I used to spend a lot of time on a internet message board focused on politics. While there were a handful of hardliners on there who generally just repeated the talking points from partisan talk radio, most of the discussion was intelligent and thoughtful. I learned a lot and it was a good place to have respectful informed conversation (albeit virtual).
Eventually I found it to be taking to much of my time so I stopped visiting and the site later closed down (presumably not because I quit visiting).
After that my primary exposure to political commentary came from facebook. The quality of the conversations couldn’t have been more different. There the political comments were almost always mean-spirited and shockingly uninformed. I saw disturbing sides of people that I hadn’t known existed. It was an ugly mess. Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a 15 minute conversation with the average voter. Perhaps now the best argument against it is facebook.
I’m using the past tense because I eventually started blocking anyone who made political posts. For a while I responded to many of them, often with links to Snopes. It was astonishing to me how willing people are to believe even the most ridiculous accusations, as long as they are directed to the politicians of the “other side.” I ultimately concluded that it was better to just ignore the stupidity than to discredit it, so I started blocking my “friends” who put up political nonsense. That was a good move.
Because there is so little difference between the political parties on things of substance, like economic and foreign policy, or maybe because understanding those things requires too much effort, political attacks these days seem almost always to be ad hominem and absurd. For example, according to many of my facebook friends, President Obama was born in Africa, isn’t an American citizen, is secretly a Muslim and is plotting to have the U.N. take away our right to own guns and to outlaw homeschooling. I just checked a couple of their “timelines” and this kind of stuff is still there, being posted multiple times a day. Evidently it isn’t enough to just express the opinion that he is wrong about something, instead the accusation is that he is evil and orchestrating some nefarious conspiracy.
I just finished reading a book that discusses how fear can be exploited by political factions and morphed into hatred. The process involves demonizing and depersonalizing those perceived to be the enemy. That spirit seems to be alive and well in America.
And while my facebook acquaintances may not be representative of the nation as a whole, just scan through the comments after any story on CNN.com and you’ll see that they certainly aren’t alone. I imagine it is probably much worse on other news websites.
I try to avoid political discussions these days. It is exceedingly rare, I think, for anyone’s opinion to be changed by a political argument. In fact, there is evidence that being presented with contrary facts actually tends to harden the false opinion:
Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
And as the article discusses, those who are passionately incorrect are the persons most likely to vote–an unhealthy combination.
I hope for a day when “the government” is irrelevant. But in the meantime it’s sad to see so much energy that could be devoted to seeking meaningful change (or to preserving those important things that shouldn’t be changed) expended knocking down straw men and inflaming foolish passions.