A Symbolic Age

We are living in a symbolic age. Recently, as Puerto Rico had just been hit by hurricane Maria and tensions were mounting between our president and North Korea, I watched as a serious televised news panel show devoted its first 40 minutes to discussion of kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Over that weekend, just about every social media contact I have felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy– right to free speech vs. respect for country and flag.

Now symbols are layered upon symbols as apparently the vice president, in a pre-planned PR stunt, attended a football game in order to be seen standing during the national anthem and then walking out to protest the protestors.

This is exactly the type of thing that thrives in our current journalistic environment. More and more people get their news from social media, the same place we go to advance our public personas (personae?). The stories that thrive in that environment are stories that allow people to express their identities. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the phenomenon of news stories as identity expression, no one was taking a knee but we were debating the merits of Starbucks coffee cup design in regards to the “War on Christmas.”

The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

Do you remember the Starbucks cups? Kim Davis? Symbolic stories catch fire and burn out quickly. Unlike major policy issues such as taxation, health care, foreign relations, they are uncomplicated and require little expertise. It is easy to take sides.

Television news takes its cues from social media when determining what its audience cares about.  They call this “spicy, watchable coverage.”  But what if the public is being manipulated? What if our differences are smaller than we are led to believe and they are being stoked by trolls, bots, media personalities who thrive on conflict and international bad actors? Somehow though we can’t seem to resist playing along, using the cues to make identity claims and to associate with one tribe or another.

And by the way, I can’t stand that expression “the base” and its cousin “playing to the base.” If I were Lord High Commander of the Universe I would ban them.

When I look up polarization and culture wars I find blogs and news sources across the political spectrum lamenting the state of affairs. That we have a polarization problem is one thing we seem to agree on.

A fair portion of the commentary, however, blames the problem on “the other side.” “We need to put an end to this polarization, if only those guys would drop their misguided views…”

An example of this comes from The Federalist, which combines a straightforward call for transcending our differences with a hefty dose of blame and finger pointing, ” the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans.”

A Columbia Journalism Review study meanwhile shows that polarization is “mainly a right-wing phenomenon.”

We now read and share different media sources, so those who identify with one point of view or the other each have support for the notion that it’s the other side’s fault. But really, who cares who’s fault it is? Isn’t trying to attribute blame part of the problem? If you really long for people to come together then you have to give up on the fun pass time of assigning blame for the nation’s problems on “those guys.”

It gets my back up whenever arguments devolve into talk about “liberals” or “conservatives.” If you’re arguing about what kind of person supports an idea you’re no longer talking about the idea. In fact, the act of defining a point of view as belonging to “the left” or “the right” skews our perception of how polarized we are. As The Washington Post explained in 2014, “This stems from the underlying psychology of categorization: merely labeling groups makes people see them as more distinctive than they actually are. So when people think about where ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ stand, they will tend to place Democrats too far to the left, and Republicans too far to the right, which psychologists term ‘false polarization.’”

Across several different surveys, we find a large degree of false polarization. That is, when we ask subjects about where they think the “average Democratic voter” and “average Republican voter” stand, they think they are further apart than the average Democratic and Republican voters actually are. For example, on the issue of capital gains tax cuts, respondents think ordinary Americans are 84 percent more polarized than they actually are (see the second row of the graph above)… We randomly assigned some subjects to read media accounts of a polarized electorate and others to read accounts of a more moderate electorate. When subjects are exposed to media coverage suggesting electoral polarization and division, they perceive greater electoral polarization–as measured by where they place typical Republican and Democratic voters on issue scales (readers interested in the details of the analysis can consult our paper). This suggests that media coverage can make people think the U.S. is a politically polarized country even if it is not.

In many respects, calling this cultural trend “political polarization” is missing the point. To a large extent these symbolic claims have nothing to do with actual politics.

Noah Rothman, writing in today’s Commentary, critiques a Washington Post article by Michael Gerson:

Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.

Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.

In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address.

Research published in Political Psychology by scholars Schatz and Levine found that “national symbolism evokes a psychological attachment to the nation as an abstracted social entity, but not as a concrete functional system.”

And by the way, I have a pet peeve about the notion that there actually are two distinct poles on any issue. Most of the things that we have to decide as a nation are far more complex than that. There are many sides, and by making them into team sport, where there are only two sides and you must agree with one or the other, you limit discourse and constrain the ways of looking at a problem.

The way we talk about these issues increases our perception that there is no room for agreement and that the only answer, therefore, is to eliminate the opposition.

I would make the humble suggestion that as a start the cable news networks could stop following internet trends to decide what stories should lead. Leave the identity building symbolic stories to thrive in their natural environment, social networks, and don’t dignify them with lead story status. Especially as it seems clear that these divisions are being amplified by outside forces.

Alain de Botton, writing in News: A User’s Manual said:

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge – because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments – is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone – not simply this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

Noah Rothman, over at Commentary, calls this making politics boring again:

It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.

On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect.

3 comments

  1. You sure are a Unitarian, Laura.
    Open to diverse thoughts and ideas.

    Kneeling at ball games has become a diversion from what matters. Would the fuss be more if they were standing and turning their backs?

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