We are currently a nation divided. With political polarization at a historic high and rancorous rhetoric being catapulted across the aisle from both sides, “bipartisanship” is a word scarcely heard in Washington anymore. Just this past Saturday, Representative Maxine Waters of California called for the public harassment of members of the Trump administration and those who support it; if any post-election flickerings of civility ever existed, they have now officially been smothered. The ways in which this polarization has infiltrated our personal interactions has led to the publishing of a plethora of articles on how to deal with friends, family members, and coworkers who don’t share our beliefs. But while there have been plenty of touchy-feely think pieces on politics and civility in the Trump era, few seem to grapple with the actual reasons for the divide. Opinion pieces suggesting people work to “bridge the gap” will not alter anyone’s opinion.
For most people, political beliefs are not based on reason or fact. Rather, they are the product of personal experience. Although Americans might not want to admit it, our ideologies tend to be shaped by factors completely outside our control: the political beliefs of our parents, our race, our sex, where we grew up. In general, people first develop a unique hierarchy of values or moral system upon which they base their politics; only then do they utilize fact and logic to defend and justify their beliefs. And while there may be outliers and occasional opportunities for some individuals to be swayed, it’s incredibly difficult to successfully persuade our peers. Oftentimes we can only change their stances on one or two specific policies (e.g. your conservative parents coming around on gay marriage); a radical shift in ideology is rare.
The unfortunate reality is this: we all just want to be right. We want to believe our opinions are logical and informed, that the policies we support are practical, and that our ethical reasoning is sound. We want to feel justified in our decision to vote for Hillary or Donnie and, ever the victims of confirmation bias, will readily accept any information that suggests ours was the correct choice. In short, we want to feel intelligent, educated, and morally superior. And to achieve all that, all we need is a little validation.
Seeing the potential profit, mass media corporations have inevitably commodified validation over the past several decades. It’s now the product being peddled by political media across the Western world, news magazines and pundits alike. The commercial need to churn out pre-packaged validation has balkanized writers, publications, and news outlets, pushing them into a myriad of partisan camps, each one catering to a specific ideological demographic. These are the infamous “echo chambers” that demonize the opposition, reinforce already existing beliefs, and further exacerbate polarization.
And the ugly truth is that little can be done to prevent this political apartheid. Even if we learn how to have a civil conversation with our Trump-supporting uncle, the otherization of those who don’t share our beliefs will persist. A tenuous courtesy with a family member is difficult to generalize to millions of faceless strangers, especially when their culture does not resemble our own. The animosity between rural right-wingers and liberal coastal elites stems from more than just politics; this political segregation that does so much to reinforce our pre-existing ideologies is largely the result of deep-seated cultural differences. Furthermore, the fact remains that the core principles of conservatives, leftists, and liberals are currently more diametrically opposed than ever; compromise is now paramount to a betrayal of one’s ideology. Tribalism is proving inescapable.
The opinion pieces that preach about the importance of leaving our echo chambers in order to ameliorate our divisive political landscape do nothing. For when was the last time someone made a concerted effort to change a certain behavior based on advice espoused by some think piece? Is it reasonable to expect millions of Americans to fall into line and do just that? The answer is a simple no. Tribalism is so deeply ingrained within each of us that articles encouraging us to leave our echo chambers seem to miss the point. Moreover, any attempts to combat polarization through the regulation of the media would likely be ineffective and/or dangerous (we have a free press for a reason). Therefore, while I am not endorsing the cessation of op-eds, I think we need to stop seeing them as the panacea to polarization. We need to accept there are no short-term solutions currently in sight. In this case, reading an article won’t do much; instead, we need to recognize that finding common ground is a long-term goal.