Sensational U.S. : Polarization in Politics – How We Got Here

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.

Mentality of the Masses

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Polarized Politics Series: How We Got Here

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.

The concept of the herd mentality has long existed. Throughout the entirety of human existence, people have generally followed leaders that represent a given minority. This concept rings true in the animal kingdom as well, and is quite likely something that will never disappear, but, that being said, it is something that we can focus on reducing — or at the least something of which we can be aware.Research has shown that even just a minority of five percent can influence the direction of an entire crowd (or in this case population). This particular study showed that as the group size increased, the percentage of the crowd required for influence waned — I would think it reasonable to extrapolate this to say that perhaps on a national scale even one percent may be sufficient. Although this concept has been in existence for millennia, I believe that the proliferation of social media has amplified its impact by providing smaller minorities within society greater access to the whole of the population while significantly reducing costs.

The economics behind a herd mentality are fairly simple in the context of politics. For any given issue, a large proportion of a population will feel slightly to the left or right of center. As opinions move closer to the extremes, they become less common, but more intense. If you think about it as a Bell Curve, people with neutral opinions are in the center, and are highest in number, then the very tails of the curve contain the least number of people with the strongest opinion. Despite the fact that the tail contains few people in number, it often will contain a significant portion of people who will highly prioritize the issue. Given that people will always face a decision of how to prioritize their time, those who care the most about an issue will be most vocal about the topic. Unfortunately, these views that are most often expressed are also often the most radical. The rest of the population under the curve will tend to follow the closest person/group willing to take a leadership role. People slightly to the left of center will then attach themselves to those in the left tail, and vice versa for the right. Individuals, who on their own may care very little about the issue in question, will suddenly be part of a movement with a highly intensified version of their thoughts.

Historically very few have had the means and access to reach the entire population. This means that there have likely always been extremely polarized tail groups regarding any issue in history. But, unless a person or group already in power was the entity that held this view, it was unlikely that it would garner the attention required to draw in a nation on a wide scale. Social media has entirely changed this age-old structure. Suddenly, you can read my article. An individual in Wyoming can write a Tweet and instantly be heard by other compatriots in California, New Jersey or Texas. The only cost to the individual for this access is the ability to have an internet connection, which is increasingly universally available. Keeping in mind the same economics discussed above, those with the most intense opinions will be responsible for the lion’s share of Tweets, Facebook statuses, and blog posts. As others with more centralized views see these posts, they will likely dissent with the opposing tail view, and see their closer tail opinion as being more correct. Since there are frequently few alternatives to these tails, as most people in the middle care too little to spend time posting on the subject, the population begins to migrate to one of the two extremes.

Facebook, Twitter, and whatever sites are to come are not likely to disappear anytime soon — quite the opposite. Luckily, they needn’t disappear for us to overcome this problem. The solution is as simple as utilizing the resources we have at our disposal. As stated previously, theory on herd mentality will teach us that people will aggregate around the leader proposing a solution most similar to what they believe. Currently we exist in an infrastructure that shows us there are always just two options: two parties, two poles, and two extreme ideas. We forget that this is far from the truth; the two sides presented infrequently offer me a solution with which I can live. However, if more opinions surrounding a topic are introduced to the population, the fewer individuals will feel they must attach themselves to a pole that honestly does not suit them.

This means you and me. My generation often is critiqued with thinking we matter too much. This may be true in some instances, but your opinion could be the one that I see as reasonable. You could be the individual that pulls me, or others away from an extreme, and towards a middle ground that those who fall on the opposite side of the center can work alongside. Yes, herd mentality exists, and people will often attach themselves with the leader whose view is closest to theirs, but in today’s world you and I can be that leader. The next time you are frustrated with the lack of reasonable options being presented around an issue in public discourse I challenge you to say so. Tell a friend, post online, or send a response, but most importantly be heard. Be your own leader instead of following one of the conveniently available paths. You’d be surprised how many people may agree.

