TRENTON, NJ, October 10, 2013 — Search The Congressional Record for the phrases “the American people want,” “think,” “don’t think,” or “believe,” and you’ll find the phrases used thousands of times by members of Congress.
That some politicians say this before voting for a bill, while others say it before voting against it recalls playwright Arthur Miller’s bemusement three elections ago: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?”
This phenomenon is illustrated by a phone call this author received during the Arab Spring.
“Google ‘Egypt,’” said the caller.
When the caller — whose politics are left of center — Googled “Egypt,” his results came back full of articles by The Guardian, Mother Jones, other left-wing publications.
Despite my best attempts to graze promiscuously across the ideological savannah every day — The Atlantic, The Root, Salon, Slate — Google algorithms are good at picking up political leanings. Google returned results to me that were heavy on Fox News, NRO, conservative blogs, and the paper that supports this site, The Washington Times.
We had been sorted into two different news communities and were not even offered the same news.
This is why one of the biggest assumptions about the current government shutdown has proven false: 2013 will be just like 1995.
Eighteen years ago, the American people blamed Republicans for the shutdown by a whopping 23 percentage points. Today? Only 5 percent more Americans blame the GOP than the Democrats.
From this, Newt Gingrich deduces, “the American people aren’t buying” that the GOP is to blame. Gingrich, like those members of Congress, misses a critical fact about contemporary America: “The American people believe this” or “think this” or “want this,” is true of fewer and fewer subjects today.
There are fewer and fewer common institutions in America.
When Roots aired in 1977, a stunning 85 percent of American televisions were tuned in for all or part of it. For M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show, and Cheers, half or nearly half of all American households watching TV were watching those shows during their respective finales in 1983, 1992 and 1993, two years before the shutdown of 1995.
Joe Louis fights, Billy Sunday sermons, and FDR fireside chats on the radio were American institutions. So, too, were Oval Office and State of the Union addresses and presidential debates.
President Obama’s most-watched State of the Union in 2009 drew what an average State of the Union attracted just a generation ago. And a top Obama advisor recently relegated the Oval Office address to a relic of the ‘80s. All this comes on top of the steep nosedive newspaper circulations have taken, the precipitous drop in nightly news viewership, and uptick in Americans who prefer Jon Stewart over CNN for their news.
As a result, when public figures talk to the nation, they don’t really talk to the nation. They talk almost exclusively to their Twitter followers, YouTube viewers, email subscribers, or self-selected audiences on the cable news networks which shill for them.
Still worse, when Americans see their public leaders, they hear less from them. In 1968, the nightly news aired 42 seconds of what a president said in a speech. By 1996, it was down to a 7-second sound bite.
As nature abhors a vacuum, that void has been filled by pundits, radio hosts, activists, think tanks, and chain emails. In some form, these have always existed. But since the decline of national platforms, there is no longer any place where it can be said “the nation” had a conversation — a place Americans routinely hear arguments and facts that aren’t reinforcing existing ones.
Instead, more and more Americans receive only the information they choose to receive. In a case of DIY-Wiki culture, writ large, America has become a Nation of self-selectors.
Worse still, search engine and social media algorithms now select for you. See Eli Pariser’s excellent TED Talk in 2011 on “filter bubbles.”
Only cataclysmic events these days, like war or a Great Recession, seem able to shatter echo chambers and let beams of unselected facts in. As a consequence, it’s likely that only a more complete government shutdown would be big enough to jolt the self-selected information consumers from their information cocoons.
That’s why 2013 is not 1995.
It’s why the country has not “forced” a solution, but, rather, entrenched right along with Washington. If you don’t agree, grab a close friend far from you politically (if you have one), and Google “government shutdown.”
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