There is a common narrative that has been nurtured in our culture that claims that America has become increasingly polarized politically, but the reality is America has not been polarized by ideology, it’s been segregated by the rise of activist Right-wing media.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Every day we are reminded again and again how polarized America has become. Story after story decries the loss of public debate between the Right and Left and we are asked to contemplate how we can find common ground between such differing political ideology. But the polarization narrative is not an accurate depiction of the current state of affairs in America. We have not become polarized because the Right has pulled right or that the Left has pulled left. Americans agree on a lot more than we disagree on, but we have become segregated into camps according to where we get our news.
The Right has done a masterful job of taking the most ardent criticisms leveled against them, and turning them into talking points to attack the Left. If the Right is attacked as being racist, they convince their viewers that it’s the Left that’s racist. White nationals are violent extremists? No, it’s the Antifa and Black Lives Matters groups who are violent and unpredictable. Republicans are willing to violate the Constitution to achieve their goals? No, it’s Democrats that spit on the Constitution and want to destroy America. But it’s gone beyond whataboutism.
The Right wing media isn’t even debating differences in ideology anymore, they are stoking hatred for anything deemed Liberal with disinformation and outright lies. Democrats believe women should have the right to choose to have an abortion within the confines of medical prudence, but the Right will tell its followers that Democrats want to be able to kill babies after they’re born. Democrats believe we should have sensible, humane immigration policies, but the Right will say that they want open borders. Democrats don’t want sensible gun control, they want to take your guns, round you up and put you in prison. Again, ironically, the Right are the ones clamoring to round people up and put them in camps.
So how did we get here? Is it Trump? The rise of white nationalism? Racism run amok? A failure of the political establishments?
In the early days of the 20th century, Congress combined and organized federal regulation of telephone, telegraph, and radio communications and created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oversee and regulate these industries. The Fairness Doctrine, introduced by the FCC in 1949, was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the FCC’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced.
Walter Cronkite served as a CBS Evening News anchorman for 19 years throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was often referred to as “the most trusted man in America” because he was the voice of the news. He didn’t offer opinion or political spin, he read the news soberly and eloquently, and regardless of your political affiliation, you trusted that what he said, were the facts of the day.
In 1987, the FCC, under Ronald Reagan, repealed the Fairness Doctrine while two corollary rules of the doctrine, the “personal attack“ rule and the “political editorial” rule, remained in practice.
The “personal attack” rule applied whenever a person (or small group) was subject to a personal attack during a broadcast. Stations had to notify such persons (or groups) within a week of the attack, send them transcripts of what was said and offer the opportunity to respond on-the-air. The “political editorial” rule applied when a station broadcast editorials endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, and stipulated that the unendorsed candidates be notified and allowed a reasonable opportunity to respond. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the FCC to justify these corollary rules in light of the decision to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC did not provide prompt justification so both corollary rules were repealed in October 2000.
No longer forbidden to offer a biased, politically motivated, or single-sided source of news to the American public, the rise of right-wing media outlets exploded. What had historically been conservative print media coverage in the the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, National Review, and New York Post, became hundreds of right-wing talk radio programs and stations throughout America, eventually leading to talk show celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
In October of 1996, Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch hired former Republican Party media consultant and CNBC executive Roger Ailes as the founding CEO of Fox News, a new network designed to appeal to a conservative audience.
Beginning in the early aughts, conservative blogs started becoming popular as an alternative to what was perceived as an increasingly liberal media. The Drudge Report began as an email newsletter in 1995 but became an online news aggregator in 1996 hiring Andrew Breitbart as his assistant. In 2008, Breitbart launched his own online news organization which spawned others such as The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, and the infamous Infowars site.
Today the media landscape is quite different from the days of three networks, and government oversight over responsible journalism. Americans no longer get their news from a common source, so there is no common language with which to have a debate of ideas.
The media isn’t even really a realistic term anymore since it’s so varied and fractured as to have been rendered meaningless. Instead of wondering who is the media really, you might ask yourself, who isn’t? Who is more influential, the publisher of the New York Times, or your racist uncle on Facebook? It depends on who you’re talking to.
According to the Pew Research Center, Television continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind. Still, Fox News, which leads cable news networks in viewership averages only 2.8 million total viewers, which is less than 1% of the American Electorate.
