Divided America: How Did We End Up Here?

How changes in media, technology and culture have affected our society.

Posted Dec 01, 2018

 Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The United States is more divided today than at any other time since the Civil War. Here, in no particular order, are some of the factors that helped bring about our current situation.

 A Proliferation of Media.

In the sixties and seventies, information sources were still very limited. There were newspapers and three primary channels on television.  People drew on a very limited and highly unified pool of information.  We all saw and read many of the same things.

But then cable and the internet came in, and there was suddenly a vast proliferation of possible information sources.  Now instead of three news programs, there could be hundreds! 

•  The Change in Regulations.

About the time the media universe changed, the rules governing them also changed.  

After the advent of radio broadcasting (NBC in 1926, and CBS in 1928) secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover began issuing licenses for the regulation of broadcasting frequencies.  “The ether is a public medium,” he said, “and its use must be for the public benefit.”

Hoover pressed for the passage of the Radio Act of 1927, which insisted that programmers must answer to the public interest.

Then, later, in 1949, that commitment was extended to television.  The newly formed Federal Communications Commission established the Fairness Doctrine, a standard for television news, that required “a reasonably balanced presentation” of different political views.

With the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters had to present both sides of a political question. 

But the Fairness Doctrine was short-lived.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan succeeded in repealing the Fairness Doctrine.  And when Congress passed legislation to block his repeal, he vetoed their bill.

So, the Fairness Doctrine was dead.  Broadcasters were now free to say whatever they wanted to politically.  

And they did.

A new kind of highly partisan talk radio burst onto the airways.  In 1987 there were 270 talk radio stations in the country; in 1992 there were 900. Television rushed to follow suit.  The demise of the Fairness Doctrine brought about the rise of partisan cable television including both MSNBC and Fox News.

The country was now divided through its invisible radio waves, and becoming more so by the day. 

 A Sea Change in the Electorate.

Beginning in the seventies, there were other major shifts taking place in the country.  The divide between urban and rural populations was becoming more pronounced. The two populations began to represent not just different geographies, but, increasingly, different lifestyles and value systems.  And those differences were accentuated by an increase in immigration, that started in the seventies.

 The Widening Gulf in Congress.

And, with a changing electorate, and partisan radio and TV intensifying political divisions in the country, Congress itself was undergoing centrifugal changes.

A big part of that change came in the person of the combative, adversarial Newt Gingrich.  Elected to the House of Representatives in 1978, he ascended to the role of Speaker of the House in 1994.  Instead of treating the Democrats in the House as the legitimate opposition, they were an enemy that he strove to vanquish.   It was Gingrich’s scorched earth policy.  

Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” describe Gingrich’s approach: “In 1994, Gingrich toured the country recruiting congressional candidates to run against incumbent Democrats. He included a memo that instructed them to use certain words when talking about the Democratic enemy: betray, bizarre, decay, anti-flag, anti-family, pathetic, lie, cheat, radical, sick, traitors, and more”

Mann and Ornstein continue, saying: “Gingrich’s original strategy of gaining power by attacking his adversaries, and delegitimizing Congress left a lasting mark on American politics.”

In the seventies, there was still a group of representatives who held more centrist views, but they couldn’t survive the ideological purges of the late nineties and beyond.  It was now open warfare: Republicans Vs. Democrats.

• …And in the Senate, a Small Change with Gigantic Consequences.

For most of the seventies, the Senate was a relatively collegial body. There were enough Republican-leaning Democrats, and Democrat-leaning Republicans, to make cross-party dialogue possible. 

But in 1995 that all changed.  The seniority system for assigning committee chairmanships and positions was eliminated.  Chairmanships and other positions of committee rank were now assigned by the party leadership, based on loyalty and commitment to the party.  That made it much more difficult for members of either party to work with the opposite party. 

The Senate immediately became strikingly more partisan.

Enter the internet.

Beginning with ARPANET, the first primitive internet network in the late 1960s, the internet proceeded through fits and starts over the next several decades.  A major turning point came in 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook

One of the defining characteristics of Facebook is that it has no “fact checkers.”  There is no attempt by Facebook to ensure the truthfulness of any of its different sites or posts.  Zuckerberg justifies this situation by saying that Facebook is not a publisher, but a “platform.”

So, Facebook and its users and clients, unlike such traditional publishers as The New York Times, and The Washington Post, are free to post anything they choose, whether true or untrue.  As a platform, they do not consider that they are responsible for verifying the truth or falsehood of any of their posts.  

In addition to being a platform, Facebook is fundamentally a business. It collects a tremendous body of facts and data about each one of us, relating to our lives, habits, likes and dislikes. 

Its business model consists of manipulating those personal data, by means of algorithms, so that we will be motivated to click on sites that generate advertising revenue for Facebook, either directly, or indirectly, through third-party affiliates. 

So how does Facebook motivate us to click on sites that will generate advertising?

A big key to motivating us lies in our human tendency toward Confirmation Bias.  If we believe something, then we are biased toward that belief, and gravitate toward anything that will confirm it.

So, if it is to my economic advantage to have you click on something, then all I have to do is find a topic you have a strong bias toward.  Then, if I create a site or article confirming that bias (true or not), there is a high likelihood you’ll click on it. Especially if the article stirs up strong emotions, like anger.

Welcome to the internet!

The ecosystem of the internet, as it was set up, and as it has evolved, is almost guaranteed to create divisions between people.  The business model of generating advertising revenue through our voluntary clicks makes that all but inevitable.

So, we live in a Divided America.

We have just looked at some of the factors that have created our national cultural division.  Some came about because of changes in technology; others came about because of new governmental regulations; some occurred because of the deliberate actions of people in power, and still others came about in obedience to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

But this is the world we now live in.  It’s not going to go away any time soon.

However…

Just as there are forces that act to divide our country, so there are also actions that can help unify our country.  Here are four unifying actions any of us could start doing today…

•  Reach Out to Someone Different.

Too many of us are prisoners of our own demographics and cultural assumptions.  It is important to reach out to people in different groups, cultures and demographics. Cultivate an openness of spirit toward someone from a different group than your own.  Honor them as fellow beings.

• Ask Respectful Questions of People with Different Viewpoints.

Most of us have a tendency to dismiss people “from the other side” with different viewpoints from our own.  But instead, ask them respectful questions and try to understand their viewpoint.  Try to bridge the divide.

•  When encountering new data, use critical thinking to determine the truth of it.

We are bombarded by new information and data all the time.  Be on your guard with the tools of critical thinking, to determine what is true and what isn’t.

•  Be on your guard against being emotionally sabotaged.

If you react to some new piece of information in a highly emotional way, beware!  Someone, or some group, may be trying to take advantage of you by appealing to your confirmation bias.  Watch your emotions!

Help us heal America! 

David Evans

© 2018 David Evans