There’s so much to reassess today. Here’s one relatively small — but to me, interesting — thing.
For the past eight years, beginning with the Florida recount and ending with Sarah Palin’s last-ditch culture war, we’ve heard about the intense partisanship of the divide between red and blue. And one common idea about that divide has been the notion that the Web has helped create it, with its “echo chamber” effect. We have become a nation of “confirmation bias” addicts; we only read what we already agree with; we construct our own reality according to our close-minded beliefs. And that is why America is so angry, so split, so impossible to govern.
If that were true, then how did the most Web-enabled presidential campaign in history lead to such an overwhelming, incontestible outcome?
We’ve now had an election that was — whether you choose to call it a “landslide” or not (I do) — not close at all. We had “rednecks for Obama” and “Obamacon” neoconservatives for Obama and Republican loyalists looking up in the voting booth and saying to themselves, “Oh my god, I’m voting for Obama.” We had the most potentially divisive candidacy in our lifetime — an African American liberal from an urban Northern state running on a peace platform! — produce a victory that was won with an almost shocking degree of calm and respect.
Obama himself and his campaign deserves most of the credit for this, of course. But perhaps we can also reserve a little mental space for a reevaluation of our assumptions about the role the Web plays in our political discourse.
It hasn’t been my practice to post writing from my new book here (it’s just a fuzzy draft right now!), but this is a short passage from a discussion about the “echo chamber” argument that I think is pertinent:
Yes, American politics had grown bitterly polarized in the 2000s. But were the angry arguments on the Web the cause of those divisions? More likely, they simply mirrored profound disagreements among the American people about the impeachment of President Clinton, the contested outcome of the 2000 election, the Bush administration’s tactics in its war on terror, and the invasion of Iraq. What kind of media environment that accurately represented the political pysche of the American population would not bristle with rancor under the pressure of such events?
Today, we have at least an opportunity to begin to reduce that rancor and rebuild a national consensus. We have the first president in ages who can legitimately claim a mandate and work with a Congress of his own party. And I think we will see that the Web has a part to play in fashioning such a consensus. It doesn’t have to be a force for division; using it as such is a choice, not a technologically determined inevitability.
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