The cable news talking heads report that we are a deeply polarized electorate, at the same time the cable news network’s report poll data about “The New American Center”. This latest poll justifies reporting from the middle. Both claims are reported as new, the polarization is new and caused by violent computer games (there is a well crafted argument outlining this claim), and at the opposite, the “New American Center” is recent. Reading the essays, the polls and the reporting from both sides of these two claims I am struck by the self justification on display. I will consider this in a longer time frame and a larger context.
News organization must operate at a profit, or they cease to exist. Yellow journalism is an established business model for news organizations. From Wikipedia, “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.” As the consumers of news we want the latest scandal, complete with shocking revelations, we want news that conforms to our views, and we demanded stories that justify our beliefs. The owners and editors of news organizations have known this for centuries. The cable news denizens have to give us something “new”, hence the “new” polarization stories and the “new” American center poll. There is nothing “new” here; instead this is a creative attempt at a controversial story. The truth is more interesting but requires nuance.
Americans are ideologically conservative and functionally liberal. Most of us are in favor of a smaller government, more freedom and lower taxes. That is an ideology 70% of Americans agree with, at the same time most of us agree (the same 70% actually) that soldiers have earned their VA benefits, that someone who has worked hard for 50 years deserve their Social Security and Medicare. Most agree that VA benefits, Social Security and Medicare should receive more funding and be strengthened. I have just described myself, and I am ideologically conservative while being functionally liberal.
Polarization is based on misinformation and is highly profitable. Talking with coworkers, friends and relatives I find the most vocal are also the most misinformed. Those that point out the Low Information Voters are themselves Low (valid) Information Voters. Hearing their antidotes I could get angry myself, I don’t wish to give free stuff to lazy people; I don’t want my food stamp tax dollars buying steak for drug using illegal immigrants. The facts don’t support the antidotal stories. Most food stamp recipients are Wal-Mart employees or work at McDonalds. Most food stamp recipients work long hard hours at the best job they could get; the hourly wage just isn’t enough to feed a family. Inflammatory misinformation is high profitable for the purveyors of the material, the cable news network will have a higher viewership, and the author of an expositive book can earn millions of dollars.
Looking through all this for something “new” can become discouraging. As the bible noted millennia ago, there is nothing new under the sun. The speed that we can be misinformed has certainly increased but the speed that we can be correctly informed has also increased. While people have not changed our tools have, the internet holds as much promise as peril.