Our Broken Political Radar

 

shutterstock_135181361When’s the last time you persuaded someone who didn’t agree with you about one of the issues that dominate this year’s political campaigns to change his or her mind? If your experience is anything like mine, it’s been a while since you persuaded someone to support your candidate, or to accept your view about how best to deal with terrorism, health care, jobs, trade, or any other of the national issues that confront us. And it’s getting harder every day.

I believe there’s an explanation for why political persuasion has become so difficult, so frustrating — so nearly impossible — that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Simply put, we Americans may still share a country, but we’re living in different worlds.

Just for a moment, imagine you’re the captain of a jumbo jet. You’re at 40,000 feet, and it’s a real mess out there — thunderstorms, mountains off both wings, and other aircraft whizzing around too close for comfort. So instead of looking out the windshield, you look down at your radar screen. After all, radar is the instrument in your cockpit that gives you — and your co-pilot and your navigator — a clear, accurate, and complete picture of what’s going on out there. Radar doesn’t tell you what to do; the assumption is that if you give competent aviators good information, they’ll make appropriate decisions.

Chaos in the Cockpit

Now imagine that you, your co-pilot and your navigator each have your own radar screen — and each screen is painting a different picture. Your radar screen shows thunderstorms, mountains off both wings, and another jumbo jet on a collision course with yours. But the co-pilot’s radar screen doesn’t show mountains, and it tracks that oncoming jet at a lower altitude and on course to pass below you safely. And your navigator’s radar shows clear skies, but with a huge mountain dead-ahead.

The result, of course, is chaos in the cockpit. It’s a shouting match, and maybe even a fistfight. You and your crew cannot possibly agree on what course to fly, simply because you’re not seeing the same things.

And this is what’s happened to us. In a free society, the press is the people’s radar. It’s our newspapers, magazines, television and radio shows, and websites we rely upon to tell us what’s going on out there; to paint a picture of the environment we’re moving through that’s more accurate, and more comprehensive, than we can see by looking out our own windshields — in other words, by going about our daily business. Just as with radar, the assumption in a free society is that with accurate and comprehensive information we’ll make appropriate decisions.

Decades ago, we all saw the world through the same radar screen. The similarities among our country’s major newspapers, and the wire services they replied upon such as AP and UPI, were more striking than the differences. In the broadest sense, they shared the same perception of the world and of America’s place in it. And the picture of the world they gave us was fairly comprehensive. If you got your news from television, it didn’t much matter if you were watching Walter Cronkite on CBS, or Huntley & Brinkley on NBC, or whoever anchored the news on ABC before snooty smirking Peter Jennings got there. The differences among the networks were stylistic rather than political. When you and your neighbor chatted across the fence, or when you and your co-workers talked about national and world events at the water cooler, or when your family gathered for its annual cousins club barbecue, you shared a perception of what was going on out there. And that perception was a fairly accurate, reasonably comprehensive reflection of reality.

That’s no longer the case. If you’re watching Fox News, and he’s watching MSNBC while she’s reading The Washington Post, you all have completely different perceptions of what’s happening. You’re furious because Hillary Clinton destroyed 13 Blackberries the FBI wanted to see. He hasn’t heard anything about this, and all she knows is that the FBI has declined to indict Clinton, so what on Earth are you blathering on about?

Readers of The New York Times are worried by the lack of jobs in manufacturing; that’s why they’ll support candidates who promise to increase unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans. They haven’t a clue that American manufacturing companies are searching desperately for skilled workers such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders, machine tool operators and the like. It’s The Wall Street Journal’s readers who know this — which is why they tend to support candidates whose programs include tax breaks for technical training schools.

What only Ricochetti Know

Even those of us who share the same political outlook now are staring at different radar screens. Readers of American Thinker are justifiably outraged by Jack Cashill’s new revelations about what really happened to TWA 800, but readers of National Review Online are completely unaware of how the FBI screwed up that investigation. And readers of both these websites haven’t a clue that today, the world is emerging from poverty at a rate never before seen in history. It’s the readers of Ricochet who’ve been following this astounding development and folding it into their world views.

