As I scan the political news of the day, whether it’s from conventional news outlets, the blogosphere, or social media, it is shocking how many sites are filled with anger, vitriol, and accusation. And Lord knows I am guilty of all of the above. But as I get older, and hopefully wiser, one question keeps popping into my head.
“What’s the point?”
Debating politics with someone from the opposing camp is like arguing with my wife. I rarely win, and even when I do, it’s completely unsatisfying. I may have won on logic, but I never win emotionally. And that’s what I really want. Not a victory scored on points. I want conversion.
Unfortunately, the tone and tonnage of today’s political discourse has made us into political lemmings, whether we realize it or not. We are saturated with content designed to target our emotions, cut out our frontal lobes, and reaffirm some long-held belief. When challenged, we become child-like. Political discourse has become like the “My-Dad-Is-Tougher-Than-Your-Dad” arguments of my youth.
Party affiliations aside, what should anger all of us is that we’ve been manipulated into this collective state. News networks have seen the impact of Willie Horton ads, Swift Boat ads, 3 AM /Red Button ads, and so on. They work by bypassing our frontal lobes in favor of directly accessing more basic emotional functions like fear and anger. With the resulting release of neurochemicals, viewers become almost addicted. We keep coming back for the chemical rush of anger and fear, if not the pleasantness of affirmation.
Every intelligent media outlet understands that emotion sells, so their content is designed to target it. Cable news networks have evolved from stoic reporting to tabloid sensationalism because it works. Only weeks ago, former Fox and MSNBC host Van Susteren was abruptly fired because her on-air presence was not “confrontational enough.”
In the end, media executives are capitalists in the business of acquiring eyeballs and selling advertising. You can’t fault them for that, but it helps to be cognizant of it. Still, at some point, we’re no longer watching, reading, or listening to “The News.” It’s information presented in a way designed to trigger your most basic emotions. Considered in total, with all the neurochemical conditioning that comes along for the ride, we’re no longer processing information.
We’re attending a pep rally.
If one really believes in their political party-of-favor,isn’t the goal to get more of their policies, programs, and candidates endorsed? To win others over to the cause? Assuming that it is, and cognizant of the conditioning of those with opposing viewpoints, overly passionate arguments (aka “ranting”) is utterly useless, if not counter-productive. Endless studies have shown that when deeply held beliefs are challenged head-on, cognitive dissonance kicks in. Hard. The mind simply cannot handle the emotional conflict of a “right” being proven wrong. So it makes it righter.
That being the case, if you want to advance your party’s cause through open discourse, don’t come in with guns blazing. It only makes the situation worse. Chip away at the issues. Stay away from personal comments. And when discussions get too heated, veer away. Better still, make people aware that their anger is a reflection of a media market designed to promote emotion over thoughtfulness. Anger and fear are the corn syrup of the mind. It feels (tastes) good, but it’s not really good for you.
It’s tempting to give up; to tell oneself that the other side is intractable. And I suspect that those entrenched in their political views are dug-in deeper than ever before. But evidence still suggests that people can-and-do change their party affiliations. Since 2004, Gallup has been tracking party affiliation by asking respondents the simple question, “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent?” Those who consider themselves Independents have ranged from 31 to 47 percent, with 42 percent being reported as recently as June of 2017 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx ). And aside from influencing only independent voters, people do change their party affiliation. For example, PennLive reported the following on October 13, 2016 in relation to Pennsylvania voters alone:
Here is the number of voters switching party since Jan. 1, with changes between Oct. 3-11 in parentheses:
- To Democratic: 40,060 (2,040) from Republican; 68,981 (2,830) from other.
- To Republican: 100,962 (3,355) from Democratic; 50,179 (1,726) from other.
- Between 2008-15, 124,526 Republicans changed to Democratic, while 192,521 switched from Democratic to Republican.
In closing, I find it highly unlikely that cyber-security or censorship of any kind is going to improve our current political climate. Labels like “Fake News” or the “Alt Right” don’t help much either. In the end, it’s on us as individuals, as it always is in a free society. We have to recognize that, when a news program is making us angry or fearful, it comes with the intent of simply increasing viewership for commercial purposes, and with the price to the unwitting of furthering our intractability and polarization.
Forewarned is forearmed.