Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The age of unchallenged ideas

Election 2012 is now history and the outcome, to the dismay of some, is more of the same: a divided government--and a sharply divided one at that--with Democrats in control of the White House and Senate and Republicans controlling the House of Representatives. Fears that gridlock in Washington will continue seem justified, and only time will tell if real change can happen to address some of the most urgent problems facing our country, not the least of which being the fiscal cliff and the daunting problem of what to do about a national debt that now totals more than $16 trillion.

But before the memories of yesterday's election recede in our minds, only to be replaced by whatever new cultural meme should arise, we should take a moment to examine the larger issue of why our country remains stuck in a state of polarized suspended animation. Since at least the 2000 presidential election the U.S. has been locked in an ideological stalemate, with the country roughly split in half and with conservatives and liberal/progressives battling it out over fiscal and social issues not only at the ballot box, but daily on TV, radio, and the Internet. Such partisan rancor and animosity is not new, of course. It's been part of this country's history since its founding. What is new, however, are the platforms available today on which these battles are fought.

In decades past Democrats and Republicans waged war through a mainstream media respected by most and regarded as an objective arbiter of truth. Today we have media of every stripe (from cable news networks, political blogs, Twitter feeds, and more) existing for the sole purpose of reinforcing various political viewpoints. From Fox News to MSNBC, from Breitbart.com to the Huffington Post, and, to a lesser extent, even from old media stalwarts such as the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, it's never been easier to find media that agrees with our viewpoint but that also--and this is important--limits exposure to views that challenge our own core beliefs.

We live in an age in which finding confirmation for our beliefs, biases, and suspicions is as easy as ordering a podcast off iTunes. Think Republicans are all greedy fat cats who crap on the poor? Here's an anecdote that proves you're right, courtesy of liberal blog X. Think the president wants more people dependent on government handouts? Try this cable news report on for size. But while this relatively new commodity of multi-platform, bias-affirming media content surely deserves some of the blame for stoking the partisan flames burning in our country, the reality is that--to paraphrase Harry Truman--the buck doesn't stop with them, it stops with us, the people.

The fact is that we've become a country that is far more interested in having its beliefs confirmed than having them challenged. We're no longer as interested in an honest exchange of ideas, in which our most cherished beliefs are exposed to criticism. Instead we prefer to stay where it's safe--indulging only in media that tells us we're right and that conveniently serves up evidence to prove it. The 19th century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that ideas that go unchallenged become weak, and this is one of the real dangers of our country's current political dynamic. The longer we live inside echo chambers that tell us only what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear the more polarized the country gets. This may make us feel better about ourselves, but it surely makes us feel worse about those who disagree with us, and this collective inability to reach across the divide makes building bridges all but impossible. Yet in a country as evenly divided as ours building bridges is the only way we can hope to tackle the challenges before us.

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