Today’s news organizations have abandoned the idea of serving as the people’s radar; of competing among themselves to provide the most accurate and comprehensive picture of what’s going on out there. Instead, each organization now works to promote its viewpoint; its perception of the environment through which we’re moving. The editors of each news organization focus on those issues and events that interest them, rather than on those issues and events their readers need to know about. So even when the news organization’s viewpoint is reasonable, what’s presented isn’t an accurate reflection of what’s going on out there because — like a radar that isn’t built to display mountains — the image it provides is incomplete.

The obvious solution would be for each citizen to regularly monitor a range of news sources, so that each of us can draw our own accurate and comprehensive picture of reality. And indeed, some of us do just this and, in effect, assemble our own radars. But most people don’t. They’re too busy with their work, their families, with all the other activities that comprise our daily lives. Like pilots in the cockpit of a jumbo jet, they’re just too busy to sift through three or four radar screens; they rely upon just one radar to tell them what they need to know.

And this is why it’s become so hard — so nearly impossible — to persuade anyone to change his or her mind about which candidates to support, or about which policies would serve us best. We’re just not seeing the same things out there, so the minimum political requirements for agreement, or even for compromise, are gone.

If this keeps up, we’ll have to change our national motto from e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”)  to ex uno plures (“from one, many”). Yikes.

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  1. Herbert Inactive
    Herbert
    @Herbert

    Good OP,  definitely true.  People live in their own constructed bubble that gives them reinforcement for their preconceived views.   Discarding the items (or people in their lives) that conflict with those views.   Whats to be done?   Not sure,  how do you convince people to become less intellectually lazy?

    • #1
  2. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    If this keeps up, we’ll have to change our national motto from e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) to ex uno plures (“from one, many”).

    Or decentralize, eliminate government power so that the differences on these abstractions become irrelevant.  The real world takes place at the grass roots where real people interact with each other over practical things or just buy and sell stuff.  That really works out well.   Expansive government doesn’t because it can’t.

    • #2
  3. GadgetGal Thatcher
    GadgetGal
    @GadgetGal

    I would add that it is also important read on a range of historical topics to provide context and develop a long-view perspective.

    • #3
  4. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    We have drifted into this situation due not to the media , which only reflects the markets they serve, but the loss of some historic ‘glue’ that binds us together.

    We have denigrated and lost nationalism as a glue that bound most of us from WW2 to the end of the cold war. Once the wall came down, we became factions as the need for collective security to protect us from thermonuclear extinction was perceived to be gone.

    We have unraveled on the duties of citizenship, specifically paying taxes. With nearly half of the citizens paying no income tax, we lost a lot of ‘glue’.

    We have let multiculturalism replace the melting pot. More glue gone.

    We are paying the price for our success. And it will be our downfall if we let it.

    • #4
  5. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Herbert E. Meyer: The obvious solution would be for each citizen to regularly monitor a range of news sources, so that each of us can draw our own accurate and comprehensive picture of reality.

    Herb,

    You are making a very important observation. The change from a few major news sources in the 1960s to the whole galaxy of news available now is like night and day. The old passive habit of just watching your preferred news source every night is getting more and more disconnected from reality and is, in fact, dangerous to a healthy democratic society.

    The importance of the computer attached to the web is that it is not passive. You decide where you are going to get your news. The power of the web allows you at no additional cost to monitor multiple news sources. The power of the hyperlink gives you the ability to dig deeper into source material in a very short time with a minimum of effort.

    Either people start to employ the new technology to see through any particular source or we are going to lose the reality of democracy to Undemocratic Global Governance. The mouse is in your hands, people.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #5
  6. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Lots of smart but lazy people define themselves by caricature:  There are ignorant, racist, anti-science, religious troglodytes out there.  I disagree and dislike such people.  Therefore, I am smart and moral.  It is the new tribalism.

    Climate change true-believers who spout demonstrable nonsense always argue their position almost entirely by reference to the caricature of their ‘enemies’ as anti-science.

    Blaming urban violence on the NRA instead of seeing it as the legacy of HHS, HUD and corrupt Democratic Party machines is irrational but satisfying.  And African-American voters need to believe that the GOP is intensely racist–otherwise they are the biggest suckers ever to walk into a voting booth.

    Combating tribal self-identity is the task at hand.

    Traditionally, conservatives think that ever-more articulate presentations of free-market, constitutional federalism and Western values is the ticket–all we need in another Reagan.  I think that undermining the identity of the anti-conservative tribe(s) is far more effective.  Sarcasm, humor, caricature are probably better than excerpts from Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman.

