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 …


Bobby G

Using the small sample of myself, I disagree with Paul K. I'm vocal about my opinions here, in person (if the chance of making the liberal I'm arguing with hate me is low enough to be acceptable), and in other forms online (like my blog).

Secondly, the reason why I try to be vocal has to do with my belief that so many Americans are hugely uninformed about many important issues. It's easy for people on either side to spout a few popular phrases, to label opponents, to cite out-of-context statistics and for an uninformed person in the middle to read it and think it is true. I thus take it upon myself to be vocal and to be concise and to try to stay as objective as possible when presenting my ideals.

Another big problem is the lack of understanding... Would you let someone be your doctor because he's watched the last 5 seasons of House or ER? Or would you want him to go to medical school? Do you want people who have read the newspaper for the past 10 years to be commenting on the economy? Or would you want them to have actually taken a few economics classes?

I feel like if everyone knew what they were talking about there would be a lot fewer extremists...

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helpful

Error in the post!

sampling error is random and occurs even in unbiased surveys. what 2) describes is a biased sample.

Bethany

We crave conflict. It's entertaining. Look at the media: news stations aren't there because they deliver news; they are just another form of entertainment. They paint everything black an white to fuel conflict because that's what makes them more money. Some of us are part of the extremes because of the reasons listed, but others are just because it appears as if the two extremes are our only options.

Milt B

#13 states "...advocates on either side of the issue seek to ... be herd...."

It's enough to make one believe in Freudian slips!

DJH

I agree there's a pronounced ideological divide in the US, but I'm not sure it makes us unique, neither in the present day nor historically.

The very idea of "left" and "right" dates to the French Revolution. Since then there have been ideological divides in many places. Governments around the world are factionalized along ideological lines. In many places those governments are ruled by "coalitions" in which people within each faction decide to work together to create an organic whole. (Yeah, I know, that "whole" often doesn't come together, but you get the idea!)

Also, the number of factions can be higher than just the two we have in the US.

If the US is fundamentally different, it's because its government is structured around that ideological division. It is not expected that the factions will form an organic whole. Rather, the expectation is that the factions will remain separate and engage in a continuous struggle against one another; if they do unify it's only over one issue or for one moment.

It's been argued that this is by design; however, political parties are not in the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers did not really have the modern political parties in mind. They expected the branches of government themselves to check and balance each other, not for those branches to subdivide along ideological lines and offer checks and balances inside of each branch. The only branch free of this subdivision is the executive ... the legislative and, to an extent, judicial branches are subject to internal factionalism.

As for whether this system is superior to the coalitions more common elsewhere, I have no idea. Certainly the factionalism within the legislative branch makes it less effective than it could be, were it more cohesive.

As for why it happens, Dubner has hit on something: incentives. People have incentives to band together into "teams" for mutual benefit. Individual members of what is termed "left" and "right" may not agree with one another on all points, but if they can find some sort of common cause and use that as a foundation upon which to band together, they can help each other against "the Enemy." Otherwise those individuals risk being lost in a vast morass of political soup in which nothing stands out.

There has been "ideological warfare" in the US between the factions almost from the country's start. We are in the midst of a flare-up that now, and your correspondent Edmonds is noticing that. Despite these conflicts not being new, I think it's substantially different now than it had been before. At least some of the reasons:

1. Refinement of propaganda -- the ideologies have deeply researched the fine art of propaganda and rhetoric to an extent never before seen. They are better able now to coax ideological cooperation and maintain ideological purity than they ever had been. In fact, ideologies have been able to redefine themselves slowly and cleverly over the years, without most people being any the wiser; few understand, for instance, how different "right" is, now, from what the "right" was in the early 50s.

2. Media of expression -- publishing political/ideological views has not always been easy. Pamphleteers of the 18th century and newspapers in the 19th were the primary carriers, but now, with easier and more ubiquitous publication and the advent of the Internet, transmission of ideology is much easier than ever before, and it has saturated society to an incredible extent.

3. Mass media buy-in -- the media have bought in to the ideologies, for convenience's sake if for no other reason, and relate events in those terms. All politicians at any level are described as "left/liberal" or "right/conservative," without regard to what they really think. Some are labeled "moderate/centrist" but it's always cast as being relative to one side or the other.

4. Societal entrenchment -- the aforementioned saturation and media buy-in of ideological views has become so great that Americans are not capable of viewing things in any other terms. This even goes back into history; Americans try to view historical figures through the lens of their own, current-day, ideologies, without realizing this is anachronistic. The habit of viewing the past in this way becomes self-perpetuating ... they continuously reinvent the past in order to fit their present-day ideologies, thus reinforcing what they already believe, rather than genuinely understanding the lessons of the past.

