Series Synopsis: In recent years we have seen our country become increasingly polarized. Political campaigns turned into a war zone, with propaganda permeating through both sides of the battlefield. This has turned Congress into a stalemate, often causing conflicts between the House, Senate, and Executive. This state leaves the country without any new policies, honest discourse, or hope. I would like to use this series over the next weeks or months to discuss what components of human nature, technology, and culture have led us to this point, and perhaps introduce some solutions.
As alluded to in previous articles, the proliferation of the media has grown proportionately with recent technological advances in communication. Greater access and improved products broadcasting television, the internet, and more specifically, social media. Closely tied to this transformation in communication has been a cultural shift towards sensationalism. From coverage on O.J. to Lewinski, media portrayal of events in the United States began to provide greater focus on the spectacle and outrage rather than the details of any given occurrence. This decision, I believe, by broadcasting companies was a conscious play on viewers’ emotions in lieu of their intellect. This has led to a change in how the people themselves understand and consume the issues displayed for them. I believe this sensationalism, and its subsequent prioritization of emotions over rational understanding, has multiplied in its impact, culminating in a marked variation in how Americans observe politics.
Television coverage of the 2012 presidential election was a near perfect example of this phenomenon. Candidate’s character took center stage throughout a significant portion of press coverage during the year or so leading up to November. I do not think that portrayal of character in presidential elections is a new focal point; however, in recent elections the portrait has been drawn in a much more sensational manner – this helps to create a much more emotional and intensely passionate response in the citizens consuming the coverage. In 2012, the “character and record of presidential contenders finds that 72% of this coverage has been negative for Barack Obama and 71% has been negative for Mitt Romney,” according to the Pew Research Center. They returned similar ratings in surveys conducted during the Bush-Kerry election. Inherent in these results is the fact that respondents develop strong, personal conceptions of the candidates that are based on ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ the two men on an intimate level. Voting on this basis seems akin to ‘liking’ the men on Facebook. There is little, or even no, emphasis placed on the politician’s viewpoint on legislative topics that they will be in office to tackle.
The recent government shutdown, as well as the debt crisis received similar treatment in media coverage. This past shutdown, the first of its kind since Bill Clinton’s administrations short break in 1996. It is actually an event that occurs, generally for a very short period, with relative frequency since the late 1970s. The repercussions of the shutdown were fairly minor to the vast majority of citizens, minus those government employees out of work. Despite this fact, the event was covered as if the shutdown itself were a defining moment in current American politics. In reality the factors underlying the shutdown are significantly more important than the shutdown itself. The same applies to the debt crisis – though its potential impact was much more worrisome, it is still the split that exists within the government that should be the story. The story that deserves our focus is the one that still exists long after the government has resumed working – it is the fact that our leaders appear to fundamentally be unable to work with one another. This problem culminates in the two issues we have seen sensationalized lately, but focusing on the sensationalist nature of the outcome diverts our attention from developing a solution to the problem itself. So long as we ignore the underlying problem, it will not be addressed.
This approach is no different than how we handle other issues facing the people of the United States. We repeatedly sensationalize problems, leaving us focused on a result, and still apparently oblivious to its causes. In addition to the two examples previously mentioned, the same logic holds true for public mass shootings. TV broadcasts will provide every detail there is to know about a shooter, victim, town, or weapon. Rarely do these programs focus much on the underlying problems that may have led to this event, and others in the future. The issue of abortion has changed from a full conversation about individual rights to a focus on a few heavily scrutinized cases.
It seems fairly clear that our current approach is not working. Sensationalizing complex political topics turns issues into discrete events, taking away from the fact that the same underlying issues cause many different incidents. What we can work to accomplish is an understanding of the common factors inherent in different events, rather than the sensational aspects that set them apart. Seek answers to important issues and stances that matter to you. Realize that all humans are flawed, all stories can be embellished, and all events can become Hollywood classics – but in reality these generally have relatively mundane starting points, and that is the information that is truly important. Focus on that, not the event you’re being tricked into seeing as important. We can solve our complex issues by overcoming the source, the underlying – and often simple – problems.