Identity Politics and Echo Chambers

Editor's note: This is a guest column by our listener Jason Baker. Jason is an Air Force officer and self-described political junkie. He blames the 2000 election for causing him to pursue a political science degree.  His opinions are completely his own, and do not represent the Department of Defense or the United States Air Force.  You can follow him on Twitter @jbbakes3 for his tongue in cheek thoughts on politics and gloating about the Cubs finally winning a World Series.

I grew up on a farm in the rural Midwest, joined the military, drive a pickup truck, and own a few guns. People remarked to me during the campaign season that “you must really hate how this election is going.” After the election I got lots of “well you must be excited today.” You know what driving a pickup says about my politics? It says that a truck is my primary mode of transportation to get to my polling place, that’s about it. The person that gets in and out of that truck every day is another story.

These were people I work with who don’t know me outside of work, or Facebook friends who I hadn’t spoken with personally in quite a few years. I was assigned the presidential candidate I must be supporting based on some identifying features that had little or nothing to do with politics.

This is the state of politics in the United States. As I’ve written before in this space; politics has essentially become like rooting for your favorite college football team.  People think: “I don’t care if we run the ball, or throw the ball.  I don’t care if our coach is a terrible person, or all the players are failing their classes. All I want to do is beat your team, and even if my team is 3-7 (bleh, mine is) and yours is 10-0:  Your team sucks and mine is the best.”

I told those people “my ballot had votes for Libertarians, Republicans, and even a Democrat.”  The satisfaction I gain from watching people squirm as they try to figure out which names were assigned to those parties has gotten me through this election season - that and being in the middle of training for a marathon that has made me too tired to get all that worked up.  (And that my friends, is what we call a shadow brag.)

I’m not a Republican, I just believe in market solutions and a strong national defense. I’m not a Democrat, I just believe that a benevolent society requires some sort of safety net. I’m not a Libertarian, I just believe that your personal choices and decisions are none of my business if they aren’t hurting anyone else.

Politics should not be a wholesale endeavor. I shouldn’t have to be against gay marriage because I believe strongly in the second amendment. I shouldn’t have to be pro-life because I want to cut taxes. I can endorse free trade agreements, while also wanting to help create more American jobs, and I can desire an overwhelmingly strong military without feeling the need to use it all over the globe.

That’s a lot of work though isn’t it? Such thinking requires you to be aware of a multitude of issues and how they all interact.  The majority of people have one or two issues they feel very strongly about, and pick their party and candidates based on such. This is what leads to someone who is anti-war voting for the more hawkish candidate because of her party, or the person who champions the free market voting for the trade killing candidate because of his.

We’ve become lazy consumers of news.  We want everything wrapped up in a neat package so I can clearly identify who to pick in the “us vs them” fight.  Our 24-hour cable news cycle is well aware of this.  The information must be presented that way to keep viewership. Every event, every issue, is followed by a panel with someone from the right, and someone from the left so that people know how to think.  If U.S. media followed the BBC model of reading the news the average American would have no idea what to think.  Wait…how do I feel about that?  They didn’t tell me what to think! All they did was tell me some facts! I know…I’ll go check Facebook.

Facebook, the ultimate echo chamber.  The place where people publically complain about how all the news is biased…on the forum where they are only friends with people who completely agree with them. You voted for Trump? UNFRIEND! You voted for Hillary? HA! YOU LOST! You voted for Gary Johnson?  YOU WASTED YOUR VOTE AND THIS IS YOUR FAULT! Now, please leave me alone so I can check out all these Harambe memes, factually incorrect maps about the election, and catch up on the Info Wars articles my friends have shared.

 I have a couple of friends who will readily attest to the fact that I used to be an insufferable, fact avoiding right winger. I listened to Rush Limbaugh so that I could know what I thought, and made (so awful and so tired) jokes about CNN being the Communist or Clinton News Network.  (It literally pains me to admit/type that). I have no singular event to point to what began my change, aside from actually listening to my friends with differing views, and consuming information from a breadth of sources. I began to watch CNN for news, I began to read books written by “the other side” and I began to play devil’s advocate to political arguments I heard. 

A wonderful thing happens when you do all of this: You figure out what your own views really are, and some of them change, and some of them you develop a stronger more nuanced defense for. The most important thing though; is that you understand where people who disagree with you are coming from.  To have the best understanding of your own views; you should be able to play the part of your opposition in a debate. Furthermore, when you engage in debate with someone who disagrees, you shouldn’t be trying to change their mind. Yes, that may happen, but the real point of debate is to rationally make your case to those who might be listening. When all you’re doing is demeaning and degrading…nobody is really listening to you.

So my suggestion? Read the book that isn’t for you. Ask someone why they voted for someone and don’t interrupt them while they tell you.  Read the platform of a party or candidate you support and see what you really think.  Basically; engage with your fellow citizens, regardless of their views, and watch what happens.  You may walk away maintaining every single political view you’ve ever had, and that’s perfectly fine, but you’ll have a better ability to be heard and contribute positively to the national discourse.  We should not, and do not, need to live in our echo chambers.