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Reason in the Age of Extremism

By Geoff Woollacott

NYU Professor Jonathan David Haidt, in his article Why the Past 10 years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” lays out a compelling argument for how digital media has driven us to partisan stalemate. It is a very long read, but well worth the time.

The article goes through the history of social media, from the mid-1990s forward. Early on we see the great good it held in providing a sense of connection with family and friends flung far and wide across the country if not the world. But social media is a tool. Like any tool if can do great good and it can do great harm. The good it sprung in the form of community connection took a turn for the worse as Algorithms designed to get “clicks” began promoting more extreme content for the purpose of getting those clicks from the target recipient. The more provocative the headline, the more likely the click, for example.

Professor Haidt references what is called The Hidden Tribes Study, which categorizes Americans into 7 groupings. On each end are small, yet extreme groups called “Progressive Activists” and “Devoted Conservatives” representing 8% and 6% of the sample, respectively. 70% of Progressive Activists had shared political content while 56% of the Devoted Conservatives had done the same. In short, 14% of the population dominates social media feeds with the most strident of commentary and opinion.

(Note: Pew Research has a similar study that segments the electorate into 9, rather than 7, classifications that can be found here.)

So what does this mean?

The hidden tribes sample of 8,000 people lists 4 categories as what it called “The Exhausted Majority” comprising 67% of the population. Two thirds of us are tired of the rhetoric wars, yet each party tilts further and further towards the extreme viewpoints based on how these single digit populations dominant social media. This division is further re-enforced by narrow casted media outlets aimed to court and retain viewership. People within these groups have become increasingly reticent to challenge the prevailing viewpoint of their “Tribe.” It is in this way that our institutions, per Professor Haidt, have become stupid. We are not refining our thinking. We are not brokering compromise. We are digging in and battling. Stalemate at a time in our history when we have to explore new policy solutions for the rapidly accelerating digital economy in this country.

We see this in the Republican Party reticent to stand up to the rhetorical excesses of the past president. We see this in the vilification of centrist Democrats unwilling to move forward with a very large spending bill that was very short on specifics.

How Can we fix it?

The exhausted majority must take back government from those either espousing extreme viewpoints or too cowered by the party power brokers to stand up to those extreme viewpoints. What could a group of center left and center right independents do to reign in the extreme positions of the current two party system if a bloc of 8 to 10 existed within the Senate?

I have heard there is no real chance for a third-party candidate. That the two parties dominate the landscape. Their dominance is true. It is also true the average individual feels less and less represented by these two parties. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. It certainly seems to me the way to stop the insanity is to reject the two parties as currently constituted.

It’s why I’m running.

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