I know, I know, I talk about polarization a lot in this blog. That’s only because it’s a core problem in our political system that insidiously affects other areas of life.
A few days ago I conducted an interview with Mr. Dale Rice, professor and Director of the Journalism program at Texas A&M University. He spent 35 years as a journalist, excelling in numerous jobs within the field. He’s been a a general assignments reporter, city hall reporter, education writer, capital bureau chief, business editor, deputy features editor and restaurant critic. Long story short: he knows his shit.
Here’s what he had to say:
Me: Why do you think political polarization has increased so drastically within the past decade?
Dale: I think there are 2 big factors behind the increase in polarization. One is in the last several decades, the people who vote in the primaries have really been dominated by those in the fringes of their parties. Consequently, you’ve moved people away from this center. As the right and the left have become more influential in the primaries, you begin to weed out all those centrist people. There’s probably a third one [reason], as to where redistricting has been made to guarantee seats. It has occurred across the country. Finally, politics and the division in politics has become intensely personal; people unwilling to compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word, especially in places like Washington.
Me: Why has politics gotten more personal?
D: You can have people that are very pro choice, and people that are very anti abortion still respect each other, and the understanding of that other position. They look at it and think “Are there any things we can do to compromise?” When it becomes personal is when you start attacking the other person saying “You’re anti woman!” or “You are evil because of your support for abortion!”
Me: How does social media contribute to polarization?
D: I think it’s allowed the entire political atmosphere to become nasty. When you think about what kind of political communication people had 30 years ago, you could write letters to the editor, and if they were too nasty, too insightful (meaning to incite anger), editors read those and threw them in the trash can. They covered things with a more respectful tone to it. Now, with social media, it is so easy for everyone to, on the spur of the moment, say whatever they want and say it when they’re angry, say things that are insulting, say things that are personal and I think social media has enabled that because there are no filters. Previously, political communication had more filters on it. That’s a real challenge. Today, I was looking on Politico, and in one of the new polls said that a majority of people believe even reputable websites are producing fake news. People are willing to buy into this idea that every body is subjective, every body is out to get the other person. Jay Rosen, who is a professor at new York univ, and who writes an influential political blog that is called pressthink.org, he was talking about since the 70s, the Gallup poll, most years, has asked a question of Americans. And its “to what degree do you have confidence in newspapers?” In 1979, 51% said they either had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers. In 2016, only 20% said they had a great deal or quite a lot.
More to come in the next post.