Calls to split California reveal deeper problems in tech, politics

Calls to split California reveal deeper problems in tech, politics
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My grandfather, Gilbert Gable, who died over 75 years ago, is getting national press coverage. In 1941, in response to a state government that ignored the needs of the people in his area, he proposed establishing a State of Jefferson that combined several rural counties in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

My, how things have not changed.

Last week, New California announced their declaration of independence, hoping to establish a new state composed of most of the rural counties while leaving the coastal urban ones to the original California.

In the early 1940s, the problem was that the state government would not build roads to these rural areas, neglecting the people there and cutting off their ability to develop economically.

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Today, as California delivers the highest poverty rate in the United States, the complaints of rural California echo the past. Even as the wealth of Silicon Valley and Hollywood reach staggering new heights, this high poverty rate, which factors in government services and the cost of living, is essentially unchanged over the last four years.

The would-be secessionists today feel like those in the 1940s, that they are not being heard and that the state government is more focused on more populous areas. Like earlier generations, they struggle with poverty and limited economic opportunity, water rights, and lack of representation.

Whatever you might think of the various policies that New California supports, lack of representation is an undeniably fair concern. These rural areas are heavily Republican and all overwhelmingly support Trump. But the California state government is completely run by the Democratic Party, which owns every statewide office and has had super majorities in the state house and senate.

If you live in a flyover state, you can identify. Much of the support for Trump comes from people who feel they have been overlooked by the national government and both parties, though often the Democrat Party in particular.

But can’t elected officials represent all the people, not just the ones that elected them? Nowadays, it seems required to not only disagree with the policies of the other side, but also to look down on the policies and the people that have them with new levels of disdain and disrespect.

This is where things have changed, for the worse.

In the history of the Republican and Democratic parties, going all the way back to around the time of the end of the Civil War, there has never been less agreement between the parties then there has been in the last several years.

As you might expect, Republicans and Democrats in Congress did not vote together very often in the final decades of the 19th Century. Things eventually got more agreeable leading up to and following World War 2, with disagreements gradually growing after that. But not until the late 80s did the voting distance between the parties radically shoot up. It continues to sharply climb, with Republican and Democrat congressman voting in opposition each other today more often than ever.

And this is not just about our elected officials. Studies by Pew Research show how we have become more and more polarized on policy and on political values. We can’t just blame it on D.C. — our elected officials are accurately representing the divisions that exist in our country.

What is going on?

In order to combat the overwhelming onslaught of the modern world with its 24-hour news cycle and all the world at our fingertips through the Internet, we have to filter it down to a manageable size. We rely on technology to do most of this filtering, but today our technology is still rudimentary and a bit stupid at best, maliciously manipulated at worst, filtering our worlds in very destructive ways.

We live in filter bubbles exacerbated by search algorithms, social networks and media bias that show us one perspective (the one I already agree with) and one type of person (just like me). This might sound harmless enough, but research repeatedly shows that when this happens, we become much more extreme in our views and less tolerant of anyone who is or thinks differently than we do. As a study at the University of Colorado showed, even if we are aware of this effect, it has a much greater impact on us than we think.  

Put simply, the Internet is driving us to be more extreme and less accepting of others, and it is impacting us more than we realize.

That is not to say that technology is bad. It is not bad, and it can be our savior.

As a techie who was the lead product manager for Netscape Navigator, I am biased in favor of technology and the Internet. It is easy to make the case about the benefits of the Internet, from bringing the best ideas and people together to fight breast cancer to … you name it. There are countless examples of the good the Internet provides.

But technology in its current state is making things worse, not better, for the bonds of our society and for our democratic republic form of government. Right now our technology exacerbates the same problem that the State of Jefferson advocates encountered in the 1940s.

We don’t listen to others or to other perspectives.

Twitter is not a listening platform. Facebook doesn’t help us hear perspectives beyond our peer groups. Google is essentially a popularity algorithm that reinforces mob rule by putting the most popular perspectives at the top, downplaying any alternative or minority perspectives. “The system” that runs the government and the politicians ignore people and needs beyond their own.

Here is the good news.

Technology is always changing. That means that the way we get information, interact and communicate with each other is changing. And it can change for the better — it can change in ways that will strengthen the bonds of society and all its people.

This is an opportunity we have today that we did not have back in the 1940s. We can build new technologies for sharing information and communicating with each other that encourages us to appreciate each other and collaborate, that brings the best out of human nature.

Or we can continue to divide, despise and not listen to one another. It is up to us.

John Gable is a former staffer for Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Blankenship third-party bid worries Senate GOP Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' MORE and President George W. Bush. He is founder of AllSides.com and partner with Living Room Conversations.