Once it began to sink in on election night that the anticipated Great Blue Wave was not going to come and wash away the insanity that has gripped this land, the sad-but-obvious conclusion that I was forced to confront is this: We are a deeply divided nation.
Some 78 million Americans saw what has been happening to and in our country over the past four years and were motivated to wait in hours-long lines in northern cold and southern heat in the midst of a pandemic to rid our nation of Donald J. Trump. At the exact same time, nearly 73 million Americans braved those same conditions because they saw what has been happening to and in our country over the past four years and concluded that what America needed most was four more years of it.
Yes, we are deeply divided. But it’s important to understand the true nature of that divide if we are to move forward from this dark period in American history. The reality is not what many of us believe. Those centrists who constantly extoll us to put our political differences aside and “just get along” tell us that both sides are to blame and that to heal our division and govern our country, we must meet in the middle.
They’d have us believe that polarization has increased in the US over the past 20 years; that those on the Right and on the Left are being equally obstinate and are equally to blame for the increasing gulf between us.
We tend to accept that there’s equal blame to go around because, well, we’ve been hearing it for years. “America is more polarized than ever before!” is a well-established truth and much ink has been spilled in search of the reason and the solution.
We’ve been taught that “Fair and Balanced” FOX News and right-wing talk radio developed as a counter-point to the liberal media. It freed Americans from the grip of biased news and gifted us with both sides of the argument. Common wisdom is that the cable news, newspapers, columnists and commentators on the Left and on the Right are mirror images of one another and that in a quest for market share (and, more recently, to act as mouthpieces for the political parties), they have become equally entrenched in espousing their equally-biased views. As a result voters have all moved away from the center.
But that’s simply not the case.
Right-wing media did not develop as an answer to the leftward slant in the press. It was created because social and religious conservatives did not approve of the direction that American society was taking: equality for minorities, diversity of religious belief, and emancipation for women. It wasn’t created as an alternative to the liberal media but as a weapon in a war against an increasingly liberal society.
A vast network of magazines, books and bookstores, conservative commentators on radio and TV programs, Christian outreach, and more recently YouTube channels, podcasts, websites, and social media accounts peddled opinion masquerading as news and deliberately stoked fear and division. In other words, they presented misinformation and packaged it as the right-leaning alternative to what they labeled the liberal media.
Plenty of articles and books detail the rise of right-wing media and the machinations of the conservative movement. One, It Was All a Lie, by long-time Republican campaign operative Stuart Stevens, sums up the current situation in which the Right has retreated into increasing religious and cultural extremism:
“It isn’t unusual to see both parties blamed for the dysfunction in Washington. Yes both parties are to blame, but here is the actual relevant question to ask: Is one party more to blame than the other?” The answer, it turns out is Yes: “The evidence points to a major partisan asymmetry in polarization. Despite the widespread belief that both parties have moved to the extremes, the movement of the Republican Party to the right accounts for most of the divergence between the two parties.” *
Elsewhere, It Was All a Lie quotes a scholarly study** which posits that roughly a third of the American media system has undergone a shift. The authors specifically use the term “radicalization” rather than “polarization,” because, as they put it, “to speak of ‘polarization’ is to assume symmetry.” They state that “No fact emerges more clearly from our analysis . . . than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it.”
In other words, contrary to what we’ve been told, it’s not that our nation is more polarized, it is that while the left has remained fairly stationary, conservatives have moved farther and farther away from the center — from objective truth (aka reality). They have been radicalized.
Picture it this way: polarization would look like Democrats and Republicans stepping off of an island in the middle of the ocean onto their respective rafts and floating away from the island in opposite directions and at roughly equal speeds. Radicalization looks like this: Democrats are standing on the shore and the Republicans are on a raft paddling farther and farther out to sea. And to make matters worse, the right-wing media and Republican leadership are telling their raft’s passengers to ignore the evidence of their own eyes: No, they are being told, they are not leaving shore, the Left is. In spite of what it looks like, the crazy Left is deliberately sailing towards the edge of the flat Earth. But the reality is this: the Left is not on a raft, they’re not sailing, and most importantly, the Earth is not flat.
Stevens also lays bare the modern Republican political strategy and the fact that the Republican Party has made “a collective decision that there is no objective truth.”
We see this clearly in the way they demonize the press and anyone who does not adhere to their narrative; in the way they embrace obvious and verifiable lies; in their willingness to push false narratives and conspiracy theories that have consistently been disproven; in their vilification of science (and education in general), in their ability to simultaneously embrace diametrically opposed positions and to ignore blatant hypocrisies in their actions and agendas. All the while blaming the resulting gridlock and our nation’s worsening problems on the left’s stubborn refusal to work with them.
