Archives - Politics: Page 20
Author: paul carson (Sat Nov 18, 2006 1:00 pm)
Have you been trying to ignore this election? Do you avoid talking politics with friends? Do you tune out right-wing talk shows and stay away from left-wing blogs? Do you change channels as soon as you hear the words “Pelosi,” “Foley,” “cut and run” or “macaca”?
Then you owe it to your country to vote today. It’s the rest of us who should stay home.
We’ve lost our bearings because we’ve followed the old advice to discuss this amongst ourselves. Democracy, we’ve been told, is best served when informed citizens deliberate the issues of the day, pooling their wisdom to reach a judicious consensus.
But what really happens when people discuss politics? Consider an experiment last year, when groups of Coloradans convened separately in Boulder and Colorado Springs to discuss global warming, affirmative action and civil unions for same sex couples. Before the discussions, the people in Boulder were on average more liberal than the ones in Colorado Springs, but there were also moderates in both places whose opinions overlapped.
After the group discussions, the people in Boulder moved to the left, and those in Colorado Springs moved to the right. The researchers David Schkade, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie concluded that “the major effect of deliberation was to make group members more extreme than they were before they started to talk.”
This effect hasn’t been studied much in politics, but it’s well documented in other arenas. When jurors deliberate how much to award in damages, they often end up giving more than the average juror originally thought was fair and sometimes more than anyone in the group originally favored. The more they talk, the more they reinforce one another’s indignation.
Group polarization is less of a problem if the people start with a wide range of opinions — even if they tend to shift in whatever direction the majority favors, they’ll at least be exposed to other views and become more tolerant. There’s some evidence that if you purposely assemble a diverse group of discussants and systematically educate them about an issue, some of the people will moderate their opinions.
But when people informally discuss politics, they often don’t hear a range of views. As in Boulder and Colorado Springs, they may be surrounded by like minded people in their neighborhoods, churches and offices. During local elections, they’re much more likely now than in the past to hear one sided rhetoric because gerrymandering has produced so many one-sided districts, making it impossible for moderate candidates to survive.
Thanks to cable television, talk radio and the Internet, it’s easier than ever for people to have their opinions validated around the clock. As the media audiences segregate themselves ideologically, they become more extreme in their views and more convinced than ever that they represent the sensible middle.
When conservatives have their views reinforced daily on talk radio and Sundays at their churches, they start to believe the “mainstream media” is a bunch of wacko traitors. When liberals spend their days reading lefty blogs, or working on campuses surrounded by ideological soulmates, they start convincing themselves that most “corporate media” are right wing, and that Fox News is pure propaganda.
In fact, most journalists do try to be objective, but as a group they, too, can become polarized by spending most of their time talking to fellow journalists and experts with similar views. One of the cleverest demonstrations of this effect was a study published last year in Harvard’s Quarterly Journal of Economics. The researchers, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, devised a scale for measuring the slant of news reports by keeping track of which think tanks liberal or conservative were quoted most often.
The researchers found that The Washington Times and Brit Hume’s evening newscast on Fox fell on the conservative side of the scale, while all the other news media outlets they studied fell on the liberal side. The surprising result to liberals, at least was that Fox was closer to the ideological center than the Big Three evening newscasts as well as all the major newspapers and newsweeklies.
Of course, these ideological divides are small compared with the ones in the blogosphere, which is one giant version of the Colorado experiment. You can always find a group online to affirm your brilliant opinions. It’s immensely satisfying, but it can also make Election Day a miserable experience. Tonight, you can’t help noticing how many ignorant people out there disagree with you.
grow and be kind
The government should organize one huge, public assembly designed to correctly inform voters of both sides of an issue, without enforcing any ideological bias. It could be held in a neutral setting, moderated by people who have no political interests in the upcoming election, and cover all the issues of the country, big and small. The challenge would be, of course, how to keep such an assembly from becoming biased, and massaging it's personal beliefs into the mix. Although the media tries to remain unbiased, most of the time, they are still looking to turn a profit and to support their advertisers. My assembly would not allow any commercials (when seen on TV). It would be aired on a station such as C-Span that is dedicated to informing the citizens of government decisions, by simply allowing them to watch on their own. What other ideas for this assembly can you think of? I think it would solve some of our political problems.