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January 9, 2014

BOHANON: A nonpartisan explanation for nasty politics

As we are exiting the season of “peace on earth — goodwill towards men” and entering yet another legislative and political season, it seems appropriate to examine why contemporary political discourse has become so divisive and shrill.

Of course, when has political discussion been unifying and open-minded? Fair enough, but it certainly seems that political discussion has become more mean-spirited today than it was in previous decades. Although I offer no solution beyond a general saccharine resolution that we should all be nicer to one another, I think there are at least three sources of today’s extreme acrimony.

First, there has been a glacial but important change in the proper role of passion in public discourse. James Madison, Adam Smith and Jane Austen all thought “passions” — or in modern parlance, emotions — were an essential part of human nature. They also believed public displays of passions ought to be restrained. Self-command was a cardinal virtue. It obliged individuals to mute their own feelings in public.

By the 1960s these traditional restraints on displays of public emotions seemed excessive and repressive. To be genuine in the expression of one’s feelings became a virtue. Today being “passionate” about a cause is something we admire — especially if we agree with the cause. Is it any surprise that we prefer political commentators who are strident compared with those who are more circumspect?

Second, the communications revolution of the past 20 years has led to increased segmentation in the media. The old media monopoly has been replaced with more diversity in news sources. This revolution can’t be turned back and it has many positive attributes. A by-product of media segmentation, however, is that we live in a media “bubble” of our own making.

Progressives get their news from MSNBC and the Huffington Post while conservatives get theirs from FOX and the Drudge Report, and never the twain meet. We pick news sources that re-enforce and inflame our own ideological biases. This goes well with the modern desire to be entertained: it is so much more fun to be entertained than to have to think through a serious argument.

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