Sunday, May 10, 2020

Political Tribalism And The Pandemic

Joe Lockhart asks why so few editorial boards of newspapers are calling for Trump to resign.  He contrasts that silence to what happened in the Watergate era:  Nixon's resignation was demanded by most major newspapers.

Why the current silence?  The central reason seems to be this:

I put this question to more than a dozen experts, media columnists, editorial writers, academics and White House reporters. What emerged was not one simple explanation, as journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University explained it, but a number of factors that have discouraged editorial pages around the country from taking this bold step.
Central to these, according to John Avlon, a senior political analyst at CNN and the former editor in chief of the Daily Beast, is that "the reality of the hardened partisanship is beyond reason. We've become really unmoored from our best civic traditions." And one of our best civic traditions used to be holding political leaders to account -- demanding, in extreme situations, that they resign.
Put in simpler terms, Trump won't resign, whatever the demands for it might be, and Republicans won't demand his resignation, because politics has grown increasingly tribal.

It's not just "my country, right or wrong," but "my party, right or wrong."*   And as the mainstream media itself is viewed by the right (and also by some parts of the left) as a member of the "other" tribe and not neutral, it's pretty easy to see why few editorial boards would bother to demand a resignation which will not happen.  Indeed, the recent no-consequences impeachment is still fresh in our minds.

When did American politics become this polarized and tribal?

Many would argue that polarization has always existed, of course.  Still, there is something different in the most recent version of it, and that is because legal and technological changes have enabled extensive polarization in what was once called the media or the press and in what now is simply all the different sources of information, rumor and hearsay that consumers use.  Those same changes have made fighting against this trend much harder.

The end of the FCC Fairness Doctrine is perhaps the starting-point of the current polarization epidemic.  Once the Fairness Doctrine was buried, Fox News could be launched**, with its policy of presenting one-sided and selective information as if it were completely neutral.  The era of the Internet now offers almost limitless opportunities for the replication of that Fox News foundational principle.  

The proliferation of politically biased news sites, on both sides of the political aisle though more on the right,  makes staying in the same tribal information bubble easier, and even the comment-ability that the Internet has provided for all of us serves to strengthen feelings of tribal belonging and also to self-police the borders of the tribe***.

This particular topic seemed to me barely worth writing about in these pandemic times, until I thought about the fact that we have Donald Trump leading the effort against the pandemic at least partly because of the new political tribalism and despite the fact that most everyone knows he only cares about his own re-election chances.

* Or whatever ideological group you might wish to see as the relevant tribe if "party" doesn't work in that context.

** An erudite commenter (Alby) noted that Fox News itself wouldn't have been subject to the Fairness Doctrine which covered only public airwaves, though the end of that doctrine did make right-wing radio shows possible (Rush Limbaugh and the like).  But Fox certainly was a sign of the changing times.

*** That is because to truly feel that one belongs to a tribe there must be interactions with the other members, and those interactions must reward opinions which strengthen the tribe and discourage opinions which weaken the tribe.

Now we can have those interactions with total strangers, not just with those whom we meet outside the cyberspace, and that has both good and bad outcomes.

Though being able to talk with strangers online creates many good outcomes, including community building, excess tribalism is one of its bad outcomes.  As an aside, it's much easier to recognize "excess" tribalism than it is to define it, but I think it is operating whenever tribal membership is more important than what a particular person is actually stating in how that person's message is received.