Ignorance and Illness: Mental Health in the US

“Shots fired outside the US capital”, were the words I heard from a friend Thursday afternoon.  Just a few years ago those words would scare and surprise me — they might have even led to pandemonium in the nation’s capital, but not anymore.  On Thursday, as I read the words, I don’t believe my expression changed.  I was concerned and saddened, but I have also become jaded to these public announcements of violence (granted, in this case there was no shooter per se, but the coverage produced the same sentiment).  I probably could have started this article off in a nearly identical fashion any number of weeks over the past year: mass shootings with at least some seemingly random (or at least collateral) targets have become frighteningly commonplace.  If you too read that last sentence without thinking twice about it, read it again.  Really think about what it means, and then consider, what does that say about our society and our approach to mental illness and emotions?

I certainly do not claim to have the comprehensive answer to that question, but what I can confidently say is that in America we too often turn a blind eye to mental illnesses and frequently our own feelings.  In the incident this past week, it turns out that the instigator did not in fact even have a gun, and therefore, she did not shoot anyone, but nevertheless it shouldn’t surprise us that reporting since the event have uncovered that she was suffering from depression.  Mental illness is a difficult concept to encapsulate within one set of words. It varies greatly by individual, and even the same illness can have massively different results on different minds.  Without question it is only a minute portion of the mentally ill population that turns to murder or other means of violence as an expression of their issues.  I would argue that the actions taken as a means of dealing with a mental illness are equal to, or may even exceed, the variability in the array of illnesses themselves.

An estimated 26.2 percent of adults in the US suffer from some form of diagnosable mental illness in a given year according to the NIMH.  Mood disorders, along with Depressive and Dysthymic Disorders combine to form the largest percentage of ailments in America.  Furthermore, 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder or substance abuse disorder (NIMH).  This statistic may also be applied to suicide gunman, and bombers who just as often have mental illness.  After every public shooting the debate immediately becomes a battle between those for and against gun ownership.  I could go into the reasons average citizens don’t require automatic weapons, but the fact of the matter is we are looking for external factors to an internal problem.  A gun provides a means, but not a motivation, and in a world where policy change is hard to come by, removing a driving force behind the action can be much more impactful than demanding a change in means.  Alternatives to a gun will always exist, whether homemade bomb, or a type of chemical.  If mental illness is better managed, no other cause will readily take its place.

To reiterate though, mental health issues are far more varied than these sensational spurts of violence. I believe I am no different than most individuals in America in that I know firsthand, whether through family, friends, or oneself, the toll on life that mental illness takes.  Depression may lead a parent to feel empty and unable to meet their child’s emotional needs.  He may get frustrated with the country’s insistence that the illness is just “sadness”, – its normal to be sad when things go wrong, not when they go right – constantly being asked “what’s wrong” when there is seemingly no answer.  Or consider an individual with Social Phobia, who feels paralyzed in any social function, constantly feeling judged and embarrassed.  The same individual feeling tired of others thinking that the disorder is just a quirky/cute quality of a character on an oddball sitcom.  Perhaps PTSD may force your mind back to a battlefield or attack in the past, even while in the safety of your home.  Each of these conditions can be dealt with and managed if we accept them.  They often lead to substance abuse (yes, alcohol counts), emotional shutdowns, or private or public lash outs both violent and verbal.  The factor determining which path an individual will follow is how we as a society view these problems.

We have built a culture that thrives on the extremes. Like our polarized political views, the standard America approach to pain, emotional or physical, is a juxtaposition of unyielding complaining versus a deafening silent solitude.  As with politics, the proper solution is neither of these, but the novel concept of dealing directly with issues with an appropriate mixture of emotional discourse and solitary contemplation in an attempt to objectively analyze a problem and it entity it’s solution.  As a result of this tendency to be overly dramatic when voicing complaints, we associate emotional expression as over the top, when in reality it is often crucially important in facing our demons, for they must be identified before they are conquered. Our other option appears to be hiding our hellish flames and leave them to burn us internally in places we hardly know exist.

