Austin’s own Bill Bishop recently released “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart,” which explores the polarizing of American politics through the movement of citizens through physical space. I haven’t read the book yet myself, though I did check out what The Economist and the Texas Observer had to say about it. I spent the majority of 2007 traveling around the country looking for a city that “shared my values,” and ended up moving away from Savannah, Georgia and settling in Austin.
The theory is, Americans are increasingly living in “landslide counties” that is, counties where a presidential candidate wins by more than 20% of the vote. This has been occurring with more frequency since the days of LBJ (where landslide counties accounted for 26.8%), to the point where, in the 2004 election 48.3% of the counties were such. Bishop breaks the counties down further, fusing the so-called “culture wars” with neighborhoods and media. The Economist cites a study which posits the danger of this separation: Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them. Additionally, they cite some data which suggests such ideological segregation results in more extreme viewpoints and representatives.
The Observer brings some perspective to the polarizing concept – recollecting the 19th century smear tactics and the vitriol that passed as dialogue back then. I found this little gem on the internets, about the John Adams and Andrew Jackson campaign, “One Adams partisan described him as a 'gambler, a cock fighter, a slave trader', which would have been fine - accurate, even - had the writer not continued with, 'and the husband of a really fat wife'. A Kentucky paper called Jackson's wife a 'dirty, black wench!'. Additionally, one widely distributed handbill claimed that Jackson's mother was a prostitute.”
So whether or not politics has become more partisan is an iffy statement. The internet does allow for a more expeditious dissemination of rumors, lies and slander, and seeing one handbill is certainly not the equivalent to the media saturation of today. YouTube and constant cable news arguably don’t even require the minor hurdle of literacy to spread their message. But it seems to me, that the critical issue in the national dialogue is the lack of common media (more on this).
In Savannah, the Assistant City Manager XXX XXXX once told me he thought of the city as a house divided. I braced for an awkward talk about race relations – a lingering topic in the crime-ridden city – and instead got a mini-lecture about the values people held south of Derrene Avenue versus those who lived in the ‘old city’ closer to the river. South of Derrene, Savannah, one of the country’s most beautiful cities, begins to look like Anywhere, USA. The same big box stores, the same pre-fab homes, asphalt, no sidewalks and traffic that wipe away any distinction. Head north and you’ll find people on foot, frequenting more independent businesses and stopping to talk with each other more often. Of course, yards are smaller if they exist and crime is a bit worse. This exchange of values seems accurate enough – although economic indicators must also come into play.
The larger issue seems to be a splitting of media consumption, which uses the advantages of marketing demographics to isolate ever smaller and dedicated audiences. What matters to programs and websites is the time spent with their particular media, and increasingly emotional identification. Politicians have co-opted this idea from advertising, beginning with Ed Bernays. I heard a Wendy’s commercial today that advertised Lack of Snackitis – and said that the late afternoon slump so many radio-listening office workers experience is really due to a lack of Frosty’s in your diet. It suggested people would “frankly, be more fun” if they weren’t plagued by this Frosty-less affliction. That same identification between desired personality and consumption is pervasive in a brand and media saturated environment.
Much like the split in Savannah, where social walks are given up in exchange for safer neighborhoods and more yards – politicians (and their media advisors) have forced people to choose between the two party camps. You can portray yourself as a compassionate and erudite progressive, but be prepared to give up your masculinity or toughness as right-wingers accuse you of being a latte-sipping surrender monkey. Republicans may hoist the mantle of godliness but they’re going to have to assume the characterization of an insensitive racist when an anointed talking heads begins to prattle on about towel heads.
It’s not unthinkable that amongst the hundreds upon hundreds of media options which exist, increasing amounts will cultivate a mental space where other perspectives are not even acknowledged, much less heard. On The Media recently did pieces on both Ariana Huffington and Keith Olberman where they asked, “Are you simply the left’s Bill O’Reilly?” and further wondered what would happen to MSNBC’s ratings once Bush was gone. One may have asked the same to Rush Limbaugh once his nemesis Bill Clinton left office – yet somehow there remained plenty to rant about. The Limbaugh audience would vanish were he to begin moving away from blustery showmanship and toward thoughtful roundtable discussions of all views.
The most alarming aspect of this trend appears to be wholesale intolerance of particular institutions. I’ve heard dyed-in-the-wool Republicans disavow scientists, university professors and newsman. Yet, how are facts going to be established when those tasked with finding and explaining them are no longer part of the discussion? What’s more, when credentials and sources are abandoned due to the convenience of merely googling something then all facts become assumed falsehoods. This idea bears much more weight as the informational institutions undergo a their own Big Sort.