Columns

Steinman ’19: The echo chamber: all we have in common

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, March 7, 2016

“You know where Hillary’s campaign headquarters should be?” laughed the Donald Trump supporter, his breath curling up like smoke in the cold. “Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex.” He cracked up at his own joke and went on to mock other candidates as he waved a “Make America Great Again” sign over his head. Outside the elementary school-turned-polling station where I was standing, all the insults and taunts of the 2016 campaign were being hurled at my feet, played out in real time. It was the first time I had ever seen someone harshly espouse such radical beliefs right in front of me, without the distance afforded by a screen.

The tone of this election has been — to put it lightly — nasty. It would be easy to write a piece on why politics would be so much better if everyone were nicer and paint a nostalgic picture of a time when politicians would debate civilly in the Capitol and then get a drink together. “West Wing,” not “House of Cards.” But to do that, to wish that Trump and angry rhetoric would just go away already, is to overlook a painful truth of this election cycle: People really like him.

We at Brown exist in a cloudy ideological bubble that heavily distorts our view of politics. We know this, and yet we forget it constantly. The news we read, the conversations we have with friends, the laughter and the snide comments drowning out the debate as it plays in the background in the lounge — all of these contribute to the bubble. But in our minds, we are rational, and the other side seems to have totally lost its mind. After all, Trump supporters live in a bubble, too — one where the president was born in Kenya and immigrants are rapists and murderers who belong behind a wall. It’s as if we live in different worlds. And in a way, we do.

Republicans and Democrats enjoy different newspapers, different TV shows, even different types of alcohol. This disparity between political parties has only increased in recent years, thanks to the siloing of political opinions in media. Whether it’s on the news, on Reddit or in the “Bernie Sanders’s Dank Meme Stash” Facebook group, it’s easier than ever to find a sounding board for your opinion. The inevitable result is growing polarization between the two political parties. Between 1994 and 2014, the percent of Americans who viewed the other political party “very unfavorably” rose from 16 percent to 38 for Democrats and from 17 to 43 for Republicans. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans now view the opposing side as an existential threat to our nation’s well-being.

So, no, it doesn’t matter that Trump has a 57 percent unfavorability rating, 16 points higher than his favorability rating. It matters a lot more that I haven’t had a political conversation this year that hasn’t been “Hillary or Bernie?” In The Herald’s undergraduate poll in November, 67.8 percent of students supported one of those two candidates. The three Republicans in the poll — Trump, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, and Ben Carson — garnered 4.2 percent of the vote. The Republican candidates (Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, in particular) are, from a Brown student’s vantage point, so far off the map it’s laughable. We worry about them, but we do not think seriously about them or their policies. I don’t say this to legitimize their positions but to point out how separated we’ve become. I expect it’s the same on the other side of the spectrum. Bernie is a crazy old socialist, Hillary should be in prison, and that settles matters. As long as you can surround yourself with people who feel the same way you do, almost any opinion can seem viable.

Trump has been winning the plurality of votes in most Republican primaries and caucuses, and the Republican establishment (not to mention the rest of the country) is getting tired of waiting for him to make his fatal blunder — if he ever does. He has run a campaign seemingly immune to facts, yet his vicious rhetoric still draws supporters. It defies comprehension — how could people live their lives so far from the truth? — until you consider whom they talk to on a daily basis and where they get their news. Maybe the question should instead be: How could our truths be so far from each other? Emotions have a way of clouding the facts, and this cognitive dissonance is something of which both sides are guilty. So while it’s unrealistic to hope blindly for politicians to get along and agree, there’s nothing naive about a reminder to listen, at the very least, to what others are saying, keeping biases in check, especially in an election like this one.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. 

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