I don't see the current divide being bridged any time soon, for all of these reasons, however there is no reason to assume it can never abate. In its present form it dates to the Clinton administration. It began when the media darling of 1992, who was of the Left, was elected by only 43% of the country -- the Right immediately used this against him and wrenched him toward the center. Their rhetoric heated up after their Congressional victory in 1994, and reached its peak when they tried to have Clinton removed from office in 1998. The Left was enraged that that Clinton had been "centerized" and almost tossed out; the Right was enraged that the Left and the media had prevented them from removing him.

Since then, various events -- such as the Florida recount in 2000 and the Iraq War starting in 2003 -- have been used by both sides to whip up anger among their partisans and maintain a consistent level of fury directed against the other side.

Neither side has gotten over the struggles of the Clinton administration. Nor does it appear any of them even want to get over it, since they are able to use the twin undercurrents of anger they've carefully engingeered and cultivated over the last decade to keep their minions loyal.

It's all built on emotion. While emotion is a powerful motivator and for a decade has maintained ideological ferocity on either side, it is a fickle adversary; you can only keep just so many people angry for only just so long. Each side will have to manufacture a new, separate undercurrent of anger in order to keep going.

The apparent impending election of Obama may actually do this; the Right will say the media crowned him artificially and undeservedly; the Left, which promises to be in control, will go berserk and run roughshod over the country, happily implementing their schemes without restriction and remaining furious with the hated Bush for having thwarted them for 8 years.

Then again, maybe Americans will collectively grow up, stop emotiing so much, and actually learn to live with one another, and treat each other with respect rather than remaining on the high-horses of their ideological sanctimony.

Who knows?

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Charles

I've been all over the place in the US. Saying Americans are xyz is as silly as saying Europeans are xyz. There is a tremendous diversity here that you don't find in many other countries. You have to go to the next country over in Europe to get that increased level of diversity. And there are major rifts when you expand to that level. Whaling anyone?

Second who spends the time to post boring crap. The edge is where the action is.

And really it's the fault of all those people voting for Obama...nutjobs....ok that was a joke...mostly.

Kristine

I'll admit it. I'm a centrist. I'm a registered independent (former republican) who once ran a website called Confessions of a Moderate Conservative.

When I lived in Iowa 2 years ago I really tried to participate in the debates around me. By the right wing I was called a baby killer (my one daughter is a result of IVF) and I support embryonic stem cell research on leftover IVF embryos. I am also called a right-wing nut job (and a fear mongering bigot) because I go to church every week and am against same-sex marriage. I support a progressive tax yet I am for school vouchers.

And how about compromise, people . . . if we all agree abortions should be less in this country lets make them safe and available to those who so decide . . . but only in the first trimester of pregnancy. The right will have then reduced the # of abortions and the left will have kept a woman's choice for an abortion available? What is so horrible about a compromise?

So I'm a centrist that rarely speaks because I am a traitor to both sides.

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Deb

I blame the media's assignment of "red" and "blue" to the political parties. It seems like the attribution of political ideologies to these colors can be traced to the death of political moderates. Correlation, causation, whatever....

Kirilius

If Stephen is correct that expressing an extreme opinion reveals a desire for your voice to be heard, then this would mean that people in the US want their voices to be heard more than people from other nations ;-)

I don't think this is true though. I tend to agree with reason #2 (sampling error) because my hunch is that the readers of this blog are NOT 100% representative of the US population. My impression is that most of the readers here are far more educated and sophisticated that the average citizen of the US (or any other country for that matter).

I would also propose another reason for this observed polarity of the opinions: could it be that some of them are actually voiced by non-US nationals? I am sure the admins of this site can provide some interesting statistics in the way of % readers per country and % commenting readers per country ;-)

Duncan

I would agree more with the population argument of poster number 23. I think it's hard for many foreigners to conceive of just how big America is in terms of population and geography. For comparison, the state of Texas alone has more people than Australia. And Texas is still smaller than California.

In such a system, there is no way to really relate to national politicians or the government as people in the same way as you can for smaller local elections. Ideology and party affiliation represent a way that people can feel engaged in a system so massive that their single vote amounts to virtually nothing. You have a situation where ideological battles are more easy to comprehend then trying to deal with individual issues or politicians, simply because their are no frames of reference for such issues.

This is also why individuals who self-identify a party affiliation are much more likely to vote with that party on national elections, yet split their ticket on local elections.

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di

Some people are just not happy unless they feel like they are part of a true believer minority oppressed by the larger culture.

