In 2014 a Pew Research Center study — “Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life” — came to a startling, or maybe for some not so startling, conclusion: Many Americans like living in ideological “silos.”
In other words, there are a plethora of Americans who are more than content living in a compartmentalized ideological bubble. They want to be around, interact with and be inundated with people who see the world and think as they do.
When asked whether they agreed with the statement, “It’s important to me to live in a place where most people share my political views,” 50 percent of respondents who identify as consistently conservative said “yes,” and among those who identify as consistently liberal, 35 percent said “yes.”
Asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Most of my close friends share my political views,” 49 percent who identify as consistently liberal said “yes,” while 63 percent of those identifying as consistently conservative responded “yes.”
Additionally, 77 percent of those identifying as consistently liberal prefer living where “houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance” (urban communities). Conversely, 75 percent of consistently conservative respondents prefer the opposite, living where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away” (rural areas).
These and other trends led the report’s authors to declare, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life.”
One way these trends have manifested themselves is through the growing resistance to and antipathy toward centrist media outlets and publications. Many Americans just don’t like being exposed to difference, particularly difference in thought.
Although it’s less a local paper now and more of a state newspaper, the Press-Register has always allowed for both conservative and liberal voices in its Opinion section. Yet I’ve always been amused by some of my friends who are conservative who label it as a “liberal” paper, and some liberal friends who label it as a “conservative-leaning” newspaper to be avoided.
Likewise, I’ve heard similar comments about Lagniappe. There are those who feel the commentary or opinion content is too liberal, and others who say it’s way too conservative. Same newspaper, but there are those who find within its pages the advocation of different worldviews.
In doing this, I feel many individuals miss the point, which is that any good newspaper should serve as the print version of a public or town square. It’s the place where different voices should be heard and such differences appreciated — not rejected.
A good community paper should not serve as an ideological “silo” or echo chamber that repeats, reinforces or amplifies one voice or strain of political/ideological thought. If it’s doing that, then it’s not serving the needs of the whole community. Most communities are not politically homogeneous. Not everyone thinks or believes the same, and a community paper should be reflective of that.
In his brilliant lecture, which he titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” writer Bret Stephens observed, “Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. … Yes, we disagree constantly. But what makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might, or find some middle ground. Instead, we fight each other from the safe distance of our separate islands of ideology and identity and listen intently to echoes of ourselves.”
As more and more Americans self-segregate themselves ideologically, it’s becoming more imperative that an atmosphere of communal conversation and intellectual discourse be fostered to draw individuals off their islands of intellectual isolation and into the public square of true civic discourse and productive disagreement. The type of disagreement where one is willing to “shut up; listen up; pause and reconsider; and only then speak.” The type of disagreement which is so vital for a community, for a democratic society, to thrive.
Upon leaving office after having thrice answered the call to serve his nation, and now for the last time exiting the stage of national leadership, our first president, George Washington, admonished in his Farewell Address of 1796:
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is … a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But … it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; … this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed.”
If harm and dissolution were to come to us as a nation, Washington warns, it will be through internal or external forces exploiting division, using difference and disagreement as a tool to tear the nation apart. That’s why it behooves us to promote and support a healthy public square. To embrace publications such as one that seek to facilitate diverse voices and opinions, not just echo and amplify opinions that people want to hear.
Bunkering down in ideological silos is easy. Immersing one’s self in groupthink is intellectually comforting and removes challenges to our way of thinking. But in doing so we lose individually, and ultimately we lose as a community. Embrace and inhabit the public square.