Polarization

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Thursday, Feb 7, 2008

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin takes on the oft-repeated notion (he singles out law professor Cass Sunstein) that the internet is exacerbating polarization by allowing people to only read opinions they agree with and to get all their news through a soothing interpretive filter. Sunstein wants to promote an ideal of diversity and can sometimes sound a little Habermasian in his implicit celebration of some sort of town square where people respect one another’s views and debate them openly and in good faith. And we all want that. But the internet is probably helping promote that vision, rather than undermining it.


Sunstein argues that the echo chamber effect tends to reinforce existing views and produce a poisonous partisan divide.
It seems to me that exactly the opposite is true. The partisan divide in the US is being reinforced because people are more exposed to the other side than before.
Before the Internet, the average liberal or social democrat was largely insulated, on a day-to-day basis, from the kinds of views represented by Free Republic or Little Green Footballs. Similarly, unless we sought out right-wing magazines we were insulated to a large extent from commentators like Goldberg, Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. Now we can see them minute-to-minute and it’s obvious that the idea of treating them as part of a legitimate discussion is absurd.


As far as my political leanings go, the phenomenon Quiggin describes seems more accurate—I never would have taken right-wing views as seriously without seeing the vehemence with which they are expressed. I tended to assume that those espousing them were simply in bad faith, trying to dupe bigots, xenophobes, and religious zealots in order to trojan horse in oligarchic policies of plunder. Now I have the scary impression that they are serious and in earnest, and it has made me more invested in politics, even though I am even more aware of the futility of ever changing anyone’s mind about anything. It seems more like an endless struggle to keep the forces of reaction and atavism at bay, whereas I used to idly dream of the days when a real politician would wash through the system with irresistible compromises that would persuade everyone and make everyone content—the fallacious bipartisan/third way fantasy sometimes dismissively dubbed Broderism.


Quiggin goes on to say the echo chamber effect only applies to the right-wing zealots themselves, whose arguments aren’t founded in conversational discourse and admit no revision or compromise or “relativism.”


Having established a self-sustaining ideology, immune to any form of empirical refutation, US Republicans have indeed created an echo chamber. But this process works across all media (Fox News, the Washington Times, talk radio and so on) and beyond, to the replacement of scientific research by the products of think tanks. Moreover, it does not rely on the exclusion of alternative views so much as on the availability of a distorting filter in which any opposition can be ridiculed out of existence.


Reactionary conservatives, who have nothing left to learn as the full truth has already been revealed to them, see no benefit to dialogue or the open discussion of ideas, so they would never participate in a public forum of discussion of any kind no matter what the configuration, and they will always use available technology to further circle the wagons. Meanwhile the rest of us are reveling how much wider a range of opinions we can sample and shade our own ideas with.

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