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Driven Apart or Drawn Together?

by Stu Johnson

Posted: November 21, 2018

Reflections on the state of the nation at the mid-term elections…



Mike Church

It has been interesting to be part of political conversations on both sides of the red-blue divide. What is most remarkable is how they are mirror images of each other.  Each side sees the other in the same negative way:  as off-the-rails, falling for lies and distortion, and incapable of reasonable discussion.  The impact of the political divide is especially notable across religious lines, particularly among those who claim unity as followers of Christ.

Part 1: Partisanship in the Mid-Term Elections
Part 2: Driven Apart
Part 3: Drawn Together

PART 1: PARTISANSHIP IN THE MID-TERM ELECTIONS

An election analysis I found helpful comes from opinion research by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago and election results reported by the Associated Press.  The study was commissioned by Fox News. I know, half of you will want to stop reading right now but bear with me!

Fox admitted that use of exit polls and other techniques, which led to disastrous results in 2016, were no longer appropriate. Under the new strategy, NORC would survey upwards of 140,000 registered voters over several days using several polling techniques. The size of the sample and the methodology used allowed for statistically valid results over multiple demographic and ideological variables down to the state level (but not congressional districts). There were 46 states with state-wide elections (governor and/or senate).  Fox used the Associated Press for its reporting of election results in each state, showing the statistical probability of predicted results in real time. Detailed voter analysis based on the NORC survey was not posted until a day or two after the election.   (See www.foxnews.com/midterms-2018). 

The survey covered a wide range of topics assessing the current administration and specific issues. Looking at the results, I saw four broad types of responses.
The notation following each topic shows overall response for the indicated option and the level and party of the dominant response for that option. A survey like this, at this level of analysis, will typically have a margin of error of about 3%.

POLAR OPPOSITES. On some issues, there was near balance between opposing views, which strongly followed party lines. 

Here are two that seem to reflect clear ideological differences, though it is also possible that outright partisan allegiance is also at work (the former would be evidenced by an ability to explain the position, the latter as ideological group-think):

  • Role of government: Should do more to solve problems 49% (71% D), Doing too many things better left to business and individuals 49% (68% R)
  • 2017 tax law:  Approve 48% (78% R), Disapprove 48% (81% D)

“Selective perception” and “source credibility”—two concepts I will return to later—are clearly seen in questions about a causal link between partisan political talk and acts of violence: 

  • The way Democrats talk about politics leads to an increase in acts of violence: Yes 48% (75% R), No 51% (78% D)
  • The way Republicans talk about politics leads to an increase in acts of violence: Yes 55% (78% D), No 44% (79% R)

ATTENTION-GETTING EXTREMES. On some issues, the sharpest partisanship was most evident at the extremes.  If focus is given to those extremes in media coverage, social media and other public forums, it will likely heighten the sense of intense partisanship, at the same time ignoring potential avenues of agreement or discussion around a broader middle ground.

  • Condition of national economy: Excellent 12% (84% R), Poor 6% (78% D)
  • Views of abortion: Legal in all cases 25% (77% D), Illegal in all cases 14% (71% R)

MIXED. While those looking for extreme partisanship will find plenty of fodder in the NORC survey of election results, there were a few issues where the results might be called leaning rather than polarized:

  • Concern about men not being given the opportunity to defend themselves against allegations of sexual misconduct:  Very/Somewhat concerned: 74% (41% D, 54% R) – Not too/Not at all was more partisan, with 25% overall, but 70% D and 22% R.

COMMON GROUND.  Only one issue showed genuine bi-partisan response. Of course, it focused on the problem, not the potential approach to addressing it, where a partisan divide would likely arise.

  • Concern about use of opioids in your community: Very/Somewhat 82% (50% D, 46% R)

PART 2: DRIVEN APART—STRATIFICATION AND SILOS

American politics has always been highly partisan, from the years leading to the American Revolution, through the often-stormy history of our republic, to the present. Unlike the coalition governments in other countries, the two-party system that quickly evolved in America increases ideological partisanship. Why does it seem so intense today? Is it really getting worse? 

I would dare say that a lack of historical perspective and decline of civics education have not helped, but there is something much more pervasive. Many Americans are highly attuned to the details of pop culture, while remaining “Chronic Know-Nothings” regarding the details of how government works and who represents us (a concept introduced by social science research in the 1920s). Let me suggest a confluence of social change and technology to explain what I have observed.

It was not that long ago that those Americans who did pay attention got their news from one of three commercial television networks and/or one of several newspapers and news magazines.  Dramatic social change in the 1960s would be followed by technological change; the two streams combining to make us more diverse and more complicated as a nation, rather than more unified—an overflowing cornucopia rather than a melting pot, if you will. 

Instead of relatively few options for getting information with some degree of commonality, technology has exploded into an overwhelming mosaic of options, leading to ever greater diversity on many levels. We have seen dramatic changes in information technology (media and computers), with costs dropping, capabilities rising and access expanding. 

Let me suggest one example that illustrates how much the world of information technology has changed, and how that has changed us:

When I taught television production at Wheaton College (IL), the cost of computer editing systems available in the 1980s was staggering—in fact, to contemplate the integration of digital computers with the analog technology of cameras and tape recorders was beyond imagination for many old school engineers. 