This political, cultural, and social structure makes it incredibly difficult for individuals experiencing these issues to face them.   With social stigmas relating mental illness to “nuthouses” and similar clichés, it is little wonder why so many Americans chose to hide the problems we face.  It is important that we culturally work to change these sentiments in order to help those in need feel comfortable reaching out.  I strongly believe the first step in changing our approach to mental illness is through removing negative pre-conceived notions, and admitting that brain ailments truly do exist.  If we can accomplish this, it makes it infinitely easier for someone suffering to admit it.

Now all of this said, the concerns voiced about over-diagnosis are legitimate in some cases.  Constant advertisement asking if you suffer from this or that sign of depression definitely encourage people to self-diagnose.  Interestingly, this increase in media coverage does not seem to have translated into a significant drop in stigma.  It is still much more difficult to tell a friend you are dealing with substance abuse than a broken leg.  This helps perpetuate the problem, as most mental illnesses require the help of others to fix.  Culturally we like to act as though we are fully self sufficient, but we clearly are not.  We depend on others to supply our food, water, housing, and to help with physical ailments – mental ones are no different.

Nobody is perfect, we know and accept that, but just as categorically true is the fact that we can all continuously better ourselves, whether suffering from illness or not.  Often times this requires a deep — and potentially painful — delve into one’s psyche.  More often than not, a professional therapist (or similar professional) will be crucial in helping you along this path.  As a culture we need to work towards accepting this, and encouraging others to work through problems rather than hide them.  It takes more courage to get help and overcome social stigma than it does to hide the illness with lash outs, a bottle, or self-misery.  What we view as stoic toughness may in reality just be fear – being too afraid to confront the issues that most disturb us.  It is certainly possible regardless of how helpless you may feel — and the results can be life changing (if not saving) for you and your close friends/family.

Filicluster: The Dramatization of Politics

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In a nation whose popular culture is dominated by reality television, it is no surprise that our politics function in the manner that they do. With that in mind, it is crucial that we Americans, as the people embodied by this culture, do in fact have control over the direction of our dynamic social philosophy.  Last week the highest rated (non-sporting event) television show in the primetime block was ‘Dancing with the Stars’, boasting over 16 million viewers (data via Nielsen).  Adjusting the sample to include only cable network shows (again excluding sporting events) shows us that ‘Duck Dynasty’ led the pack with an astounding 9.4 million viewers.  This past week also included the penultimate episode of the critically acclaimed (and highly viewed) ‘Breaking Bad’ series, yet ‘Duck Dynasty’ maintained viewership nearly 150% that of the hit series.  The reality of reality television is that our nation demands it, and rewards networks for fulfilling that desire.

There are a myriad of television shows currently on air like ‘Duck Dynasty’: from the Kardashians’ arsenal of fame exploitation, to MTV’s hits including ‘Teen Mom’.  Some reality shows, such as ‘Top Chef’ actually display individuals with particular expertise.  Others portray characters with legitimate accomplishments – the ‘Duck Dynasty’ central family for instance have a successful business – but these somewhat legitimate reasons for being on television have very little to do with why we watch reality TV.  We watch for the drama and, in many cases, the chance to feel better about ourselves by laughing at the truly sad state of the casts.  Viewers hope for problems to arise, and just about every episode of every one of these series appears readily able to provide us with a limitless supply of troubles.  As a nation, it seems that we have transitioned to a point where we think real life consists of the same manufactured type of drama that reality TV requires.

