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March 26, 2007

Polarization

One other bit from Matt's review that I wanted to highlight:

By November 2001 the president's approval among the public as a whole began a mostly steady decline, but the decline came almost exclusively among Democrats and independents, while Republicans stayed loyal. Similarly, Jacobson demonstrates that during the Bush years, Democrats and Republicans have given sharply divergent answers not only to questions of opinion but also to factual questions about their assessment of the economy, supposed evidence of Iraqi complicity in 9-11, and so forth.

This is the only part of the polarization that worries me. As the media grows ever more fractured, and partisans of both slants retreat to radio stations, blogs, and books that violently spin the news in a single direction, you're going to have the two sides increasingly talking about effectively different countries and events.

Every once in awhile, I tune into Limbaugh to hear what's being said over there, and it's like entering bizarro-America. The other day, the topic was how the Bush administration is a weak, kindly crew whose primary failing is an unwillingness to retaliate against opponents and a strangely accommodating attitude towards unreasonable Congressional demands. The difference between that characterization and my perception isn't a bridgeable argument -- we're talking about different realities. And that seems worrisome.

March 26, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

That's what propaganda does. You're just verifying its reality. Fox news viewers support Bush. That's why it's corporate media.
Go to http://www.prwatch.org/ and have a look at part of the problem - video advertisements used as news and not identified as such.

Posted by: opit | Mar 26, 2007 11:00:35 AM

Ezra -- you're assuming that the partisan identifiers are static. Since 2001, the number of folks who call themselves "Republicans" has shrunk, and the number of "Indeps" has grown.

So it's more a case, methinks, that Bush & the GOP has so politicized the party identifier that dissenters are not just critical, but no longer self-identify as Republicans.

Posted by: LK | Mar 26, 2007 11:14:02 AM

As Matt Nisbett mentions (on his blog on scienceblogs.com/framingscience) in context of partisan belief in global warming, as the GOP shrinks, what remains are the diehards.

Those who are leaving the GOP are joining the reality-based community, those who are staying are the nuttiest ones. This does not explain the motives, but explains the statistics.

Posted by: coturnix | Mar 26, 2007 11:17:04 AM

Every once in awhile, I tune into Limbaugh to hear what's being said over there, and it's like entering bizarro-America. The other day, the topic was how the Bush administration is a weak, kindly crew whose primary failing is an unwillingness to retaliate against opponents and a strangely accommodating attitude towards unreasonable Congressional demands. The difference between that characterization and my perception isn't a bridgeable argument -- we're talking about different realities. And that seems worrisome.

No kidding? You just now figured that out?

I don't really mean to be snarky, but maybe you should spend a bit more time checking on these shows. Not just Limbaugh. There are a whole slew of them out there and they're ALL on message, ALL the time. It can be an eyeopener.

Posted by: Roger | Mar 26, 2007 11:25:06 AM

It's not that it's a newsflash that the sky is a different color in the world where Limbaugh and his audience live, but it is still shocking to see it in action though, no matter how many times I have seen it before.

Posted by: jmack | Mar 26, 2007 11:31:09 AM

Ahem---didn't Cass Sunstein make this point, like, five years ago?

Posted by: Jack Roy | Mar 26, 2007 12:00:08 PM

you're going to have the two sides increasingly talking about effectively different countries and events.

France, Italy, Spain, have been this way for years, and have more-or-less successfully managed.

When I lived in a small Italian town of 3,000 or so there was a Christian Democratic bar, a PCI bar, and a bar for the tifosi of the Naples soccer team. Each took different newspapers and magazines, had the radio on a different station, had different coffe (Illy v. Lavazza, e.g.) and might as well have been in a different country than the other two.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Mar 26, 2007 12:03:40 PM

I think your right. But you say this:

"violently spin the news in a single direction."

It seems to me you are almost yearning for that objective arbiter that does not spin news and does not spin history.

That newspaper, that historian does not exist. Everything is spin. The only difference is, some versions of the same story are more realistic than others. However, just because one story seems more likely does not mean that people are more likely to believe it.

Posted by: Tony | Mar 26, 2007 12:19:09 PM

"When I lived in a small Italian town of 3,000 or so there was a Christian Democratic bar, a PCI bar, and a bar for the tifosi of the Naples soccer team."

True, and Italy still functions. But it's not particularly stable compared to the American system - isn't this the country where they replace the Prime Minister, on average, once a year?

I'd rather not live in a country where I'm expected to have a drink with someone opposite my own views. Fine, let's keep Fox News and Air America and the rest, but let's also have some real commonality. "Different realities" aren't for me.

DU

Posted by: The Mechanical Eye | Mar 26, 2007 12:24:29 PM

I had this driven home to me during the 2004 presidential race. I used to enjoy good-spirited political argument with my family, all wingnuts in contrast with my libertarianish-socially liberal Republicanism (I'm now in recovery, thank you). But at one point in an argument with my mother, I threw up a factual example, and my mother demanded to know the source. It was the NY Times, and when I told her so, she snorted derisively and refused to entertain the truth of the point I had cited.

