Political polarization is one of the most worrisome phenomena even in established democracies—or perhaps especially in established democracies. With a divided electorate and a legislature unable to compromise, the business of governing essentially comes to a standstill. And damage will be done. There is little doubt that the media plays a significant role in confirming people’s political views, forming them, and eventually cementing them. Novelist Stephen King recently had a brilliant idea for countering polarization of the media and the audience—force people to watch media from the political side that is opposite their own.
In an essay about “Guns”, King makes a little wish:
“If I could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted, I’d wish for an end to world hunger; … If, however, the god or genie who bestowed the magic wand told me my one wish had to do with American politics, I think I’d wave it and make the following proclamation: ‘Every liberal in the country must watch Fox News for one year, and every conservative in the country must watch MSNBC for one year.’ […]
Can you imagine what that would be like? For the first month, the screams of ‘What IS this s***???’ would echo high to the heavens. For the next three, there would be a period of grumbling readjustment as both sides of the political spectrum realized that, loathsome politics aside, they were still getting the weather, the sports scores, the hard news … During the next four months, viewers might begin seeing different anchors and commentators, as each news network’s fringe bellowers attracted increasing flak from their new captive audiences. Adamantly shrill editorial stances would begin to modify as a result of tweets and emails saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, Slick, that’s f****** ridiculous.’ Finally, the viewers themselves might change. Not a lot; just a slide-step or two away from the kumbayah socialists of the left and the Tea Partiers of the right. I’m not saying they’d re-colonize the all-but-deserted middle (lot of cheap real estate there, my brothers and sisters), but they might close in on it a trifle.”
This quote does not only recognize the role of the media in perpetuating political polarization, it points to the dynamic interaction between media portrayals of politics and audience opinions. While media can influence what people think, people can very much influence what the media say. What King describes is a spiral of deceleration of political conflict: Audiences exposed to political views opposing their own will (a) force the media to move to the middle and (b) move to the middle themselves.
Sounds good—but we probably really need a magic wand to get to this de–polarized wonderland. I have written about selective exposure and biased processing on this blog before: There is no way that we would permanently tune in to a channel or pick up a newspaper that says the exact opposite of what we believe in and probably insults us along the way. And if we did even for one minute, we would shape what we see to fit our existing beliefs.
Still, Stephen King’s little wish makes me wonder whether there might be just a little chance of a little relaxation if people—you, me, your family and mine—would make an attempt to switch the channel and listen to the other side.
Picture credit: Flickr user -Xv