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The polarization of American politics

August 7th, 2009 |  Published in U.S. politics

7 August 2009 — I leave today for my annual 4 week holiday.  My wife and I are members of Nature 2000 in Europe and we do things like study animals natural habitats, understand why the sea turtles in the Mediterraean are in danger, or assist in labelling ancient historical sites and artifacts.  I find it a great balance.  This year we are also taking a course on the island of Milos in the geology of the Mediterranean. Great stuff.  But I am also pondering things like the “us vs them” political culture in the the U.S., cultural property laws around the world, etc.  I hope to think/write about these issues while on holiday.  A preview of my “us vs them” essay (a work in progress) follows: 

Humans have a natural tendency to overestimate the present. I think it has something to do with our ego, that leads every generation into thinking they are in some sort of evolutionary peak, that the things they are familiar with will be around, almost unchanged, for a long period of time. The fact is, if we manage to keep things in perspective, we can see how fast and unpredictable the world evolves around us. Many well-established, “too big to fail” industries are struggling to survive and adapt these days, like the written press, law firms, the traditional music industry or even the television. Many wrong predictions, business mistakes and false prophecies have as common reason this tendency to overestimate the present and to underestimate the surprises that the future brings us. In that matter, the Web makes no exception.
The Web has changed a lot since Google first set its mission to organize the world’s information. Back then, the Web had little structure: the information was scattered across all sort of websites and personal pages, none of which looked alike. If you were searching for information on a physics phenomenon, chances were you would have found the best resources on that particular topic on some obscure page written by a college student for a school project: the type of page you would have never found without the help of a search engine, such as Google.
Following one of the basic laws of nature, the Web, as like any other entity, gains structure as it evolves. Today we are still using Google to search for details on a physics phenomenon, out of habit, but chances are, most of the times, the first result will be an Wikipedia article or even a Twitter conect; we are still using Google to search a person’s name, but again, chances are one of the first results will be that person’s Facebook or LinkedIn profiles or Twitter. Custom personal pages, so popular and cool just a few years ago, are dying. Publishers are less interested in developing platforms for their publications from scratch and are using one of the few popular blogging platforms instead. Shops are also deployed on existing platforms. Data is moving towards the cloud, new standards have been defined (Atom, OpenID – just to name a couple). These are all telltale signs of the subtle process through which, by emerging patterns, the Web is gaining structure, almost as if it were a living organism.
But evolution comes with a cost. While structure brings initial efficiency, it also brings on new sets of rules, makes the evolving entity become more rigid, and it “kills the soul” as they say, and, ironically, it’s the first sign of decay. This applies to living beings, companies and industries alike.
The U.S. was once a nation of thinkers, of intellectuals but that has long passed. Now we Twitter ourselves to death, live on sound bites, and have developed knee-jerk reactions. Few of us read books, develop thought. And I believe the advancing technology has accentuated an “us vs. them” mentality that has destroyed the U.S.  It has promoted populism on the Net.
My starting blocks
There is the belief in America that U.S. citizenship is worth more than citizenship of other countries. Because many Americans believe that life in the U.S. is superior to that in other countries, because they believe that the U.S. is safer and more democratic than other nations, they feel that they are privileged to belong to “the greatest nation on earth”. It is, of course, easy to maintain this belief, based as it is on ignorance of the outside world.  Any country that makes fun of the fact that a presidential candidate speaks fluent French (poor John Kerry from a few years back) needs a little perspective.  And given the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, a few history and cultural lessons.
Being multilingual and a citizen of several countries has afforded me the opportunity to live and work in several countries so I do not fit the mold.  But for most Americans, as one wag put, “all we know in America is how to work. We actually pay to attend work/life balance seminars!!   But no surprise:  Americans have so few holidays — about two weeks a year — so we hardly ever travel abroad. Consequently, we know no reality other than our own.  We know the price of everything, the value of nothing.”
Disregard the acid tone and sheer unfairness of this charge (the author might consider that the United States has one of the highest rates of immigration in the developed world, making it by definition a more cosmopolitan nation than he imagines).
But he was probably right about one thing: Americans do like to think of themselves as different. And work, economics, finance, and monetary success rule everything in America.  For very defined reasons.
From 1630, when John Winthrop urged his fellow Puritans to build a “city upon a hill,” through the 1830s, when the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted something peculiar about the American spirit, to the 1950s, when a generation of “consensus” historians credited the absence of a feudal past with the seeming nonexistence of bloody social strife in America, the idea of “American exceptionalism” has demonstrated tremendous staying power. “The position of the Americans is . . . exceptional,” Tocqueville wrote, “and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
If you read and study U.S. economic history, you know that most recent proponents of exceptionalism frame the story in the context of globalization. Not the twenty-first-century globalization we hear so much about in the news, but that earlier nineteenth-century wave of globalization that saw massive transfers of capital, labor, and ideas between and across continents.
America rose to dominance on the back of European money and European migration, but that America’s singular geography and history led it to use these global resources to construct a wholly unique system of economic institutions and financial traditions.
Those economic institutions and financial traditions became our dominant cultural force. Finance, money and economic success became our lodestars.
My central thesis
In a recent email debate, a friend of mine raised an interesting point about the role of the Internet in fueling populist fervor, especially during the current economic meltdown when populism has been a particularly dominant cultural force. We were discussing the issue in the problematic context of anonymous online bulletin boards, where negativity and vitriol seem to fester in nearly every context. It is certainly the case that angry, anonymous posts about Wall Street elites can often be unproductive and reactionary, and they have the potential to breed further negativity. But it seems to me the recent glut of news reports about lavish bonuses, Madoff, the failure of accountability, the healthcare debate, the Sotomayor Supreme Court debate, etc., etc., etc. touches on something deeper.