Today, I have professional editing software on my personal computer with far greater capability than the system we drooled over thirty years ago—and the information-handling capability of the internet means I can get all of the Adobe software I need through a single online subscription that costs less than buying just one product like Adobe Premiere for video editing on CD (and before that a multitude of disks).  My digital SLR camera can take video that rivals dedicated cameras that would have cost many thousands of dollars back in the 20th century!  You Tube would not be what is today without the ubiquitous smart phone video camera

If you were born after 1990, I’m not sure you can appreciate how staggering are the changes in the field of video production alone—the number and quality of original productions by multiple cable channels and independent studios, even web streaming channels that bypass traditional distribution altogether is amazing.  This is driven not only by the affordability and portability of the equipment needed, but equally so by the huge pool of talent (in front of and behind the camera) that has developed to generate this amount of content. In fact, this sea-change in technology has made it possible for individuals to become producers and publishers, as well as consumers.

Life in a Land of Silos


What all this social and technological change has meant is that information production and, most importantly consumption, has become highly segmented or stratified.  Instead of a few sources with virtual monopolies—whether TV networks, newspapers, or single screen movie theaters—today we live in a marketplace with many options.  Even the once -grand movie “palace” in many communities has been chopped up into two or more small theaters—if they survive at all.  All the diversity, however, has led to levels of stratification not known before.  

In terms of news, cable television not only produced the 24-hour news cycle, but the proliferation of offerings began to divide along the ideological spectrum into what has been described as “silos.”  That is an appropriate illustration, because it emphasizes three classic concepts in communication:

  • Selective attention – given a choice of content, we choose where to focus our attention, whether it’s which TV program to watch, magazine article or Facebook post to read, or which part of a conversation to tune into.  Our attention will gravitate to the option that we feel most comfortable with, one that matches our worldview, if you will.  Where choice is limited, we may simply turn off or minimize our attention, or find two other concepts that come into play:
     
  • Selective perception—the famous situation of eyewitnesses to the same event coming up with different descriptions.  Even when we give attention to something, how we attend to it and what we understand it to mean is affected by your own background, perspective (worldview), and specific circumstances  that can shape how you react and interpret a communication event.  How much conflict in drama is based on misperceptions and assumptions that lead to the wrong conclusion?
     
  • Source credibility—what messages you attend to and how you perceive them is greatly affected by the credibility you assign to the source of communication. In political coverage, left-leaning viewers cannot fathom why anyone would watch, much less believe, what they see on Fox News.  Yet, Fox News viewers think the same of those who have high regard for MSNBC, CNN and others. (The three major television networks hardly enter the conversation anymore because of the 24-hour presence of cable news, though PBS has found an interesting niche that comes closest to striking a balance).

    The interesting thing about source credibility is what happens when a source you hold in high regard begins to conflict with your position.  When source credibility is extremely high, you may be persuaded to begin changing your own position. If your view on a position is immutable, however, the resolution to that conflict is to lower your regard for that source.

All three of these concepts can be powerful forces that intensify when information becomes highly stratified or siloed.

Throwing social media into the mix—pushing the partisan button

Another powerful change in information technology that must be considered for its contribution to partisanship is social media.  While the potential for people to cluster around opposing viewpoints is obvious, I was struck by recent revelations about Facebook’s use of algorithms to promote partisanship.

Simply put, an algorithm is a mathematical/logical template used to drive messages where they will have the most impact or fit a desired pattern. For example, the search filter for articles on this website uses a simple algorithm. How advertisers or content providers get things to your computer screen are far more complex and involve tremendous amounts of information about you, voluntarily revealed by you through social media or revealed through public and commercial databases.   

In a recent 2-part investigation of Facebook, PBS’s Frontline delved into the inner workings of the social media giant. Of interest for this post was discussion of how Facebook used algorithms to direct news feeds in a highly partisan manner.  To me this shows how easy it is to naively assign or allow source credibility.  You must understand that you are a target. 

When you view a newcast or read a newspaper, every other consumer starts with common material.  Yes, it may be distorted by selective filters, but the same content is available to each viewer/reader. If you use news feeds, especially on social media it is possible—and Facebook has pushed it aggressively—to tailor the content you receive to your own leanings. 

While it is possible to develop algorithms that would stir constructive conversation, stirring division brings a level of attention that, not so coincidentally, also expands the bottom line.  Ever wonder how Mark Zuckerberg and so many other Silicone Valley entrepreneurs could attain such wealth when their companies don’t appear to sell anything?  In the end, Facebook does much more than connect people together.  It has become a huge conduit for targeted advertising and content delivery, where billions are spent trying to reach ever-richer targets because the combination of massive amounts of data and powerful algorithms make campaigns more efficient.

What has happened to civil discourse in America through social media—making it a most uncivil arena—has had even more disastrous results in other countries.  The Frontline report and more recent work by the New York Times have shown that Facebook’s approach of heightening conflict and stirring action have backfired in tragic ways.  Egypt, Ukraine, Myanmar.  Failed rebellion. Genocide. Manipulation. Evil actors.