    Campus PC has become so viciously stupid that the left has abandoned ownership of the popular persona of cool, hip, independent and sane.  Attempts to replicate John Stewart have failed.  I sense an opening forming.

    It is not clear that Hillary mentor Saul Alinsky fully understood that the BS that brings the left to power no longer works as well when they are in power and they are in power now.

    • #6
  7. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    This is a great post and it goes along with David French’s piece a week ago on “Fox News Famous”.

    I argued in a post last week that the problem with the conservative media bubble is not that conservatives are blind to the other side, but that the conservative media bubble concentrates the conservative journalism and makes it less likely that non-conservatives will be exposed to conservative issues and ideas.

    • #7
  8. Matt Upton Lincoln
    Matt Upton
    @MattUpton

    TKC1101:We have drifted into this situation due not to the media , which only reflects the markets they serve, but the loss of some historic ‘glue’ that binds us together.

    We have denigrated and lost nationalism as a glue that bound most of us from WW2 to the end of the cold war. Once the wall came down, we became factions as the need for collective security to protect us from thermonuclear extinction was perceived to be gone.

    We have unraveled on the duties of citizenship, specifically paying taxes. With nearly half of the citizens paying no income tax, we lost a lot of ‘glue’.

    We have let multiculturalism replace the melting pot. More glue gone.

    We are paying the price for our success. And it will be our downfall if we let it.

    This is part, but this situation could not have existed without the internet and cable TV. We would have merely drifted collectively into whatever radar was presented by the Big Three and a few national newspapers.

    • #8
  9. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    We survived (quite nicely, thank you) for a century and a half without the national “awareness” that we have now. The congruity of Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, and Frank Reynolds was itself a fairly brief interlude in this country’s history, and it was hardly the glue that held us together.

    Indeed, one of the crucial reasons why this country followed a philosophy of “limited government” was because it had no other choice. There was no practical mass communication. Individuals and communities had to work on their own beyond the control of any national government because of the practical and logistical impossibilities of extending the national government’s power very far. America benefited from that unique circumstance, and the Founders and colonials were also lucky to be reading the “revolutionary” works of Adam Smith and John Locke who showed that an all-powerful central king and government wasn’t really all that necessary.

    So I don’t see the dissolution of a national perspective to be such a bad thing. I think it’s probably returning us to our natural American state … meaning, individuals who simply don’t pay that much attention to any central planning.

    Now if we could only get the Regulatory Leviathan to set us free, we’d once again start doing things for ourselves.

    • #9
  10. Bill Nelson Inactive
    Bill Nelson
    @BillNelson

    Herbert E. Meyer: you’re the captain of a jumbo jet. You’re at 40,000 feet, and it’s a real mess out there — thunderstorms, mountains off both wings, and other aircraft whizzing around too close for comfort.

    If you have mountains off both wings at FL400, you are seriously lost.

    • #10
  11. Crow's Nest Inactive
    Crow's Nest
    @CrowsNest

    I do think you’re right that media fragmentation has reinforced the effect that you are describing, but I’m not sure that it actually was the root cause of that effect.

    Let’s consider this:

    Herbert E. Meyer:

    Today’s news organizations have abandoned the idea of serving as the people’s radar; of competing among themselves to provide the most accurate and comprehensive picture of what’s going on out there. Instead, each organization now works to promote its viewpoint; its perception of the environment through which we’re moving.

    Now, yes, technology and new media helped foster this trend and certainly monetized it, but why is it that news organizations have chosen to abandon the idea of trying to present the world comprehensively?

    Isn’t it because today we have lurking doubts about whether it is even possible to present the world that way? Isn’t it that we question whether even the attempt to do that isn’t some how a kind of self-deception–an artifact of a time when we thought there was such a thing as objectivity but now we are even suspicious of the motive and think to ourselves that really there are only the opinions of subjects, each of whom views the world his own way?

    • #11
  12. Bill Nelson Inactive
    Bill Nelson
    @BillNelson

    Z in MT: the problem with the conservative media bubble is not that conservatives are blind to the other side, but that the conservative media bubble concentrates the conservative journalism

    The problem with conservative media is its inaccuracy. I have a hard time watching Fox News, except for a couple of shows, just because of the inaccurate information (I expect that at MSNBC). For conservative media to be able to present to non-conservatives, it must be established that the source has the gold standard in accuracy.

