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The Problem With Extreme America

Why the political middle is disappearing—and how Americans can get it back.

The ferociously partisan atmosphere in America these days isn’t limited to Washington D.C., though it certainly is epitomized there. No, the divisive, bitter ambiance in this country exists everywhere, from sea to shining sea. A few minutes on cable news or a cursory scroll through one’s social media feed at any given moment confirms it. And it’s getting worse.

“Moderate” is increasingly a relic in American culture. The ouster of Indiana Senator (and moderate, bipartisan-minded Republican) Dick Luger is just the latest evidence of this. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats are getting more liberal. The country’s middle ground is quickly becoming no man’s land.

Issues like gay marriage are further entrenching both sides. The day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a ban on gay marriage, President Obama ended his “evolving views” stalling and admitted to supporting the opposite view, thrilling liberals and stealing some of the spotlight from what happened in North Carolina. For Obama and his ever bluer base, opposition to gay marriage is seen as gradually eroding. The expectation is that soon enough, gay marriage will be completely acceptable in society. But there are signs that, for red state America, the opposite trend is occurring. Voters in North Carolina–a swing state that went blue for Obama in 2008–actually voted for the ban on gay marriage by a larger margin (61-39 percent) than expected, and seven percentage points larger than the 2006 margin (57-42 percent) of another gay marriage ban in fellow Southern swing state Virginia (which also went blue for Obama in 2008). This appears to be another sign that the red base is getting redder on wedge issues like gay marriage, even while the blue base is becoming bolder and louder on such divisive issues.

Why are we experiencing such unprecedented ideological divergence in our culture? Why is it looking–tragically–as if the recovery of a middle ground and a bipartisan, cordial public discourse is increasingly unlikely?

It may sound obvious, and it may be old hat by now, but I believe a huge factor contributing to all of this is the Internet. Namely: the way that it has fragmented and niche-ified our media consumption. For former generations, “news” was the thing everyone watched at the same time at night on TV. It was the local newspaper. There were far fewer options, so everyone tended to learn about the news from the same sources. Some big cities had multiple newspapers with slightly divergent political bents, but for the most part, normal folks didn’t have easy access to news with a decidedly partisan viewpoint.

Not so today. Now, we have 24/7 access to it. Whatever one’s political leaning may be, an entire personalized media landscape can be constructed to reinforce it. There are TV channels, YouTube channels, websites, Tumblrs, blogs, e-newsletters, newspapers and radio stations for whatever political opinion you may have. Everyone processes media narratives that are as infinitely different from one another as snowflakes. Each of us has a totally unique combination of blogs we follow, news sites we read, and social media connections that shape our media intake. No wonder “consensus” is a thing of the past. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. We live in our own iNews bubbles of self-perpetuating, fragmentary and volatile media flows.

And it creates a snowball effect. Given the choice, liberal-leaning folks naturally will spend more time watching MSNBC and filling their Twitter feeds with people of a similar bent. Conservatives will naturally choose to watch Fox News and populate their feeds with advocates of GOP-friendly ideals. In a world where it’s as easy as clicking “unfollow” whenever someone says something that challenges our beliefs, our media feeds of self-selected narratives of reality will make us neither educated nor enriched; they’ll simply make us more ardent in the beliefs we already hold.

In this “million little narratives” world of individually curated and (often) hyper-politicized media experiences, it’s easy to see how fringe groups and all manner of Anders Breivek-style zealotry may develop. It’s easy to see how ideology-oriented communities can become dangerously insulated and prone to “no compromise!” hostility to the Other. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so bad at talking cordially with those who are different than us. There are just so few forums for us to learn how to productively converse with a plurality of differing voices. And even if there were, would we willingly enter those forums when there are unlimited options of lesser resistance at our disposal?

