At a recent news conference, President Obama reflected on what caused the 16-day government shutdown, and how another crisis can be avoided in the future.
“How business is done in this town has to change,” he lectured. “All of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict.”
Those “bloggers” and “talking heads” have every right to say anything they want, of course. The real problem is the people who listen to them. The rest of us have every right — even an obligation — to turn them off.
There are many reasons behind the hard-eyed hostility that led to the shutdown, but how voters get information about politics plays a major role. One of the great ironies of the digital age is that the same devices we can use to broaden our world can also be used to narrow it. All it takes is a few keystrokes to create echo chambers of information, to flood our screens and ear buds with opinions that reinforce our prejudices and exclude dissent.
Nine years ago, law professor Cass Sunstein presciently warned on NPR that “the greatest danger of the echo chambers is unjustified extremism.” Sunstein, who later worked for the Obama administration, argued that “if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before.”
The power of these “echo chambers” to produce “unjustified extremism” was graphically on display during last year’s election. Goaded by hardline “bloggers” and “talking heads,” Mitt Romney moved sharply to the right on immigration and advocated “self-deportation,” perhaps the single worst mistake he made during a fumble-filled campaign.
On election night, Romney still thought he would win, even though his pollsters had told him two weeks before that he was toast. The conservative echo chamber was predicting victory, and he chose to believe them instead of the professionals he was paying to provide the facts.
The same capacity for denial and self-delusion is playing out again in the aftermath of the government shutdown. Even though polls show the popularity of the Republican Party plunging to new depths, the influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson hails the emergence of “a fundamentally altered party of new faces fueled by a grass-roots movement now able to connect with each other.”
He’s forgetting one thing. A “fundamentally altered party” that demands orthodoxy and purges heretics cannot possibly win national elections.
The new media landscape was thoughtfully explored by David Carr, the media columnist of The New York Times, who wrote: “The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse.”
That gerrymandering of the information map is encouraged by consumers. As Carr notes, “Cable blowhardism would not be such a good business if there hadn’t been a kind of personal redistricting of news coverage by the citizenry.”
He cites a Pew poll showing that 75 percent of Sean Hannity’s viewers on Fox identify as conservatives. Over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow’s audience is 71 percent liberal. (The liberal echo chamber is not as loud as the conservative version, but it could become a thorny problem for Obama if and when he tries to trim entitlement costs.)
Fox News analyst Brit Hume recently pointed out that bloggers like Erickson and talk show hosts like Hannity “have real influence ... particularly in very conservative areas where they are most popular.” As a result, even GOP lawmakers who thought shutting down the government was a “suicide mission” kept silent. “You don’t want the tea party and you don’t want the conservative radio talk show hosts on your back,” Hume said.
The answer to this “blowhardism” has to come from the voters. And they can start by realizing a key point made by Obama. The Hannitys and Ericksons of the world are indeed “professional activists who profit from conflict.” They are not interested in informing citizens and improving government. They are interested in fomenting fear and stoking anger. Angry people boost ratings, appeal to advertisers and raise the profiles and incomes of the blowhards.
“More often than not,” says Carr, “when we tune in to cable or fire up the Web, we are staring into the mirror, not looking out a window.” It’s time to throw open that window, stick our heads out, and listen to voices that challenge our worldview.