What’s With All the Ideology?
An Australian reader named Michael Edmonds writes with an interesting question. He did worry a bit that he’d be considered anti-American for posing it, but hey — nothing good in life is without risk …
I live in Australia and I’m a regular reader of your site. I’m frequently surprised by the ideological battles that occur in the comments on your site (and others) on topics such as tax, healthcare, homosexuality, the financial bailout, European countries (socialists), religion, Palin, Obama, etc. On almost any topic, there are extreme opposing viewpoints. Why does the U.S. have so many ideological extremists?
My impression may be explained by one of the following:
1) The U.S. may be no different from other Western democracies, but I don’t notice it in Australia or other places.
2) It may be that the people who comment on websites are not representative of the population, so my view is wrong due to sampling error.
3) The centrist views are drowned out by the clamor of the extremists.
4) The ideological extremists may make a bigger impression on me and I forget about the centrists, leading me to think that there are more extremists than there actually are.
I tend to discount option one because we have many of the same debates in Australia, but I rarely witness the same fervor in debates. I suspect option two is also an inadequate explanation because it is easy to observe ideological extremism in other media. At this point, I can’t discount option three, and option four is a possible (although I think incorrect) explanation.
This leaves me with my impression that the U.S. produces far more ideological extremists than other Western democracies. Do you have any thoughts on why this may be the case or why I may be mistaken?
I think there’s validity to Nos. two and four, but if I had to give one answer, I’d say that it boils down to incentives.
If you are the kind of person who wants his or her voice to be heard (as most of us are), there’s little incentive to playing things down the middle, for then your voice won’t be heard. Voicing an ideological extreme, therefore — whether or not it’s truly how you feel — is an exercise of narcissism, for you’ll stand out in a crowd. And considering how costly other forms of narcissism can be, spouting a super-ideological viewpoint in fact comes pretty cheap.
I also think that Michael is witnessing a spike in ideological chatter due to a long and heated presidential election. In this country especially, elections often come to resemble a slightly elevated form of Color War, wherein everyone’s a partisan, and the thrusts and parries are so predetermined as to be nearly comical. It is especially irksome to hear “average voters” in media interviews who parrot, nearly word-for-word, the political parties’ talking points.
If I am even a little bit right on this last point, then Michael (and all the rest of us) can expect to see the ideological fever fade a bit in the coming days — unless, of course, the election result is contested, and drags on for a few more months …