I think we must. How? Here are a few ideas:

  • If you watch news on TV, watch a different channel every night, even if it pains you.
  • Don’t just pack your social media feeds with people who agree with you. Curate a diverse plurality of voices.
  • Avoid commenting on articles, Facebook posts or other online forums when you are angered or upset. Take time to think it over, and if you stillwant to say something, say it with care and nuance.
  • Just say no to the social media “instant commentary!” impulse.
  • Do you have at least some friends who have different political viewsthan you? You should. Engage them in friendly, loving debate.
  • Avoid watching the “crazies” too much (whether on Fox News, MSNBC or any other channel … you know of whom I speak).
  • Read books on complicated subjects, not just news articles or tweets.
  • Learn to value humility and (gasp!) be willing to change your views on something, if reason (not peer pressure) leads you there.

The landscape of new media, I believe, is such that society is only going to become more divided. There will be more turnover in Congress. Less ability to “reach across the aisle” without dire political consequences. It will not be easy to recover cordiality, and the values of respect and moderation in the public square will be lost, to disastrous effect. That is, unless we each make a point of combating this in our own lives.

Brett McCracken is the author of Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken. This article is reprinted from his blog with permission.

38 Comments

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nixie823 commented…

So anyone who supports human rights and equality should take a step back and consider that those following only the certain parts of an old book, written by men, that they want to follow (namely the parts that justify their belief that people who are different from them are sinners) may be right? If we had done that during the 60's, where would we be now? Debating the legality of inter-racial marriage. No thank you. I will stay firmly in my belief that all humans haveindeliblerights that no religion or book can take away from them.Separationof church and state exists for a reason, so that no one religion can take away the rights of those who disagree with them. Marriage is a civil contract, performed well before the bible was ever written and religion should not be able to dictate any civil contract, civil right or civil liberty.

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marie72 commented…

I will watch the others sides channel for around 10 minutes just to see if they are even reporting on an issue i am following or to see there take on it.As soon as i see another feel good/bad march i change the channel.

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Anonymous commented…

I don't agree that argument serves any good purpose in most cases. Discussion and debate yes, but argument no. By its very definition:
An exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one: "I've had anargument withmy father" it does not suggest learning. When one is heated or angry, one does not listen. Debate, which is a rapidly disappearing art in this country, does allow for contrasting views, while actually listening and considering the other point of view.

Our political system as it is currently is not one where debate flourishes, but rather where soundbites are exchanged, usually in a less than friendly manner. If you attempt to discuss politics with many people now, expect only to hear what their news channel of choice has told them, and they repeat it with vehemence.

I believe the article was correct in that the extreme politics is doing far more harm to our country than good. Conservatives dismiss liberals with a sneer, that is returned by the liberals when discussing the conservatives. The Republican party has vowed to get rid of moderates that have been elected (hence Lugar's situation amongst others) and the Democrats are like digging in. We cannot have a country of two strong polar opposites and expect them to work together. There was a time period when our Senators from opposite parties would dine together at lunches, on an informal basis, but those days are fading fast. The continuing stalemates in Congress show how well this is working for our country.Neither party has a plan that is exactly what our country needs, both sides provide good ideas, and ideally would balance each other's extreme elements- leaving a middle ground that could be agreed on. But neither side wants to approach the middle ground on most issues (take the usual no contest vote about the Violence Against Women Act this year) and so the country suffers. And as the media only inflames this political divide, our populace begins to divide as well. In the area we live in, I know of people who won't shop in areas because they are "too Republican" or "liberals shop there." I know people who pick Churches based on that decision, and I know people who won't evangelize to some because, as I was told by one man, "they're probably Democrats, and they can't be saved anyway. God has no use for them."

As someone standing in the middle ground, it is getting pretty lonely.

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Anonymous commented…

We also need to read books that we think are "beyond us", that we might need help to understand or discuss with other people. Books of philosophy, Natural Law, and creation of government. Writers that discuss ideas that are basic and yet huge, things that might get you in trouble.
We need to be thinking voters regardless of what side we are on. Ignorance breeds a culture of mindless "ape-ing" just mimicking and not thinking about what we are voting into power above us.

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