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.

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.