Will the Coronavirus Spur America to Depolarize American Politics?
March 24, 2020, revised 3/27
In a Politico cover story appearing a few days ago, Peter Coleman of Columbia University had this to say about how the possible impact of the Coronavirus on American politics and government:
The extraordinary shock(s) to our system that the Coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality. It might sound idealistic, but there are two reasons to think it can happen.
The Coronavirus, he wrote, is a “common enemy” that’s unifying Americans to take concerted action against it, much as the destructive 56-day German Blitz bombing of London roused a unified England to take on the Nazis. And the Coronavirus, he said, has caused a “political shock wave” that could narrow America’s long-standing polarization of left and right. To back this up, he referred to “a study [unnamed] of 850 enduring inter-state conflicts that occurred between 1816 to 1992 found that more than 75 percent of them ended within 10 years of a major destabilizing shock.”
In addressing the “50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we’ve been trapped in,” Coleman as I read him has in mind the trapped mindsets of American voters and politicians confined to the polarizing, top-down political discourse system that’s determined election outcomes at all levels of government ever since the advent of network TV and the rise of televised election-time political advertising — attack ads — in the 1960’s. After all, it’s mainly the attack ads, and the hundreds billions of dollars that politicians raise to pay for them, that have created the “escalating political and cultural polarization” that concerns Coleman.
With all this in mind, Coleman suggests that “now is the time to begin to promote more constructive patterns in our cultural and political discourse. The time for change is clearly ripening.”
This is good language and good timing. It implies that with a little priming, a great force — the American mind —could emerge, somehow matured, from its five decade-long winter of political discontent. And shocked to action by the Coronavirus it could be poised show the nation what it’s learned during its long confinement.
So then: how might America depolarize its politics? Outlawing political attack ads a wrong way to go: it’s negative, restrictive, polarizing at a time when Americans need something positive they they can see and participate in. What’s more, these ads, as I will shortly argue, are merely the proximate cause of a deeper problem that must be solved if the nation .
And the taskAlways has been. Just assemble groups of groups of smart, creative, civic-minded, media-savvy people and put them in a room so the can devise entirely new uses of media — new TV programs, new newspaper formats, new social media platforms — that are capable of enabling all members (including elected leaders) of a given community (local, state or national) to communicate sensibly and productively with each other on the issues of the day.
Simple as that. But no one, so far as I know, has ever tried to do it. No politically savvy academic, no civic-minded group or foundation, no creative media professional, and certainly no politician has ever said, let’s do it. And let’s do it small scale, with small-audience digital media but with networked TV that aggregates as large as those reached by American Idol, the World Series or the presidential election election night returns.
Instead Americans from Joe Biden to morning Joe to your Uncle Joe have accepted the breakdown of America’s hyperpolarized political discourse system as a fait accompli. Something beyond human control.
So why the inaction? The’s the real question. Everyone blames someone else, but the blame game gets us nowhere. To repair what’s broken — to restore credibility, integrity and functionality to American political discourse — it helps to consider that our collective inability to create civic uses of the most powerful communications tools ever devised is rooted in two enduring societal tensions as old as history itself. These tensions, as I see them, are between the immovable object of top-down hierarchy and irresistable force of bottom egalitarianism. They pit
- a vertical and hierarchical conception of social order best understood in the age-old notion of the natural inequality of man against
- a horizontal or egalitarian conception of social order best understood in the power of ever-advancing communication technologies to disseminate ever more widely the belief, as Maya Angelou put it, that “We are all more alike, my friends, than we are unlike.”
Today it’s easy to see where these tensions play out in the divide between supporters and opponents of President Trump.
During the European Enlightenment it was the thought-provoking continent-wide dissemination of printed materials that enabled egalitarian democracy to displace hierarchical monarchy in many nations.
In the past 30 years, however, tensions between hierarchical and egalitarian mindsets have been greatly heightened thanks to the ability of proponents of each mindset to use (one might say weaponize) digital-age communication technologies against the other. Let’s take a quick look at things as they stand now.
- Egalitarian. George Gilder, in Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life (1994) saw the PC (or teleputer, as he called it) as a liberating and egalitarian force that would “enrich and strengthen democracy all around the world” by empowering PC users everywhere to free their societies from the oppressive, hierarchical grip of network TV, including its attack-ad role in dumbing down the electorate in order to sustain the political status quo, as an “alien and corrosive force in democratic capitalism.”
- But Gilder did not foresee that hierarchical forces in governments were using digital communication technologies in ways that in time threatened to result in a transformation of democracy to autocracy or plutocracy. Indeed, some saw the entire landscape of America’s political polarization as, conspiratorially, the fruition of a realized strategy of divide and conquer.
I think there are better ways of understanding what’s actually happening in America, ways that our current binary liberal/conservative mindsets blind us from seeing. Ways that the Coronavirus pandemic, which is without ideology, may in time shock and enable us to see.