Social media seemed to be a beacon of hope, the joyful encourager of popular uprisings, but the power to stir up was not enough to bring peaceful revolution.  Along with Russia’s weaponization of Facebook, these examples strike me as an indication of how naïve the inventors of social media have been.  Just as what some critics are predicting for AI (Artificial Intelligence), with social media a relatively small cadre of bright, idealistic young people created something whose power far exceeds anything they could have imagined. They try to downplay the negatives while their creatures have turned against them. 

PART 3: DRAWN TOGETHER—FINDING COMMON GROUND

Fear has been expressed from multiple directions suggesting that continuing to intensify the partisan divide in America will tear the country apart.  Historically, it would not be the first time—America has survived terrible and literal division in the Civil War, times of economic strife and world conflict, deep political and ideological divides over Vietnam, Civil Rights, immigration, and on and on.  Somehow, we do have a common creed that holds us together, even if only by the barest thread at times. 

I have heard simplistic arguments that call for bi-partisanship, though this usually means “come to my side,” instead of “let’s sit down and see what we can agree on.”   As I suggested in my interpretation of the NORC/Fox 2018 mid-term election survey, some progress may be possible if we focus on the larger areas of potential common ground rather than focusing on and turning up the volume on the vocal minorities at either end of the ideological spectrum.

In a column that appeared the other day in my local paper, columnist Kathleen Parker described the mid-term election as a “purplish wave” rather than a blue wave or tsunami.  In this she saw hope (emphasis added):

Come January, this town is about to get lots more interesting and animated — and just possibly much better. Since no one asked, I thought I would offer some advice.

First, to Republicans: Change the soundtrack on immigration and make your voices louder than the president’s. Without a doubt, immigration is tough, but it needn’t be apocalyptic. As of now, the GOP is increasingly viewed as racist — not without reason.

. . .  make conservatism cool again. Speak intelligently to young Americans about things such as freedom as a counterpoint to the socialist vision increasingly in vogue on the left. More government always means less freedom, but maybe no one has explained this. Paging William F. Buckley, RIP.

To Democrats: Resist the temptation to be worse than Republicans. If we keep this up, with each side bringing ever-more extreme views to the table, we won’t have a country. We’ll have two countries. Don’t waste time on impeachment — either the president’s or Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s, as some are urging. Ultimately, this would rupture the country beyond repair. Not that politicians care about polls, but exit surveys showed that only 39 percent thought Democrats should seek to impeach.

Finally, Mr. President, with all due respect: You’re the commander in chief of the free world. This means that people will listen to you no matter what. Maybe no one has ever told you this before, but you absolutely have the option of being gracious, humble, generous, self-effacing and kind — while also being tough. Bury your TV personality and try to charm America, starting with the media. It’s so easy to make them eat out of your hand.

Smile. It so becomes you. Especially smile at your enemies, perceived or real. It infuriates them — and you’ll still get the last laugh. . . .

See the full column on the Washington Post website.

In the church I attend, we have just started a series of adult classes on the impact of modern technology on the expression of Christian faith.  The first two sessions dealt with social media.  The second, “Social  Media in Our Public Lives,” was led by Dr. Amy Black, Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College (IL). Her presentation hit so many points I resonate with, that I asked her for permission to share some of them here. 

Common Sense

In a “Joint Statement on Election Day Preparations” (November 5, 2018, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) we find this advice:

But Americans should be aware that foreign actors—and Russia in particular—continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord. They can do this by spreading false information about political processes and candidates, lying about their own interference activities, disseminating propaganda on social media, and through other tactics.
. . . Get election information straight from the source—your state or local election office. Call them or check their website. They will have accurate information you can trust on the status of your voter registration, polling hours and location, identification requirements, and election results.
Be smart when consuming or sharing election-related information: Know your source—and think before you link. Compare reporting from multiple sources to determine reliable information. Before sharing, ask yourself, “Who wrote it? Who posted it? What are their sources?”

Dr. Black suggested that the Bible and our Christian faith should inform the way we handle our use of social media. I will share two areas with you here. The first was a series of thoughts based on material from Alan Jacobs, also from Wheaton College, prior to his incorporating them into his book Time to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

  • I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  • I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  • I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  • I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  • If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  • Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  • Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  • Some conversations are more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

Dr. Black ended her session with several passages from the Bible.  I must say that had she not used them, I certainly would have—they are among my own favorites on the subject of Christian character. All passages are from the New International Version (NIV)—the link goes to the passages on BibleGateway.com, where you can select other versions, see the broader context, and find other resources.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 5:19-26

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
James 1:19-20

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Philippians 4:8

To follow these guidelines does not guarantee unity nor remove the differences of opinion that are part of our diversity as human beings, but if we recognize that we are all created in the image of God, these principles provide a solid platform upon which we can attempt to be drawn together rather than driven apart.

This article was originally posted on Stu Johnson's InfoMatters blog.


Stu Johnson is principal of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois. He is publisher and editor of SeniorLifestyle, writes the InfoMatters blog on his own website and contributes articles for SeniorLifestyle.

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Posted: November 21, 2018

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