At this point most of you must be wondering, “What the heck does this have to do with politics?”  The answer is that this demand for dramatics, and the acceptance of a reality television framework as true reality is just as apparent to politicians as it is to network executives.  Whether reality television created this desire in our culture, or if it was merely a response to the existing craving is unclear, and frankly irrelevant.  The important aspect of this issue is that it now has become so pervasive that it has extended into the world of politics and beyond.  It has become in a politician’s best interest to explain her idea or perspective in the most dramatic fashion.  Though Americans typically voice disgust at political advertisements bashing an opponent, we still prove the strategy is effective through our voting results — at least to a degree.  During political discourse Americans picket, march, scream, and yell to defend deeply polarized ideals, but infrequently (if ever) show the same emotional response for the compromises necessary to actually accomplish anything.

In one of my favorite reality TV shows, ‘Congress’, there was one clear example of our currently polarized and highly charged political environment in this weeks episode: the budget ‘crisis’.  (Framing the discussion as a ‘crisis’ of course elicits a greater emotional response in people, furthering the connection with dramatics, but that can be a discussion for another day.)  As us regular viewers have grown accustomed to, we have seen Democrats steadfastly cling to a policy, while Republicans, with equally unyielding ferocity, attempt to pry it away.  At stake is the funding with which the entire country’s government requires to run.  Grab your popcorn, with this much on the line, there is bound to be plenty of dramatic jibes.  During this week’s episodes, we met a new character, Ted Cruz.

So, who is Ted Cruz?  It’s a question that, just a week ago, would have left nearly all of us comprising the voting public with a quizzical expression on our faces – only the die-hard fans of the show may have known this character.  The lack of recognition was fully acceptable – by no means was a deficiency of Ted Cruz knowledge a point of shame.  Until his 21-hour monologue (perhaps worthy of recognition this Emmy season, look out Cranston!), Ted Cruz was far from a household name.  The Senator from Texas took the floor to combat the largely Democrat led Senate from re-including the Affordable Care Act in the approved budget.  This discussion is taking place following the House having passed a version excluding ‘Obamacare’ categorically.  Both sides at this point are merely jockeying for position, as they each know full well that neither would accept the unaltered wishes of the opposing party.

Though it may seem obvious that if they know the proposed solution is not feasible, then it would make sense to attempt some concessions, but these politicians know that the American people want to first see a fight.  Both parties ignorantly jabbering about the extols of their stance has proven to be a wonderfully inefficient way to accomplish a polarized standoff.  Cruz played his part in the drama by filling the hours of his filibuster with numerous unrelated topics.  The writers of ‘Congress’ added a humorous piece of irony to Cruz’s part, having him read ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ – he calmly read a children’s story about blind refusal without proper consideration as a room full of grown adults elected to lead our nation were declining to deliberate alternative perspectives on the budget.

For America, the topics currently being discussed by Congress are wildly important.  These conversations will help to shape how the nation progresses with healthcare.  Changes in the budget alter the impact of the federal government in nearly all of its capacities. With a complete governmental shutdown lingering dangerously close to reality, action must be taken, and quickly. In reality, we will likely see a last minute deal that postpones the issue until next time, thus ensuring more drama for future seasons.  The government already only recoups 81 cents per dollar it spends, meaning national debt will continue to rise at an alarming rate until significant compromises occur – meaning this storyline will not go away anytime soon.  The only problem is ‘Congress’ isn’t a TV show. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on these issues, we care about the characters in the drama.  We encourage media outlets to give us stories about a politician’s personal life instead of his policies by clicking on articles about the former not the latter.

What keeps me hopeful about this situation is that in America, we the people still fully control our government.  In fact, we control popular culture as well.  If we, as a society, decide to stop watching ‘The Kardashians’ over factual news programs, the TV Guide will reflect that change.  The day Bill Clinton’s presidency is more commonly known for its political details rather than infidelity is the same day we decide to focus on topics that really pertain to the entire population.  We should quote figures, not characters; know why over whom.  Use this knowledge to formulate an opinion rather than regurgitating someone else’s statements.  Remember, the difference between reality television and real life politics is you.  We are not viewers, but participants.  You have a voice, are impacted by the results, and you have the capacity to elicit change.