Now that I'm a big old pinko liberal, I have plenty of problems with the Times, but I still understand that, with caution, I can reasonably trust most of the factual reporting, at least for the sake of argument - it's the analysis that's dangerous territory. But I realized in this conversation that all the mau-mauing of the press that the right has done over the years has made any useful political discussion impossible between the camps because there is no trusted source of information for both sides to draw on.

I see this as a very important and difficult-to-address problem. The only way so far I can see of approaching this is to draw on the trust that's required of interpersonal relationships. In other words, getting people talking to each other in a non-confrontational context. I have had more success talking sense to wingnuts when we weren't explicitly in a political argument, but rather discussing our own personal reactions to issues or news. I realize this is a "no shitting" assertion, but I think the trick is to refocus the conversation from being between the tribes and their trusted authorities, to being between the tribes themselves.

Posted by: cerebrocrat | Mar 26, 2007 12:26:04 PM

Having drinks w/a friend nominally from the other side of the aisle the other night and she was telling me about how complete the "other world-ness" of life can be.

People in the x-tian conservative culture are re-writing history. Every event is explained from within a neo-biblical narrative. Thanks to homeschooling and "lifestyle center" mega-churche/malls (where xtians can go shopping, banking, get coffee, and basically anything one might normally do) we will have a generation of children that actually has two radically different bases for understanding reality.

The whole history, the way of understanding science, everything about a cultural mindset will be different.

As I write this it occurs to me that this is kind of like Ireland, or the Balkans.

Davis X. has a good point, societies live like this quite well. What will be interesting in our case is how much develops in the way of violent tensions. But also, I think a lot if this culture is unstable internally in the other direction too. Americans want to be sexy, after all. What I am most curious to see is if there is a cultural movement in xtianty more akin to the mega-churches that were depicted as mainstream society in Stranger in a Strange Land, which were like a very sexually permissive xtianty. I think there's a high likelihiood of this.

But yes, very different reality.

Posted by: chimneyswift | Mar 26, 2007 12:26:10 PM

This is why, instead of Air America, we need an NPR and a PBS that have a greater variety of points of view in positions that affect programming: hosts, producers, etc. It's inexcusable the way public broadcasting skews in its key personnel.

That France and other countries manage to get by with schizophrenia doesn't mean it isn't a problem there. An informed electorate matters, and if the electorate can only understand a narrow and skewed part of the picture they aren't well informed.

I'm surprised I keep seeing the term "reality-based community" used seriously, when it really ought to be reserved for jokes. It's stupid and arrogant to suppose your views are the different because they're the ones based in reality. Especially when it's so often manifestly untrue--one of the first lessons any truly reality-based person would notice.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 26, 2007 12:26:34 PM

Sweet jumpin jeebus how many times have I tried to make this point? Not long ago, in the global warming thread I was trying to get across that "debate" as such, just isn't possible when one side can't even see the basic objective facts. Look at fred. How many times do his arguments start, not from some contrary reality point but something else altogether. It makes the discussion, the debate, pointless and ridiculous. While the republicans have made this an art form, their media is as much to blame not bothering to do more than take down dictation from their sources and view it as uncritically as most American's do. Or, the other way around, becuase some drugg addled gasbag such as limbaugh says the NYT is a liberal propaganda machine, then nothing they print is true.

It's like arguing with children, except without the cute excuse of the other person being a child.

Posted by: ice weasel | Mar 26, 2007 12:28:36 PM

Everything is spin.

This sounds like something from a late-night college stoner session-- "What if, like, nothing was, like real and everything was just different perspective! Way out, man!"

It's not to far a leap from "everything is spin" to "objective" news reports with titles "Shape of Earth: Views Differ."

And Sanpete, I'm woefully uninterested in "different viewpoints." I'm interest in what happened. I'm not interested in what Tony Snow said is important. I'm interested in what is important. The Republicans derided Democrats as members of the "reality based community" because they were interested in evaluating reality while Republicans were interested in changing reality.

Posted by: Tyro | Mar 26, 2007 12:34:28 PM

"An informed electorate matters, and if the electorate can only understand a narrow and skewed part of the picture they aren't well informed."

Sanpete, doesn't this answer your own question in the NYT thread?

Posted by: jmack | Mar 26, 2007 12:34:55 PM

So, Davis X. Machina, don't keep me in suspense - am I drinking the wrong coffee? I've been buying Illy (I don't think I've ever seen Lavazza in the States).

Posted by: msw | Mar 26, 2007 12:43:14 PM

It's like arguing with children, except without the cute excuse of the other person being a child.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to more ignorance on the Left, of which there's no shortage. If you read this blog without a partisan eye, it's easy enough to see that there are unreasonable people with unrealistic views making silly arguments on all sides.

And Sanpete, I'm woefully uninterested in "different viewpoints." I'm interest in what happened.

Tyro, unless you're God, you're unlikely to know what really happened independently of the reports of people with their own views, and you will benefit from hearing different points of view about it.

Sanpete, doesn't this answer your own question in the NYT thread?

