Ever get the feeling we’re living in two countries? It’s not a stretch to say we’re experiencing a period of near-historic division and upheaval, but what I’m talking about is even bigger than that. Sometimes it seems that we’re speaking a different language when we interact with those who don’t share the same views. Sure, we’ve had a lot to argue about in the past 15 years or so, from Obama to Trump to a spate of recent monumental rulings by the Supreme Court, but I’m going to suggest these developments only accentuate our division; they weren’t the cause of it. It isn’t that the country is moving backward, necessarily—though I suppose a case could be made that it is—nearly insomuch as it feels as though its people are interacting with different versions of reality. It’s hard not to think that we’re witnessing a country being cleaved in half, a civilization on the brink of collapse.
And yet, I’m going to suggest that most Americans agree that we’re not headed toward a good place. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine things getting worse, but I suspect most of us predict that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
It’s impossible to say exactly how this happened, but I’m guessing the news industry’s slow metamorphosis from a service to a product had a lot to do with it. The media landscape today is a toxic ecosystem of extreme partisanship that curates subjective realities to suit its customers’ expectations (for example, while the “liberal” media gave extensive coverage to the Jan. 6 Congressional hearings, conservative outlets barely acknowledged it). Social media, meanwhile, has taught everyday Americans that they too can become brands; it’s a place where public perception means everything. It feels good to fit in, and we quickly learned that we can get some easy attention and a quick dopamine hit whenever we yell at those with whom we disagree or take a position identical to our peers.
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Worse, these are also the spaces where the most extreme views in the room are the ones we listen to the most. This has caused the national conversation to tilt to the furthest edges and has resulted in a remarkable recalibration among media, politicians and brands who take advantage of our culture wars for their own benefit. Opportunistic brands pathetically hop on whatever social issue is happening at the moment in a desperate attempt to build audiences and boost their bottom line. Conservative politicians outwardly embrace authoritarianism, turn a blind eye to leaders who attempt to subvert our democracy and now take political positions they would’ve considered extreme a decade ago. On the other side of the political spectrum, politicians brand-build on Twitter with the most performatively woke positions imaginable for an audience of ideologues who harbor views so extreme that you’ll be greeted with “racist!” for suggesting that due process and freedom of speech remain principles to be cherished.
The result? An increasing number of us sit somewhere near one of two political extremes. We reside in media echo chambers where we communicate only with those who share our beliefs. We spend too much time cheering for the political home team as opposed to thinking critically. Everyone is stricken with this moral panic that the “other side” is constantly trying to push its agenda onto them. Objective reality has become a dispensable casualty.
Suffice to say, this isn’t working for the rest of us. In fact, it seems the one thing we all agree on is the fact that we’re collectively pessimistic about the future. A whopping 88 percent of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to a July Monmouth University survey, an all-time low since the polling group began asking this question a decade ago. In a brilliant May essay in the Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt details the harm social media has caused society and suggests it’s threatening the future of our democracy. He might be onto something. A July Times/Siena poll found that a majority—58 percent—of Americans now think our democracy is in need of major reforms, if not a complete overhaul.
It appears that we have more in common with each other than we think. Indeed, a June FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll discovered that Americans hold some pretty extreme misperceptions about one another. For example: As it turns out, most Democrats and Republicans agree that abortion should be legal in instances of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. However, the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll found that most Democrats assumed that only a minority (less than a third) of Republicans actually agreed with this statement. Face it: We don’t know as much about the other side as we think. And therein lies the key to figuring out a solution.
Cooperation is a prerequisite for any functioning democracy. Studies show that we learn more when we interact with those who hold different views. We need to recognize the effects that partisanship has had on this country, and we need to do something about the wedge that today’s media ecosystem has driven between us, and I’m going to suggest that a first good step is to embrace diverse viewpoints and instill the value of having good-faith discussions and debates. My guess is that this charge will be led by the moderate majority who recognize the danger that lies ahead and finally decides that staying silent is no longer an option.