    Fox can start by dumping Hannity. And most of the morning show is painfully adolescent.

    (p.s. I am originally from Jackson MT)

    • #12
  13. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    KC Mulville: So I don’t see the dissolution of a national perspective to be such a bad thing.

    Good point, as far as you go, but fragmented perspectives do become a problem when one fragment gets exclusive control of culture, journalism, and government.

    Coincidentally to this post, I’ve been reading Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. The clusters of “super zips” in NY and DC are quite uniform in their sources of information and resulting opinions.

    • #13
  14. Crow's Nest Inactive
    Crow's Nest
    @CrowsNest

    To revise and extend Herbet’s metaphor: hasn’t the original storm that cluttered our radar picture caused so many to tune their radar to short pulse–we now see much more clearly what is largest and closest to us at the cost of distorting or losing all together track on anything further away?

    My suspicion is that the breakdown of consensus in news media is just one of many expressions of what is fundamentally the intellectual and philosophical crisis of our time.

    I’m not exactly convinced of Alasdair McIntyre’s thesis that we’re lost the capacity for moral argument, nor am I exactly convinced that the consensus on moral argument was ever quite as strong as he describes it in the past, but I do think he is on to something. Logic, rhetoric, dialectic and the ability to sustain attention through a complicated argument are skills that are no longer known or clearly understood even among our very well educated–the very building blocks of having an argument have been eroded by what is called “postmodernism”. It is not at all clear that our institutions, in their present condition, could reclaim these things even if they wanted to….new institutions altogether may prove the only way.

    • #14
  15. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Great stuff.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Thanks, Herb. I wonder, though, if the media is printing want they want, or if they are a reflection of what the public demands. It is about selling themselves, after all. We’ve had such a huge shift and denigration of values (except for what the Left calls values but is mostly propaganda) that the media became enthralled with it, promoted it, and then the public chose to buy in. Now the media and public feed each other; it seems to be a never-ending process, back and forth, around and around, a closed loop. And we Conservatives sit on the outside and watch the nonsense and destruction and hope that one day we can actually do something about it. It’s pretty discouraging.

    • #16
  17. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer
    @HerbertEMeyer

    Hi, Susan,

    You raise an important point: When you give people whatever they say they want — strawberry-coconut toothpaste, or a wall along the Mexico border — that’s marketing.  When you give people what they need — that’s a service.  A really gifted politician like President Reagan could persuade people to want what they needed.

    It’s the same with our country’s intelligence service: Every day we had to shove intelligence down the throats of policymakers because they needed to know it.  Alas, what they often wanted to know was more along the lines of who said what to whom in the Kremlin washroom….

    In journalism, also, there’s a built-in conflict between providing readers what they want, and what they need.  The trick, of course, is figuring out how to do both.

    • #17
  18. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    So here we have a pretty good diagnosis. What’s the treatment?

    • #18
  19. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Great post.  Thanks for writing it. Personally, I put the sequence of things back to the Cold War. Before that anti Americanism was rare – now there is a large faction that is driven by this.

    A lot of what clutters up our day of getting information is defending ourselves from the monstrous lies that a sizable and powerful faction is busy promulgating. Thomas Sowell’s career as a columnist is devoted to just trying to straighten out things we’ve picked up from the leftists among us.

    • #19
  20. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Dennis Prager says we started down this path in the early part of the 20th century when German professors started showing up in our universities.  I hope you and others have some thoughts about these two (probably connected) theories.

    • #20
  21. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    I think it is more complicated than seeing screens with different information. To follow the analogy a bit, however, air traffic control radar relies on transponders, where the screen on the ground displays information which is transmitted by the plane’s transponder. It sends more information than can be gleaned by the primary radar passive reflection. Similarly, consumers of mass media signal what they want to see/hear. They ‘vote’ with their acting on advertising sent by the particular medium, by subscribing, writing letters, etc. This is all simply to say they are not passive in determining what they see on their screens.

    Further, we are all significantly biased in how we view whatever does appear on the screen. My own skepticism of some media (Pravda-on-the-Hudson, e.g.) has reached formerly-unthinkable levels. This coincides with the not-to-subtle blurring of fact and opinion ‘reporting.’

