by Jeremy Rick
In his 1973 novel “Breakfast of Champions,” the late American author Kurt Vonnegut said, “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.
Nothing more true could be said to explain the rapid growth of American political partisanship in recent years.
Partisanship, the biased adherence to a person or party, is driving our political culture into the self-destructive vortex of gang-mentality, and the actual content of political ideas no longer matter to many Americans
Republican and Democratic Party leaders, with conflicting ideologies, are whipping the masses into a frenzy and driving them in opposite directions.
“The values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides,” according to a 25-year-long study published in 2012 by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that conducts public opinion polls and demographic research to map social attitudes and trends in America.
Democrats agree with Democrats because they’re Democrats, Republicans agree with Republicans because they’re Republicans, and the two sides disagree with each other simply because they are opposing factions.
The 2013 federal government shutdown exemplified this mindless partisan opposition. To avoid beating a dead horse, the cause of the shutdown can be summarized by saying the Democratic-majority Senate and the Republican-majority House of Representatives refused to compromise on a federal budget appropriations bill before the Sept. 30 deadline.
The federal budget debate had become an all-or-nothing partisan competition rather than the bipartisan compromise it should have been.
An infamous scene from this dilemma was leaked to the public by WPSD 6, a Kentucky news outlet, when their microphones recorded a conversation between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Addressing the federal budget debate’s progress before McConnell’s interview with WPSD 6, Paul said, “I know we don’t want to be here, but we’re going to win this, I think.”
This statement was infuriating and disheartening because Paul, a member of Congress, explicitly framed the debate as a competition by using the term ‘win.’
Furthermore, admitting they “don’t want to be here” implied Congress saw the debate as a battle between individuals reluctantly obliged to the cause of their respective party rather than a discussion between free-thinking individuals willingly working toward a common good.
The actual content of each party’s agenda faded into the background and an ego-battle came to the fore. Friends agreed with friends and enemies disagreed with enemies for the sake of winning.
Gang-mentality took Congress by the throat and suffocated it until the government shut down. Thankfully, it was resuscitated when the bill was passed on Oct. 16.
Making matters worse, this gang-mentality cascaded from Congress down to the public via partisan media sources, as it often does during heated political conversations.
Media sources are supposed to report the news objectively and without subjective interpretation. To remain politically neutral, reporters must only present the facts of an event. Sources such as the Associated Press and Reuters diligently seek neutrality, but many others do not.
The facts of an event become muddied with subjective interpretations and laden with personal opinions when they are discussed, and some media sources discuss events repeatedly, perpetuating their subjective interpretations until people believe them to be facts.
Once people begin believing particular interpretations, media sources utilize these beliefs to claim opposing interpretations are false, when, in reality, they are simply different opinions about the basic facts of the event.
Complicating the issue further, individuals self-select which media sources they are exposed to. Democrats often choose liberal-biased media such as MSNBC, while Republicans choose conservative-biased media such as Fox News, effectively affirming their preexisting personal biases.
Partisan media sources make little effort to understand the opinions of their counterparts, vilifying them as the enemy and prompting the public to do likewise. If common ground was found and the compromise led to a negative outcome, both sides would be somewhat at fault. The refusal to compromise ensures each side will have an enemy to blame entirely.
People tend to surround themselves with like-minded individuals who affirm their opinions in order to gain a sense of belonging. The more affirmation, the more solidarity amongst the group. Consequently, as groups become larger they become more convinced their opinions are correct.
This can be productive when people independently choose their opinions and then seek out others who share similarities. In contrast, this can be destructive when people dependently adopt the opinions of a group simply because they desire a sense of belonging, which seems to be the case in America’s recent political culture.
A well-known proverb says ‘great minds think alike,’ and another says ‘great minds think for themselves.’ Well, I say that great minds think alike inasmuch as they think for themselves.
Many Americans between the ages of 18 and 33 years old, referred to as ‘Millennials,’ seem to agree with me. “Surveys show that half of Millennials (50%) now describe themselves as political independents,” according to a 2014 article published by the Pew Research Center.
The article also said, “The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood … They are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future.”
So, why are Millennials distinctive from older generations? I believe it is because they are more capable of navigating modern society’s information communication technologies (ICTs).
Between television and the internet, vast amounts of information are constantly and rapidly disseminated around the globe.
The older generations, much of whom came into adulthood before the internet was invented and before television featured the numerous networks it does today, are not as well equipped to handle the amount of information available, causing them to limit their content-intake to a few sources.
Rather than exposing themselves to the plethora of sources, interpreting them, and creating their own opinions, the older generations tend to invest themselves in a few sources that vaguely resemble their preexisting beliefs.
These sources affirm their preexisting beliefs, gaining validity in their eyes. Once this validity has been established, these sources continue promoting subjective opinions that the older generations blindly agree with.
Partisan media sources effectively sway the older generations into wholeheartedly following either the Republican or Democratic Party. This is why our political culture has begun reflecting the mindlessly competitive nature of gang-mentality.
Millennials, on the other hand, are much more capable of navigating ICTs. They can easily maneuver through the multitude of sources, cross-reference for accuracy, and investigate events from many angles. This allows Millennials to gain a more transparent, unbiased perception of events, and an understanding that many things presented as facts are actually opinions.
Although partisanship has increased during the past quarter-century, I believe this will change in the coming years. Millennials, with time, will become increasingly involved in politics, as voters and as candidates. With 50 percent of Millennials self-describing as political independents, the polarization of America’s political culture will eventually become neutralized by a growing middle.
The partisan boundary is being crossed. Enemies are becoming friends.