Black is white. Up is down. Trump didn’t say something that we all heard him say. A changing climate is not climate change. Taking away our access to health care is improving our health care. More gun violence is making us safer.
What happens to people when their party denounces objective facts and their only source of information continually presents lies as news? As Stuart Stevens puts it, the result is “an ability of many conservative voters to live in a self-reinforcing bubble that has little to do with objective truth.” ***
I think it’s this radicalization of the Right that explains the hair-pulling frustration that many of us on the Left have felt over the last few years. It explains our inability even to find the words to argue with our [former] friends on the other side. All we can manage are exasperated grunts and angry noises that emanate from deep inside our souls accompanied by frustrated arm-waving. Because one cannot formulate a coherent argument against positions that do not have their basis in objective truth. Once you’ve pointed out that the sky is blue and presented scientific explanations of wavelength and readouts from spectrum analyzers of blue light, there aren’t any words left to argue about the verifiable fact of blue-sky-ness.
It also explains our nation’s inability to solve even our most basic problems.
We’re told by those gentle, well-meaning folks in the middle that to solve our problems, we all need to put politics aside and just compromise. Indeed, Joe Biden offered his ability to compromise and work with lawmakers from across the aisle as one of his biggest assets.
But compromise is not only impossible in the current environment, it is undemocratic. Even dangerous. In order to meet in the middle, those on the Left would have to accept a certain degree of the Right’s “alternative facts.” For example, to settle the issue of the election, do we compromise on the issue of voter fraud? Where is the middle point between the fact of no voter fraud and the lie of massive voter fraud? Do we settle by agreeing that there was some voter fraud? Which votes should then be declared fraudulent? And what about the resulting disenfranchisement of those voters? Acceptable collateral damage in the noble pursuit of compromise?
Where is the compromise on the issue of whether or not the Democratic Party is a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles operating a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor? Do we compromise by agreeing that it’s actually happening in a Potbelly sandwich shop? Doesn’t that encourage fanatics to target members of the “Deep State” in their effort to rid the world of pedophiles?
There is simply no benefit in a compromise that permits one side to continue to espouse lies and requires the other side to accept them.
The only way to emerge from the dire situation in which this nation finds itself is by extracting a commitment by the Right to accept and report facts and for the public to hold them accountable when they do not. The source of these facts come from science, history, experts, rigorous educational standards, critical thinking, and the evidence of our own eyes and ears. They do not come from ranting corners of the internet, shared posts, tweets, YouTube videos, memes, or the increasingly lunatic rantings of a man who has made a career of lying.
Given the behavior of the Right over the last four years, there is little hope that they will make such a commitment.
Unless and until those who control the message on the Right recognize and own the damage that they have done to American democracy and begin to take the steps necessary to fix it by adopting basic standards of journalistic integrity, by eschewing sources that continue to promote baseless conspiracy theories, by denouncing the lies of fellow lawmakers and supporting the truth even when it comes from the other side of the aisle, there is little hope of solving our nation’s most pressing problems.
In his acceptance speech for the International Leadership Award from the ADL, the comedian and social activist Sacha Baron Cohen made this profound observation: “Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.”
Even though we have won the most immediate and pressing battle and are [hopefully] on our way to a day when Donald Trump no longer occupies the White House, we still have a big fight ahead of us. Unless we all commit to a shared fact-based understanding of the world around us, we will undoubtedly face bigger and perhaps more dangerous demagogues in the future. We may have defeated Trump in 2020, but the Trump of 2024, whether it is actually Trump himself or someone made in his image, will be much worse.
* Nolan McCarty, “What We Know and Do Not Know About Our Polarized Politics,” in Political Polarization in American Politics, ed. Daniel J. Hopkins and John Sides (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)
** Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 13-14
*** The most immediate example of this is the current refusal of Trump and his enablers on the Right to accept the election results. They are still espousing the lie that there was massive voter fraud and that the Democrats have somehow “stolen” the election. This, in spite of the fact that election officials from every single state — even Republican officials from Red states — have said that there was no voter fraud. In spite of the fact that even the lawyers charged with arguing that there has been election fraud have told judges that there is no evidence of fraud. In spite of the fact that an international delegation monitoring the US election has said that there is no evidence of election fraud. And all of this while they are happily accepting the results of the down-ballot races cast on the exact same ballots that they are claiming are fraudulent. Yet the right-wing media continues to promote the idea that the results of the election are uncertain, or worse. Republican lawmakers are repeating the claim or have remained silent on the issue. And individuals who support Trump continue to share fabricated information of fraud. We are nearly three weeks out from election day and — in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary — millions of people across the country still believe that there is uncertainty surrounding the election’s outcome.