The fact that one in four Americans get the bulk of their news from online, is very telling and only likely to grow. The democratization of news reporting, which started with blogs and has exploded with social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, means that people are just are nearly as likely to be receiving their news from family or friends, as they are from national or local professional news sources. You don’t need a degree in journalism or a fact-checking department to launch a YouTube channel and spout anything that pops into your head as a rational opinion that should be considered. The fact that we’re willing to take the word of a stranger with unsourced material, because it was shared by a friend or family member, is how the Russians were able to be so effective in their meddling in the 2016 election.
“It’s on the internet,” they say. “It must be true.” Even when the veracity is questioned, it’s not considered part of the average American’s duty to fact check an article or claim. Put it out there and someone will tell me if it’s wrong. In this way, misinformation and easily debunked falsehoods go viral quickly and become extremely difficult to convince people of otherwise. Once we have absorbed an idea, it’s far more difficult to let go of it, even when presented with overwhelming evidence.
Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein people have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or under-weigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis. Therefore, if you believe that we are being invaded by immigrants that are coming to rape your women and sponge off your hard work, because that’s what you heard someone say and it fits your fears about an unsure future, you are going to seek out reinforcement of that idea. You will read news stories and share social media posts that confirm the original idea despite evidence to the contrary, and you will surround yourself with other likeminded individuals so that you are not infected by opposing views.
Confirmation bias isn’t distinctive to those on the Right of course, but they are far more prone to it due to psychological differences between people who describe themselves as conservative versus liberal.
Liberals are more likely to question everything in order and tend to value and enforce the truth using proven research methods, extensive documentation, and fact-checking. It doesn’t mean they are right; it just means they’ll go to much greater lengths to ensure that their beliefs about the world conform to empirical reality. The truth doesn’t happen by accident and most liberal institutions make it a top priority. Liberals also tend to be more open to new experiences, and seek to understand and engage with the complexity of the world around them.
This is not to say that conservatives don’t have any of these same characteristics, it’s just that empirically, they are found in far great numbers on the Left than on the Right.
Let’s look at some of the differences between those with a more progressive nature versus those with more a conservative nature. A progressive values equality, idealism, egalitarianism, and tends to look to the future. A conservative values equity, pragmatism, meritocracy and looks to the past. Progressives maintain a utopian vision whereby the world can be improved with new ideas. Conservatives are more interested in preservation and desire to protect the good things in the world. Progressives believe in a theory of all for one and one for all, where conservatives believe in the survival of the fittest. Progressives believe equality is created by providing a level playing field, while conservatives believe that equality is providing opportunity. Homeless are downtrodden victims of a flawed system in the minds of progressives, while conservatives view them having no work ethic or sense of shame. Conservatives desire to be self-reliant, while progressives desire to be fulfilled.
These are seen as being opposing viewpoints by both sides, but inherently good by each side as well. They are not good and bad, but different ways of seeing the world. Our national politics have potentially the same risks and rewards, obstacles and disconnects.
Republicans want to preserve what they remember as good. Democrats are constantly wanting to fix things. If you combined these two and met in the middle, you’d probably end up with some pretty good policy. Let’s keep what is good, and improve what is not. Simple.
Democrats want a community based on ethics and Republicans want a community based on morals. One wants personal freedom and the other wants economic freedom. One professes to be the champions of the downtrodden and the other to be champions of opportunity. These would be all good things for a society, like having two parents who don’t necessarily agree on the best way to raise a child. You take a little of each and compromise somewhere in the middle.
The problem today is that we have a media structure that profits from outrage and in the case of the Right, has abandoned any notion of impartiality or journalistic integrity in favor of political activism. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong as long as their side wins. There is no higher ideological goal. They’re no longer for smaller government, lower spending or free trade. They’re for winning and maintaining power and they’ve convinced large swaths of the country that they are under attack from their fellow countrymen.
At this point, there is not much point in trying to find middle ground on policy when we don’t share a common understanding of what is happening in the world. Democrats are left with no other choice than to muster every able bodied soul in America to become engaged and vote so that we can change the rules to allow for both sides to flourish.
The last few decades have seen a devastating dismantling of our democratic institutions and norms. The Senate is dysfunctional and barely operating, Citizens United allowed wealth to buy government, and our civil liberties are in danger of disappearing.
America is not polarized, we have become segregated. There is much that can be done to restore the rule of law and our democratic ideals, but first we have to win. Not a single election, although that’s the first step, but we have to win the war against the greed that is destroying democracy in America. We have to restore the idea of America as being for the people, and by the people, not simply for the people who can afford it.