It's a logical fallacy:

People who are right often face opposition and anger.

I face opposition and anger.

Therefore I must be right.

And the more opposition and anger I face, the more right I must be.

These are the people who exaggerate their positions in public, use purposely provocative language, and preface everything with "Well, I'm sure I'll get called a bum-racist-sexist-homophobe-elitist-yuppie-socialist-whatever, buuuuuuuuut I've just got to say..." as if the rest of the people in the checkout line or the PTA meeting are going to grab their torches and pitchforks and run them out of town.

J.V.

The first commenter makes a great point, but I will add that Americans tend to be individualistic and take everything personally. We identify ourselves by what we do for a living, and we make our entire lives into a consistent whole, making sure every aspect of our lives match and dovetail into every other aspect. For this reason, we identify so strongly with every belief we hold, and consider our beliefs to be important aspects of our personalities. So when you talk about politics and religion in the US, you're not just talking about some abstract idea, you're pretty much talking about the people in the room. And this leads to passionate debate.

MHS

You are completely wrong. There are NO ideological extreme EVER in the comment section of this website.

That was meant to be ironically.

Mike B

I can't say if American is more or less partisan than all other western democracies (things got pretty heated in France with Sarcozy and many places frequently erupt in riots (France again), but I do believe that America has a national value of speaking ones mind and the right to be heard. There is also the tradition of the adversarial process in our legal system with each side vigorously presenting their case to a jury.

Message boards tend to represent an adversarial process as opposed to a real discussion or debate (which works best in person). The jury is the non-participating reader (who may be persuadable) and advocates on either side of the issue seek to both be herd and to boil down their arguments to their most clear and concise essences (else they lose the jury's interest").

Juan

I think a major difference is in how acceptable (socially speaking) it is to be outlandish and express extreme views. In the US extreme (and ridiculous) views are viewed as acceptable in many aspects which in other societies would be interpreted as coming from a madman or undesirable person. In the US racism and anti-Semitism are not viewed as acceptable and generally few people openly advocate them, but religious extremisms (Christian only) are accepted.

It is all about society’s values and how people feel about being out of the normal on some issues.

Eric Grant

As a Canadian, I'd chalk it up to cultural habit. Personal outspoken-ness is more seen a a virtue in US culture than in Canada. Here the virtueis to be seen to accomodate an make people feel comfortable and avoid awkward situations. In the US, it seems that letting other people know where you stand is more highly valued, and what my country-people would see as manners USAmericans might seen as being two-faced.

The outspoken-ness doesn't just produce the appearance of extremism, but also is what can make Americans seem so friendly and eager to chat, in other circumstances.

Generalizations offered from an outsider.

Mike

I would actually tend to believe in #3 - In 1996 Al Franken wrote about the "mushball middle"; and Jon Stewart continues to comment about how the centrist battle-cry of "Let's Be Reasonable!!" fails to attract headlines over the doom-saying from either side.

Though I'd have to admit that given the sheer population size and geographic disparity the US would tend to breed much more divergent views. At least, compared with Australia, where it is pretty much a coastal country with only a sparsely inhabited interior. I challenge you to compare the political views of somebody who ranches in the Outback vs that of somebody from Sydney. I would expect the views to be very divergent, and imagine how extreme the divide could get if there was greater population weighting to the center of that continent.

C. Smith

Boils down to Locke vs. Rosseau.

Boggis

Australia has compulsory voting, America does not. People in the middle are less likely to be passionate about their political views ("I demand the continuation of a reasonably progressive tax system with concessional treatment of capital gains!" doesn't have much of a ring to it). So in America they may be don't bother much to vote. Political parties in the US have to appeal to people who will actually vote, and note only that but people who will go and round up their friends and neighbours to vote. They need people with much stronger convictions than the average to do that. In order to appeal to those people you have to be pretty extreme.

Also, the American situation where most people register for one major party or the other means that the parties need to be careful to distinguish themselves to ensure continuing party loyalty. In Australia only loons and ratbags are members of political parties and the average person can't tell the difference between the two major parties idealogically. This means that republican and democrat have hardened platforms and people's opinions tend to cluster into two groups over time (Is there any reason, for instance, why being anti-abortion rights should make you predisposed to drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge?)

Because Australia doesn't have this set up we tend to have the icecream salesman problem where the two parties cluster together on most issues - we have no significant debate over abortion rights for example.

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Greg

Another reason to consider, many posters are like Michael Edmonds and do not live in the US. That would indicate that the comments brings in people with extremist views from around the world. This would explain why he does not frequently see this behavior except in the comments section.