No, not at all.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 26, 2007 12:50:09 PM

Cripes, it's like some people saw Return of the Jedi and were "blown away" when Obi Wan told Luke, "Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view," and we, like totally blown away, man, and they never got over it.

When you base "news" on "what people's point of view on reality" is, you get a system where people can influence the content of news merely by screaming the loudest about what their perspective is.

What Tom DeLay says about Iraq is not "news." What is happening in Iraq is news.

Posted by: Tyro | Mar 26, 2007 1:06:30 PM

Hmm. I tend to think that's it's not the presence of wildly varying viewpoints and spin that is the problem, but the self-cloistering of people into one viewpoint only. I personally like the idea of 8 or 9 or more media outlets with their own take on politics, even the nuttiest ones. If Limbaugh and his listeners want to live in a bizarro-world, let them, provided those who think differently have access to the same media.

Demanding that a given media outlet be balanced is a recipe for blandness. Let Fox proclaim itself the crackpot network it is and glory in it. Yay for democracy. But then Air America should be able to do the same. You can't account for a bias that tries to hide itself...better to have it in the open and proud. A truly free media would have a Limbaugh and a Mark Maron and 100 others, all letting their freak flags (so to speak) fly. Inevitably, there would be outlets staking out the middle ground; let the listeners decide who is trustworthy on a given topic.

Posted by: emjaybee | Mar 26, 2007 1:08:48 PM

As the media grows ever more fractured, and partisans of both slants retreat to radio stations, blogs, and books that violently spin the news in a single direction, you're going to have the two sides increasingly talking about effectively different countries and events.
Memeorandum daily provides a vivid illustration of this. They'll have story X, about (say) deteriorating conditions in Iraq, and story Y, about a Democratic county commissioner busted for drunk driving. If you weren't already familiar with the political views of the various bloggers, you'd be able to figure them out: blogs writing about the former are liberal-to-moderate, while blogs linking to the latter are all wingnuts. There are two sets of 'news', and the intersection between them is very small.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Mar 26, 2007 1:10:13 PM

I'm going to come down on the "let their freak flags fly" stance here. We need more people reporting on news that matters to readers. Less "balanced" attempts at "news" that amounts to "freak X says Y! spokeman Z says Y is untrue. I guess we'll never know the truth, but it's good that our esteemed news outlet can provide you with balanced coverage!"

"Balanced" coverage just provides free advertising to the freakiest and the loudest. The freaks can afford to hire their own PR firms. They shouldn't be taking advantage of news organizations' desire to provide "balance" to give them free publicity.

Posted by: Tyro | Mar 26, 2007 1:16:20 PM

"This is the kind of thinking that leads to more ignorance on the Left, of which there's no shortage. If you read this blog without a partisan eye, it's easy enough to see that there are unreasonable people with unrealistic views making silly arguments on all sides."

Absolutely true and absolutely irrelevant to the question of whether or not a particular view is "reality based." By definition anything reality based is subject to independent, verifiable proofs and tests. Unless you're a Post Modern relativist and either deny that any such animal as objective reality exists or, if it does exist, it's impossible for us to describe it, observing that there is foolishness on all sides proves nothing accept that there can be foolishness on all sides.

It certainly doesn't prove that both sides of a debate are equally detached from reality just because they both have nutters in their respective corners. A fool can argue that the earth revolves around the sun and a fool can argue that the sun revolves around the earth. The fact that both are fools doesn't mean that their opinions are equally foolish, or argue against one of these opinions being "reality based" while the other is not.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 26, 2007 1:26:09 PM

Tyro, you seem to be arguing with some college buddies rather than with what I've said. First, I'm not just talking about news. The majority of programming on NPR and PBS isn't news. Second, I'm not advocating news or anything else based on just reporting different views. I'd be interested in your comments on what I've actually said.

MJB, no one is arguing we shouldn't allow Fox to be Fox and so on. The point is that we need better outlets that those with different proclivities can listen to as a kind of common ground, or at least to hear more views than their own being privileged. Public broadcasting, in particular, should be such an outlet. Instead our tax dollars are providing a source dominated by liberal voices, with very few if any conservatives in positions that directly affect program content. An abuse of tax funds, in the sense of promoting particular political slants, and a missed opportunity for something we could need as a public service.

WBR, what I said was addressed to a particular line of argument, to which it was a proper response. I didn't argue for what you seem to be arguing against. If you'd like to use different arguments to support the same conclusion weasel was arguing for, go ahead.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 26, 2007 1:37:37 PM

I think the most victimized, put upon country and government) in the world was Nazi Germany around 1938.

Posted by: Harry the Pensioner | Mar 26, 2007 1:42:05 PM

Sanpete, I agree with you about PBS. I mean, just the other day, I was watching Pat Buchanan, Tom Blankly, and George Will on The McLaughlin Group and Washington Week about who there is too much liberal bias in the media.

Also, the reprentatives from the Heritage Foundation who give commentaries on NPR keep me aware that I should watch out for the domination of liberal voices on that channel.

Posted by: Tyro | Mar 26, 2007 1:43:09 PM

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