Barack Obama was not yet a United States Senator in the summer of 2004. But with one keynote address in Boston, home of that year’s Democratic National Convention, he became a household name and a symbol of bipartisan hope. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” said the man who was voted the nation’s 44th President just over four years later. “There is a United States of America.”
Obama’s words did little to stop the bottoming trend in moderate politics. Congress is now the most partisan it has ever been. Lawmakers now vote with their respective parties roughly 90 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. And many of the Senate’s moderate voices, including Republican Olympia Snowe and Democrat Ben Nelson, will be leaving their government posts at year’s end.
The Internet has helped information flow—and become reinforced—more quickly than ever before. The distinction between the politicians and their constituents are less apparent today as a result. Politicians and typical voters can share their views equally with the world, one post at a time. But as extremist sentiment continues to plague our nation’s civic figureheads—and their online accounts—voters are following suit.
Partisan spars in Washington are as old as the city itself. Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams responded by calling Jefferson a “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
But partisanship under this presidency is of a different sort: Obama will be the first commander-in-chief to spend his entire White House tenure in the social media spotlight. The Internet has become a prime destination for many Americans looking for party-driven election news. Over half of American voters get most of their election news from the internet, according to a 2011 study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
The most popular political websites are those with partisan slants. Roughly 55 percent of those who participated in the same Pew survey feel that the Internet is catalyzing political partisanship. And a total of 34 percent deliberately read news content and commentary from sites that reinforce their own socio-economic opinions.
The process of taking stances on political issues is usually not a rational one. But Jerold Duquette, an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University, believes that partisan media outlets are influencing their consumers nonetheless. He told me:
Many of the nationally known bloggers have become reliable messengers for political elites of various stripes. They hope to be influential with their friends and neighbors, but more as boosters of a clear perspective than as persuaders. They don’t want to change minds; they want to strengthen the convictions of the like-minded by attacking and denigrating their political opponents.
But politics has become more than a series of policy arguments. In an age when tweets from presidential candidates and their next-door neighbors each cover the same number of pixels, views of government have become intertwined with everyday life events. Recreational activities—book clubs, dating services, and luxury cruises—that once gathered holders of differing viewpoints are now being split by the political affiliations of their participants.
More information is electronically available than ever before, and those who use the Internet are increasingly desperate to mark their own presence within it. Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and publisher of the school’s History News Network, told me:
Issues have to be simplified to break through. Americans don’t have patience for complicated messages. An activist or group that adopts simple messaging that’s loud and maybe even obnoxious has a chance of influencing public opinion.
Washington and social media have reinforced these partisan attitudes. Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org board president and author of the 2011 book The Filter Bubble, conducted a Facebook experiment in which he deliberately “friended” politically conservative users. But when he didn’t click on their posts as often as those of his fellow liberals, the right-leaning posts mostly disappeared from his news feed. He told The New York Times in 2011:
People love the idea of having their feelings affirmed. If you can provide that warm, comfortable sense without tipping your hand that your algorithm is pandering to people, then all the better.
Even online institutions like Google do little to encourage a diversity of opinions. Google—and others like it—track the words users type into its search box, prioritizing results that web surfers want to see over content that conflicts with their own views. Voters who use the Internet are therefore more likely to encounter posts that remind them why they voted for or against a certain candidate than they are to come across pieces of information that might encourage them to change their minds. Politicians can spread mistruths and engage in unethical behavior, while the individuals who voted for these public officials can go extensive periods of time without having the means to question them.
Compromise has become a rare feat in American politics. Niche markets have deprioritized goals of persuasion, from the wings of Capitol Hill to the domain addresses of the Silicon Valley. Politicians and social media users spend little time inquiring about opposing political stances for fear that friends and colleagues will feel betrayed or ignored.
Partisanship is inevitable in today’s world of customization. Shenkman added that awareness of social media tactics is the key to accountability:
What this country needs is the development of critical thinking tools so that voters can better evaluate what they hear in the media. We need to understand our own biases as well as the media’s.
Senator Barry Goldwater did not live to witness the invention of Twitter and Facebook. But when he represented the Republican Party in the 1964 Presidential Election, heencouraged voters to criticize political imbalance:
This government is your government. It is not the property of the elected few. We consent to be governed. We do not elect to be ruled. But if your interest as an American citizen is confined to the tuning of a television set, the scanning of an editorial or column, without careful study of the issues and the answers offered — then it may well turn out that some day your actions will indeed result in electing to be ruled.
Goldwater’s warning is even more salient today. The Internet, like each of today’s political parties, is filled with varied opinions. The potential to strengthen dissent is enormous. But arguments can neither be won, nor understood, without critically examining the origins of information.