Saturday, September 29, 2012

Home Sweet Home: The Divorce Proceedings of a Nation

 The Civil War was an exceedingly gripping battle for America. It was internal, on the home front, and involved the changing of opinions through non-physical means. Although there is a century gap between the America of today and the America of 1865, there is still a similar internal war. The only difference is that it is soundless, concealed, and making its way into the bloodstream of Uncle Sam. Unbeknownst to many citizens, we have unconsciously been making choices that lean us closer to our favored political party and then inflating our beliefs in it. It is a war of lifestyles as Bill Bishop explained in his novel, The Big Sort. Our political views have meshed so deeply into the fabric of our being that we now attribute our lifestyles to our political party. 

Similar to a personality quiz, our political parties now determine who we are. During an interview on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart", Stewart poses the question if there is an even way to combat this polarization of lifestyles. Stewart states, “Is this a lifestyle civil war- rather than a political one?” Stewart then proceeds to mock that the ‘red’ (Republican) side will have a dramatic advantage due to their ownership of guns and then jokes that a hot latte to the face (from the Democrats) could be equally as painful. As a society, have we begun to characterize parties with the same viciousness of a caricature artist? Beyond the elephant cartoon of the Democratic party and a donkey for the Republican party- are there some quiet caricatures that we all carry in the corners of our mind. Bishop would agree so. In the first chapter of The Big Sort, he provides research from marketing firms that had gathered qualities of each party before the 2006-midterm elections. It was determined that there were two types of political party individuals in the world: the modern day man and the homely man. The modern day man was the persona of the Democratic Party- he hung out at parks, did not intertwine religion and politics, and belonged to DVD services. Whereas, the homely man had lots of family gatherings, frequently visited church, owned guns, and hated terrorists. These were two very clear-cut images and very different. They provided a lack of options- you were either Democratic or Republican. It had become a very black and white, or rather red and blue, environment. Thankfully, there is hope that the United States will not become a myriad of red and blue dots on a map. In an interview with Steve Paikin from TVO, based in Montreal, Bill Bishop explains that he believes that the younger generations will see the shades of gray in the world. That unlike the baby boomers- they will be able to perceive the intricate issues with thoughtfulness, unity, and relativity. They may rise together and come together. In the words of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, “All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall.”

As history has often shown, the birth and rising of new generations tend to cleanse away the sins of the past and offer hope for a new future. Bishop begins The Big Sort by providing examples of escalating hatred and violence due to political views. He shows that extreme political devotion can sever the bonds of community, friendship, and love through various examples. Have our values changed so much that we have redefined ourselves as member of a political party, rather than unique individuals in the microcosm we claim for ourselves? Or perhaps have we been facilitated into prioritizing our political party and inflating it into such a degree that we have left no room for our personal views?  While speaking on “The Agenda of Steven Paikin”, Bill Bishop mentions, “There is the psychological phenomena that happens when people live around people who do things the way they do. That is, they become more extreme in what they believe.” There are actually three psychological effects that are occurring within this situation: group polarization, group think, and confirmation bias.

Group polarization is when these views escalate due to being surrounded by like minded people. Group think is when individuals become more cautious of stating alternate views since they do not want to disturb the harmony of the community. Lastly, confirmation bias is when individuals of like-mindedness only look for evidence and facts that support their claims. Thus, living in areas of similar Political values helps inflate all of these. Group polarization can be as small as becoming more religious in a Bible study group. It can also be incredibly damaging and assemble the support of like-minded individuals which may then escalate into the genocide of a culture, as was the case with the Holocaust. As was the case with the story of Gerald Daugherty in Bishop’s novel. Daugherty did not want a light rail built in his neighborhood; however, the rest of his neighborhood did. The neighborhood then proceeded to wreck and egg his car.

Group think is equally as damaging, because it deteriorates any chances of individualization. It is impressively forceful and it can ruin any chance of moderate opinions or views. Recently, Samuel Jackson was part of an advertisement endorsing Obama. With inflamed language and aggressive tactics, he forcefully tells the audience that they should vote for Obama. Especially with the higher approval rating for Obama, most people are likely to vote for him- even if they do not agree with him. This flamboyant ad only adds to the conformity of people.

One of the other key psychological aspects to this political division in communities is confirmation bias. In a large portion of Bishop’s first chapter he speaks about how polarization may not even exist. At one point, he speaks of a skewed study done- this study portrays the abortion options as “very pro life” or “pro choice”, by doing so it creates this illusion of polarization and creates intense party identification. In a recent interview with Frank Gonzalez, he spoke of the importance of maintaining unbiased studies and being very cautious of language and how the study is performed. It is incredibly difficult to measure qualitative beliefs and thus the empirical nature is hard to measure. Through these various psychological means, there is plenty of room for the divisions within locations to intensify.

As stated earlier, this new division is sly and quiet- creeping through the bloodstream of America. However, it is not just a political division. As Steve Paikin notes it is political, geographical, and religious. He references the obvious- that geographically there are divisions with politics. During Bishop’s interview with Jon Stewart, he states that there is one easy way to tell a Democrat from a Republican. He states that the closer people are, the more likely they are to be Democratic. The farther they are, the more likely they are to be Republican. Simply speaking- people living in rural areas, outside of the city or away from the metropolitan buzz are more likely to lean towards safe values of the Republican nature. Whereas, individuals who enjoy the fast paced life of communities will tend to enjoy and culminate Democratic values. The last division that surprisingly illustrates political beliefs are religious. This is slightly ironic, considering that (in accordance to the studies done by marketing firms in 2006) Democrats dislike mixing religion and politics. Bishop refers to this as the “Church Growth Theory” stating that churches tend to build themselves in proper political environments. For example, the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has a larger congregation population and has a larger amount of churches in the area in comparison to the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois- that includes the metropolitan Chicago area. The Dioceses of Lincoln has 588 thousand congregation members, whereas the Diocese of Joliet has around 655 thousand congregation members. Despite the Diocese of Joliet having the large Chicago population, Lincoln still has a very close population to it. This can be due to the slightly more overall Republican nature of Nebraska. Whereas, the Chicago area is primarily Democratic thus causing Illinois to be a swing-state, but primarily democratic. In the areas of spirituality, even politics has managed to creep into the full being of the United States.

The question that is now posed is how do we identify ourselves. Can we simply be measured, quantified, personified, and determined by our political party? Is it really as red and blue as the world portrays it to be? I believe that we all start out our lives with a blank slate, ‘tabula rasa’, and that over time we begin to accumulate certain views and opinions. These views are typically a byproduct of our environment, as well. If politics has now built a foundation in matters of religion, geography, and cultural views- are we ever really safe? Will there always be a division in our lives and lifestyles? For values, beliefs, and political messages so deeply hidden within the maze of our life- is it really possible to ever leave the game?

For more information on Bill Bishop's The Big Sort

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