News outlets have capitalized on populist sentiment in recent months, and the Internet has been a particularly good vehicle because of its viral nature and public accessibility. Average citizens are both authors of and sources for online content.  One major “populist” story broke on the Huffington Post site when a reader sent in an audiotape of a Morgan Stanley conference call announcing “retention awards” for employees. The headline reached millions nearly instantaneously, and the story required virtually no reporting because the audio spoke for itself. The idea that economic headlines can be created without the input of financial and political elites, and more importantly, without the input of established journalists, is undoubtedly altering the narrative about the financial crisis.   Republican Senator DeMint live “public town meetings” where his misimpressions about current health care legislation reinforces the public’s worst fears is another.

This situation poses a number of risks.

For one, there is a threat that we will give some voices unwarranted attention and power. Particularly during the financial crisis, there is a high risk that citizen journalists won’t have the necessary expertise to make sense of the complex issues involved. But, at least theoretically, it also frees at least some online news content from the confines of corporate media, which has historically had a well-documented pro-business bent.
Second, many successful online news outlets are geared to sensationalized tidbits rather than in-depth investigative journalism, so online populism is fueled, in part, by stories that are taken out of context, provoking knee-jerk reactions about corporate irresponsibility. Any time you paint with a wide brush to fit a particular narrative, nuance is lost. But again, this is hardly a problem unique to online news or to coverage about the financial crisis. Television news is completely driven by sound bytes, and established journalists routinely quote sources without providing any context for the reader, even if the quote states something verifiably false.

On balance, it seems to me that the harms associated with the “us vs. them” populist mentality largely driving the media in its coverage of the financial crisis and healthare, mirror the harms typically linked with the mainstream media – oversimplification, bias, and a covert agenda. This time, however, the losers are different. In the current media narrative, the victims are banks that were not involved in the risky sub-prime mortgage business rather than recipients of public assistance who were working two jobs. No matter what the impact, oversimplification of the issues has a net negative effect on public discourse, but I can’t help but think maybe this wave of populism has given us a healthy dose of anger, something our disengaged, complacent population could certainly use.

This is a subject I want to develop further, with deeper analysis of how we got here.  Holiday thinking time.  Enjoy your summer.

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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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