Tell me where someone gets their information and I can tell you what they think. Well, maybe not what they think, but how they think. When you turn on the radio, what station comes on? When you fire up your browser on your phone or other device, what have you bookmarked? What sites are in your newsreader? If you get news bulletins on your phone, from what sources? Older, or just old school, what newspaper gets delivered on your porch or what magazines are you liable to pick up? Most likely, all of your favorite sources of information feed your confirmation bias.
We all have a confirmation bias. People are most likely to take in information that confirms what they believe and what they think they know. Think they know. The human need to have one’s beliefs validated is primal. It’s how we identify the safety of our tribe. And most simply, it’s how we feel good. Yea, hearing what you believe reinforced has the same effect as an aerobic workout or a hit of coke. It just makes you feel better.
I think my obsession with political and social polarization began in 1980. I was a low level staffer on the Senate side in Washington DC. In 1980, I experienced the Reagan Revolution. On the east coast, we all went to bed knowing that Reagan beat Carter. But we woke up to find that the Democrats has lost the Senate. Most people don’t know that when that happens hundreds of people are instantly unemployed. My building was full of Senate Committee staff. The party that controls the legislative body dictates the professional staff for that committee. In my building, I walked by lobbies where people were crying. Their careers had ended while they were sleeping.
On my way to work that day, I walked by a little office in a townhouse. On the post facing the street was a well shined brass name plate that said, Heritage Foundation. They were dancing in the halls that morning. The conservative think-tank had finally come to power. That’s the thing about conservatives, they play the long game. 38 years later the Heritage Foundation has a giant new building and its policy papers and conferences are the beating heart of every retrograde change in the public sector since Trump was elected. Trump is just their deal with the devil. They play to win. End of story. Oh, and they gave Trump the approved list of Supreme Court Candidates. Democrats have no equivalent long-term committed think tank. Democrats mostly exist to make each other miserable. Winning is merely an occasional outcome not a goal.
For a time, I worked with a guy who had spent time working for Richard Viguerie. He was the first one to build conservative direct mailing lists from a nondescript building in northern Virginia. My buddy stole the manual for their operation and shared it with me. It was the blueprint for every targeted campaign run since. And…until Obama…the democrats had nothing like it. The Viguerie operation was also the first real consolidation of institutionalized political polarization. It’s amazing how so many people no-one knows change American forever.
I have never voted a party ticket. I am not a joiner. The stronger the identification with a group (other than my sacred SF Giants) the more likely I am going to be heading for the door. Liberal on most social issues, conservative on economics, smaller government is fine, I am the rare voter who looks at the candidate. I look at the two political parties as functionaries to provide me with reasonable choices. Good job on Obama. Are you fucking kidding me on Clinton?
If you are serious about claiming the social and political middle-ground, it is hard work. Most information and media is packaged to stroke the needs of partisans. To genuinely confront polarization, you have to build your own viewing and reading habits.
I spent years studying polarization. It got so bad that I decided I needed to go get a Master’s Degree and write my thesis on the topic. I had read that brain scans showed that when people were shown material that violated their confirmation bias, the cognitive centers in the brain receded and the emotional centers lit up like a 4th of July night. Makes sense, right? Ever hear this, “If I accidentally tuned to Rush Limbaugh, I have to turn away fast because I get so angry.” Or. “How can anyone watch the Rachel Maddow. She is soooo condescending.”
I decided that in order to honestly research and write about political polarization, I needed to overcome my own confirmation bias. So, every day I looked at the newspaper, then listened to Rush Limbaugh. It was hard at first. But the discipline was to predict what 3 topics Rush would tackle and how he would frame them. I got very good at it. 3 for 3 day after day. I could read conservative blogs and listen to Lars Larson without falling off of an emotional cliff. I was able to convert emotion into rationality. It really is possible to cultivate objectivity.
I began my work in Portland City Hall as a moderate. I changed my registration to non-affiliated. There was a time when professional political staff didn’t have to be a glazed-eyed acolyte of a political belief system. I knew democrats who worked for republicans and vice versa. It’s called being a professional. That was me. Because I have worked hard to detach from dogma, I can pretty much make any sort of an argument. In fact, the challenge of advocating for things I had no use for became one of the fun parts of the job. I can carry a pretty good poker face in the room.
So what does my media day look like? In a single day I will touch all 3 of the main cable news networks. I know which presenters are merely political hacks and which ones still do news. (Note: watch Shepard Smith’s noon show on Fox News. I have no idea how he keeps his job. A gay, former Marine from Mississippi who regular calls out the nonsense on his network and only interviews other legitimate news people. It’s bizarre.) I bounce from The Daily Beast to Brietbart. I knew how screwed any immigration legislation was by seeing Breitbart go full “Amnesty” attacks. I read local news by bouncing around the papers and websites. Best newspaper in town? Probably the Tribune. I know. How odd. But there are some good reporters there.
It’s a pain in the ass to be a centrist. No one source of information fills your needs. Every day I have to make judgements and use my highly tuned bullshit filters to assemble opinions I can support. Since I retired I have too much time to work up my thinking on the issues of the day. In some ways, I know what it is like to live as liberal in Oklahoma. Portland is fairly radically left wing, so a moderate is pretty much an apostate. True believers of any persuasion hate to have someone in the room attempting to reason through a conversation. Still, I can’t see any other way to function.
If you can genuinely stand in the middle, what you see is how closely the 30% of people on the both edges of the national polity resemble each other. I admire hard core conservatives because they seem more honest. If they disagree the simply say, fuck off. Liberals suffer from what I have named the “liberal conceit.” Polling confirms that the left like to think of themselves as open minded. It’s the other guy who is biased. When you live as a moderate, you don’t have to do anything more difficult that turn on NPR to have this confirmed. Ah, the velvet hammer of soft bias.
I get how simple and reassuring it is to have an uncompromising value system. In our current hyper-polarized state, I also am genuinely afraid divided certainty is a real threat to our republic. I am holding out for those self-identified independents to rise to the occasion. Across our history, the middle has been written off again and again. Still, I think the real revolutionaries are the ones you just can’t buy with what the polarized left and right are selling.
Oh…the chair. Thought needs a place. I think it would fair to say I may have read a million pages sitting in that old, gold La-Z-Boy recliner. I was a kid when my dad got it. It wound up in Oregon when I bought my first little house in 1990. It has always been the first place I go to read. It is in that chair that I solidified my understanding of myself as a mostly Buddhist and as a political centrist. Putting it on a hand truck and taking it to the street was strange. Like killing an old friend. A couple hours after I put it out, I looked out the window and it was gone. I hope whoever has it now has a good book.