    In short, when it comes to perceiving reality, I believe there is a component within each of us which simply will not accept facts (to the extent they are objective facts) which do not comport with our worldview, however they may appear. I do believe this is a real blind spot for progressives. Many of us here on Ricochet acknowledge this phenomenon and attempt to account for it. We, IMO, are more amenable to honest critical self-examination than our arrogant, morally superior adversaries.

    • #21
  22. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Well written. But we are fundamentally divided not only by different information. We are divided by basic assumptions about politics, humanity, and much else.

    Half of Americans believe a person can choose whichever sex he/she/it wants to be. Half believe affordable access to any and every medical procedure or drug, in endless series or in perpetuity, is a natural right. Half believe government is the rightful arbiter of just about everything. Half believe God, if He even exists, just wants us to be happy on our own terms and has no real impact in our lives.

    Furthermore, KC’s comment doesn’t go far enough. Yes, technology has changed the relationship between officials and citizens. There is no return from that shift. Officials always had the interest, but they lacked the power to micromanage. That power is here to stay. America is no longer a frontier of unconnected communities. It will not be so again.

    • #22
  23. Ned Vaughn Inactive
    Ned Vaughn
    @NedVaughn

    Thanks for this. I enthusiastically recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion on this topic. Good too are Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, but Haidt’s exploration of the moral and psychological underpinnings of our current polarization is top of the list for me.

    The polarization/purification of news and media is one (powerful) symptom of a problem that goes well beyond. I believe there are basically two avenues for fixing it. One – which is ultimately temporary and should be avoided – is a crisis so disruptive that one side is effectively suppressed. This could be a profound financial crisis, a war, or some catastrophic civil tumult, for example. Bad news.

    The preferred solution is that some group of leaders craft and advance an agenda that galvanizes a strong majority of Americans. That will require appealing to the middle of the ideological spectrum (even if the locus of principles is right-of-center), just as it will require an ability to refrain from constantly demonizing ideological opponents.

    The Manichean path leads to crisis or further gridlock, which is a crisis unto itself in light of the extremely serious problems we face as a nation.

    • #23
  24. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Ned Vaughn: The preferred solution is that some group of leaders craft and advance an agenda that galvanizes a strong majority of Americans. That will require appealing to the middle of the ideological spectrum (even if the locus of principles is right-of-center), just as it will require an ability to refrain from constantly demonizing ideological opponents.

    I like the sounds of this, Ned. I think we have more “middle” of the spectrum that people think. And I think they’d be more obvious in a crisis. Not that I wish that on our country. Withholding demonizing will be key, too!

    • #24
  25. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Nice piece.

    One quibble: In the past, all of the news was pretty much the same because they all had a liberal bent. I got my news from TV in the ’60s and ’70s and grew up believing a lot of liberal tripe. I became a conservative shortly after I started checking into the “information” I was being fed and found much of it to be twisted or spun in a leftward direction. So just because everyone is looking at the same “radar screen” and, therefore, agree on the environment around them, doesn’t mean the radar screen is in proper working order. I’d say news in the past represented a singular, but flawed view of the world.

    • #25
  26. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    Very interesting argument and one I’m sympathetic to. I don’t doubt that people are more biased in their news sources, and I think it probably has some measurable effect on voting behavior.

    Overall, I have concerns about the argument though. I actually doubt people are that rational or informed enough to be properly ideological when it comes to voting. Regarding news: When it comes to the news, is it the news source that matters or is it the timing of the particular news item? Very different things. I would guess most people follow what the most salient trend is, and disregard prior evidence. The last quarter of economic growth is a much better prediction for presidential votes than the president’s actual record.

    Regarding any individual anecdotes about discussions with friends– these are about salience. They may ring true, but people change their minds quite a bit. Any one person may convince their friends, but people change their minds over time for a variety of reasons.  Hillary was up in the polls, now the race is actually looking very competitive by some polls. Next, I think we should take into account that elections as a whole also track different people over time. We may see that the country is “polarized” in aggregate, but we also have to think that we have new voters coming in and old voters changing their minds as they get older.

    • #26
  27. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    I really like this thought provoking post. But I think you are a level or two above the roots.

    I think we know how to fly and we know the radar works but we don’t know how radar is connected with flying.

    • #27

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