These better ways center on a curious but pervasive phenomenon: America’s lack of confidence in itself. Donald Trump got himself got himself elected president on the strength of his constant if implicit appeal to it. But in political parties its consists, in essence, of a deep mistrust of the experience, intelligence, insights and constructive energies of the average American citizen: not just some citizens but all 327 million of us.
The remedy for this dilemma isn’t hard to see. It’s to enable both ordinary and extraordinary Americans to see each other behaving in ways that dissolve these alienating and ideologically-entrenched mindsets. It’s to enable both top-down, hierarchical and bottom-up egalitarian individuals to compete and cooperate with other in issue-centered, non-partisan, outcome-oriented sessions dedicated to getting good things done. Only when Americans and their leaders can see themselves in their political media continuously working to bring out the best in each other will they be able develop trust in themselves, in their elected leaders and in democracy itself.
The roots of America’s self-mistrust lie not only in the nation’s attack-ad election and political discourse systems but in a political media habitually shows Americans fighting each other as opposed to working together to better their lives and communities.
Of all political or media thinkers, it was Marshall McLuhan who best understand the roots of this deep mistrust in the hypnotic and narcotic (his word) power of mass TV. This power traps citizens into states of angry, paralyzed polarization — into a state of alienation from their collective and individual selves.
The locus of Mcluhan’s understanding of this division is in his extraordinary reading of the myth of Narcissus in Chapter 4 of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Here he draws on the ancient story of a crisis caused by a confused response to a reflection in a pond to illuminate a modern crisis caused by confused responses to today’s self-reflecting TV and display screens.
Narcissus, McLuhan says, is overwhelmed to numbness and paralysis after seeing his reflection in a pond. He’s seen another person, he thinks, someone not himself with whom he falls in desperately in love. Thus separated from himself, he pines away from unrequited love and perishes.
McLuhan uses this account of Narcissus to throw light on potentially fatal division that underlies America’s political polarization today. He sees TV as a mirror that can accurately reflects us to ourselves or refract us from ourselves both as individuals and citizens of a nation.
He also sees TV McLuhan as a tool with hypnotic powers whose owners use it mainly to deliver consumers to advertisers. The link between tool, hypnosis and paralysis is embedded in his title to Chapter 4: “The gadget lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.”
Understanding Media is book about tools of all kinds and all kinds of uses of them, ancient and modern. In this context, McLuhan says that the discovery of any new tool (any extension of man), be it fire, forks or frisbees, is invariably attended by a period of self-induced numbness or paralysis. This narcotic effect, brief or enduring, impacts us all. In the case of complex, reflective tools like media, it may take months or even decades of numbness for individuals or nations to learn how to constructively exploit a tool’s full and constructive potential. All this should remind us, as McLuhan said in his time, that we are still in the infancy of the digital age of information.
The obvious antidote for mental numbness is self awareness. In this context, the literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote about the Shock of Recognition that great 19th-century American writers like Herman Melville experienced with the sudden discovery of their essential authorial selves in European authors who had preceded them.
As this use of the term, it is essentiually a shock of self-recognition that the Coronavirus is arguably triggering among Americans. The shock is imposed on all nations by hard fact of the Coronavirus: a degree of contagion so high that within weeks it has disrupted humanly on a global scale. This contagion forces on us the additional awareness that none of us is safe until all of us are safe. All told, this brutal shock of recognition bids well to make humanity aware of itself as a human race for the first time in recorded history. We are living through an evolutionary moment.
In response to Peter Coleman’s belief that the Coronavirus may fully depolarize American politics, let’s briefly focus on one instance of how depolarization might occur. Consider America’s post-Coronavirus national health-care debate. How might it play out? Pressure from a newly informed and vitally engaged citizenry may well narrow or even dispel the entrenched ideological divisions that in the past have kept America from developing anything close to a national consensus on health care. This pressure could even cause this debate to televised nationwide so that all Americans can see it, can be informed by it and can participate in it, perhaps via viewer votes like those held on reality TV shows like American Idol and The Voice.
In closing, it remains to be seen whether the Coronavirus pandemic will spur America to fully depolarize its politics and government. Perhaps not, given that age-old conflict of hierarchical and egalitarian forces is likely always be with us. Yet task of political depolarization, as I said earlier, is doable. As I’ve suggested, it’s a matter of creating media playing fields (Americans love games) that enable citizens of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds (including politicians) to shape the best futures of all three communities, local, state and national, of which every American is a member. America possesses abundantly the interactive tools and technologies to do it. The rest of the world, I think, would be overjoyed to see us putting them to good use. It’s all a matter now of how we respond to the present world historical moment.
I’m from Chicago; here’s my work to this end.
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Steve Sewall, Ph.D., is a Chicago educator and the Director of Chicago Civic Media.