Now that I’m back home, though, I do have something to say about the mood I experienced while traveling, although I’m not sure it was so much America’s mood as mine. Harvard University economist and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers reported recently after a similar if more small-town-focused road trip with his wife that:
We were ... struck by how remote the concerns of the coasts seemed. Televisions in bars and restaurants were rarely turned to news channels. No one seemed terribly concerned with the controversy over then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Now that I’m back in New York and my media diet is back to more or less normal, the sense of calm, remove and, yes, optimism that pervaded my long days of driving has begun to dissipate. Maybe this just means I’m returning to the real world after an escapist journey. But I also wonder if it’s an indication that my normal media diet — even though it’s mostly free of such known toxins as Facebook and cable TV news, and heavy on old books — is driving me a little nuts.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column puzzling over the rise in political polarization in the U.S. despite the absence of “a single great ideological divide” like slavery in the 19th century, and asked readers what they thought was driving it. The majority of the responses fingered the media in some form or another. That seems about right. How people get their news has changed dramatically over the past few decades — starting with the rise of conservative talk radio starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the founding of Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and other new platforms. The results have included more attention to previously obscure topics, which is great, and more openness to ideas outside the prevailing mainstream, which isn’t necessarily bad, but also includes a lot more tendentiousness and untruth. The reaction of the mainstream media to the loss of its information monopoly has often exacerbated the divisions and distrust. And President Donald Trump, who seems intuitively to understand this new media landscape better than anyone, has chosen to use it mainly to foment further division and anger.
If one exits this roiling media landscape to spend a few weeks interacting with the actual (and often spectacular) American landscape, and talking to people about things not directly related to Donald Trump, this country can actually feel like a pretty calm, friendly, well-functioning place. Maybe it is! But until its citizens find better ways to talk to each other about national issues, it will also probably keep feeling like a country on the brink of something awful.
Tuesday, October 30, 2018
The crisis as reported is just the crisis of a few.
Further support for my contention that much of the purported polarization in the nation is the product of a media structural shift and its concentration in a handful of geographic locations and susceptible to only a narrow range of beliefs and concerns. From If You Ignore the News, America Actually Seems Pretty Nice by Justin Fox.