The country is getting further and further away from any semblance of cooperation or debate. Neighbors and family members are pitted against one another like at no time since the Civil War. The generational differences experienced in the 1960’s seem cordial compared to the intransigence we see now. The era of the computer and the Internet, where information flows freely like at no other time in human evolution has left us in cognitive dissonance and mired in epistemic closure. We only listen to those radio programs that share our positions, we only watch the news from those carriers with the same political bend as us. We only discuss difficult topics with people we know we already agree with. We never engage in debate or discussion with those with whom we do not politically agree. The congress is in a perpetual state of obstructionism.
The “other side” is terminally wrong. We cannot engage them on any level other than to disparage them, dismiss them, and call them wrong on all manner of topics. In fact, we are disposed to dismiss a person who agrees with us on one topic if they disagree with us on another. Thus epistemic closure.
No topic exhibits this disconnect more than the fractious presidential campaign we have seen this year. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz are the most polarizing candidates we have ever seen in modern politics. All three have negative ratings among likely voters higher than any candidate upon whom this measure has been taken in American political history. The “#StopTrump” movement, a branch of the established Republican Party, will do anything to deny this man from getting the nomination of their party, despite being the front-runner. Trump himself has the highest negatives of any candidate and has alienated enough demographic categories to guarantee him not winning in November should he be the nominee. Hillary Clinton has enough of a track record in the pubic’s eye to garner either very positive or very negative reactions in most of the population. There is very little middle ground left from which she can harvest votes. Ted Cruz finds himself in the unique position of being hated by all of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and yet the man with the best shot of unseating Trump for the nomination causing those with whom he has little in common to back him in order to get to the second or third ballot of a contested convention in Cleveland later this summer.
The other two candidates, John Kasich and Bernie Sanders both suffer from a lack of recognition among the public to one degree or another. Kasich telling everyone that he is the only candidate to regularly beat Clinton in a straight up contest in November has less to do with his popularity and more to do with Clinton’s negatives. Kasich positions himself as a moderate candidate (and compared to the other two running he is), however, his record is that of anything but a moderate. Sanders does not claim to be a moderate and while his brand of Scandinavian socialism resonates with the youth of the country, there is no slice of the electorate less likely to actually vote than the young, condemning Sanders’ chances to fantasy.
There are real issues facing the country. Real issues that demand the focused attention of the wisest men and women this country has. And in another example of our cognitive dissonance, Congress continues to have an overall approval level of under 20% while most incumbents will win re-election. How can that be? It is, again, because we believe the person with whom we are most familiar and dismiss as out of touch the person with whom we are least familiar. The problem is always with the other guy. The left and the right stare at each other in distrust and disgust, not realizing that they are really looking in the mirror and the ugliness they see is their own.
We deserve better than this. The age of the Internet has given us an unending supply of data and little increase in usable information. We must do better. Listening helps. Mirrors help, too.