Not that the dedication of Ezra Klein to explaining the universe for the benefit of the unenlightened isn’t appreciated. It is. It’s just that, well, he’s got a slight tilt to his explanations, all of which are meant to suggest that his politics are right and anyone who doesn’t share his (and partner Matty Yglesias‘) strong progressive feelings is a shitlord. Maybe he’s right, but then, some of us are more tolerant of different values.
Yet, Klein offers a post at Vox that raises a curious possibility, given the depth and scope of partisan divisiveness in the nation. Many would attribute the mindless tribalism to the advent of the internet, of social media, allowing echo chambers to create the impression of public discourse when it’s nothing more than confirmation bias on steroids. Is politics broken? If so, who broke it? Common wisdom attributes this to social media. But common wisdom is often wrong.
Here’s something everyone knows: Social media is driving American politics into a ditch of partisanship. Political junkies log on and cocoon themselves in a bubble of friendly punditry, appealing fake news, and outrageous acts from the other side. Every retweet and every like is another moment of identity confirmation, another high five to our friends, another reminder that we’re right and they’re wrong.
The result is, well, this ugly mess — President Donald Trump, red and blue Americas, polls showing we fear and hate the other party more than ever before, conspiracy theories growing like weeds, a polity where agreement is impossible and everyone is angry. Damn you, Facebook! Curse you, Twitter! (Instagram, you’re cool.)
Whether it’s broke or just taking a break from reason and reality may be up for debate, but it’s certainly not healthy and doing a great job of things. But Twitter?
But what if this obvious analysis is wrong? What if social media isn’t driving rising polarization in American politics?
That’s the conclusion of a new paper by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse Shapiro. Their study, released recently through the National Bureau of Economic Research, tests the conventional wisdom about polarization on social media nine ways from Sunday and finds that it’s wrong, or at least badly incomplete.
To conclude that blaming social media is wrong is a stretch too far, but “badly incomplete” may not be. The study broke up the world into young and old, internet-savvy and social media clueless.
[T]hey compare the most web-savvy voters (the young, where 80 percent used social media in 2012) and the least web-savvy voters (the old, where fewer than 20 percent used social media in 2012) on nine different tests of political polarization.
Yes, tons of holes in there, assumptions, gaps, not the least of which is the difference, for which there were no controls, between the capacity of children to grasp the complexities of political issues as compared to “the old,” who may not be smarter but have gained a bit more insight through experience and institutional memory.
The results? On fully eight of the nine measures, “polarization increases more for the old than the young.” If Facebook is the problem, then how come the problem is worst among those who don’t use Facebook?
This is what makes Vox, not to mention Ezra, special. Rather than derive a meaningful conclusion in his zeal to “explain” things to the depth-challenged, he poses a question, knowing that they are too few who will be the first child in the Passover story to matter. So what then gives rise to this phenomenon?
I asked Gentzkow what he thinks might be part of the fuller picture. “I have two main hypotheses,” he replied. “One is stuff that has nothing to do with media at all but is structural, like increasing income inequality. The second is non-digital media, and cable TV and talk radio in particular.”
The latter piece makes particular sense if you think about the fact that older Americans make up the base of both the cable and talk radio audiences. More than a third of talk radio listeners are over age 65, and half of Fox News’s audience is over age 68. As bad as getting your news from Facebook can be, it’s often far better than relying on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.
The competition of credibility between Facebook and Fox News may well prove to be a source of great debate and hilarity, but why, oh why, have they ignored the true source of wisdom?
When he was discussing military strategy or diplomacy, Gen. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, liked to invoke what he called the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break it, you own it.”
Well, the Republicans broke the Supreme Court confirmation process. Now they own the Supreme Court.
Aside from the “you break it, you bought it” rule being around long before Pottery Barn (but that would have ruined Linda Greenhouse’s cool opening quote), what’s her point?
Making an existing Supreme Court vacancy a highly visible part of an electoral strategy stamps the court as an electoral prize, pure and simple. In doing so, it places the court in a position of real institutional peril.
Put it entirely out of your mind that Hillary Clinton promised justices who would bend to her will just as Trump promised justices that would pander to the desires of his constituents. Thinking too hard about Greenhouse’s words will only give you a headache.
Going forward, it will be next to impossible for people to look at decisions that may appear on the Republican Party’s agenda — on voting rights, as a prime example — without seeing the Supreme Court as a partisan tool.
And to the extent people don’t view the Supreme Court as a partisan tool, because its decisions are well-reasoned and grounded in precedent, Greenhouse wants people to believe they are anyway, because that makes the court’s rulings illegitimate.
In the current Supreme Court term, Justice Gorsuch will be eligible to cast votes only in the 13 cases the justices will hear in the two-week argument session that begins on Monday, the final arguments of a fairly quiet term. But issues that lie at the heart of the current political divide are hurtling toward the court.
And the New York Times’ former Supreme Court reporter wants you to know that if the Court doesn’t rule her way, then it’s only because the Republicans are evil and broke it.
Would a Supreme Court decision to uphold the president come across to the public as reasoned judgment, or a rubber stamp?
Would partisan divisiveness be blamed on those crazy fonts of misinformation, Facebook or Fox News? It certainly couldn’t be because the Gray Lady is just as much to blame.