72 percent of the vote. In 2012, he won with 60.4 percent. His margin of victory slipped to 52.5 percent in 2016 and 52.1 percent in 2018.

Despite being well-liked and respected in the district, he may be finding it harder to get those who identify as Republican to break the bonds of their social media partisan reinforcement to vote for a Democrat – no matter how conservative he is.

What we also know about political discourse on social media is that it is often not civil. Rather, it leads to insulting, demeaning rants that push people from one another. It is full of intentionally false information developed and uploaded by trolls for political or financial gain.

Our growing polarization makes compromise increasingly difficult, yet it is at the very core of democratic and representative government. No one gets his or her own way while trampling the rights and interests of others. That concept doesn’t seem to be at the heart of our politics anymore where everything is argued with a winner-take-all mentality.

It is ironic that many who are deeply embedded in the polarizing rhetoric will look you straight in the face and bemoan how divisive politics has become. We would suggest a lot less time on social media and more time in talking with friends, if you haven’t alienated or defriended them, about political issues.

Also, read newspapers. Research has shown that people who read local newspapers are less biased than those whose information comes from social media and partisan television programs.

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