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Aug 2003 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

A World Apart
By Brian H. Marston

It's human nature: we tend to seek out sources of information that reinforce our own worldviews. After all, who wants to listen to some blowhard they don't agree with? So it's not surprising that when Valdis Krebs analyzed buying patterns for political books, he found two distinct clusters, one on the right and one on the left. What is surprising is just how distinct the clusters are, as illustrated by the resultant diagram. There's only one book in the middle of the two clusters, What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis, which was bought by people in both groups. It's also worth noting that while both sides of the political spectrum tend to stick to books that validate what they already believe, the cluster on the right contained fewer books that were even more closely knotted together, indicating that conservatives have a narrower, stricter party line than liberals, who tend to be open to a broader range of ideas.

As much as I love them, new media outlets like cable TV and the Web have accelerated political polarization by fragmenting audiences into smaller and smaller niche markets. In the era of the daily paper and network TV, people in a given area got their news from pretty much the same sources. Those sources may not have always told the truth, but they served as a common reference point.

Today, consumers have more control in selecting which media outlets to tune into. It's possible for someone to watch, read or listen to news and commentary all day long without encountering anything he disagrees with. Each side is busily preaching to the choir, refining and hardening its self-righteous position so that it can answer potential objections without even listening to them.

Last year, Matthew Dowd of The Washington Post examined presidential job approval ratings broken down by party affiliation. He concluded that "Most voters in this country have become polarized during the past two decades" since Ronald Reagan was elected. The widening gulf between the left and the right is epitomized by the division between Clinton and Bush supporters, each side regarding the other as Satan's minion.

Amid such animosity, it's hard to have a serious dialogue about the tough issues facing our country. Both sides are talking past each other, like two monologues filled with bumper sticker aphorisms. Politically affiliated think tank studies rush to find or manufacture data to support the conclusions they've already drawn. Each group has its own cadre of pet "experts" to call on for sound bites. Debates quickly devolve into personal attacks. As we ping pong back and forth, each side grows more distrustful of the other.

What's missing in this divisive climate is the give and take that makes democracy work. Without compromise, the door opens to opportunistic extremists. Reestablishing bipartisan, consensus-based politics will require us to seek out the middle ground — a common space, if you will — to serve as a bridge. It may sound simplistic, but a big part of the solution is talking with people you don't agree with and trying to keep an open mind. Grit your teeth and read an op-ed by someone on the other side of the fence in an effort to try to see things from her point of view. Even if you don't change your mind, you'll develop a more nuanced position. And that's what civic discourse is all about.

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