I think a lot of people will look back at this point in American political history and wonder how things got so damn screwed up. It wasn’t always a given that there would be mindless gridlock on Capitol Hill, unchecked extremism and a general lack of leadership.
Sure, one could point to the corrupting influence of lobbyists and interest groups on Congress. Or to gerrymandering. Or to Citizens United, which allows money to literally control politics and has made political parties less relevant, and allowed the proliferation of the ultra conservative Tea Party. There are plenty of others.
But perhaps as much as anything is the disturbing fragmentation of the media. Today, conservatives can get all their information from conservative outlets, and liberals can get all their information from liberal outfits. And you can spend your whole life never being challenged, never having to hear or think about or confront viewpoints that are different from your own.
There’s no better example than the most important conservative jurist in America today. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reinforced what I already knew — that he lives in the Republican media bubble. Justice Scalia reads The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times. He listens to a lot of talk radio, but not NPR. He refuses to read The New York Times. The Washington Post “went too far” for him. He “couldn’t’ handle it anymore.” The Washington Post has become “shrilly liberal.” Heck, he can’t even remember the last party he went to that had both liberals and conservatives.
I just don’t get it. If you want to believe that the government’s coming for our guns or that being gay is a choice and a sin or that ObamaCare signals the end of civilization or that cutting taxes for rich people is the path to a better America, that’s your choice. I’m never going to believe in any of that. But I also know I am better off seeing what the other side is talking about and having my views challenged. I once had a T-shirt that said “Liberal about everything except other Liberals.”
Back when I went to Louisiana State University a million years ago, we got the Baton Rouge paper. But if you wanted to read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, you had to go to the reading room of the student union, and you got the edition several days after it had been published, and you had to read it on a wooden stick. “Meet the Press” was already on television. You had the nightly news on the networks. That was about it for news sources.
Today, I teach a course at Tulane University in New Orleans. They give away copies or online access to the Times or the Journal or The Washington Post, not to mention all the local papers. No more wooden sticks. These kids have access to hundreds of TV channels and an infinite number of websites without ever leaving their dorm rooms. They have Twitter feeds and news apps on their smartphones. They’re never more than a finger swipe away from answering almost any question they might have about the world. I tell them on the first day of class, “I don’t care as much what you think; I care more that you think.”
Compared to the information available to me in 1962, kids today have way more information at their fingertips. But it’s often information from sources they seek out. Do they have more knowledge? Not really. They aren’t any more informed than I was then.
Seeing that makes me believe the proliferation of information and the fragmentation of the media has actually been a bad thing because people don’t use it properly. They use it to become more insular instead of more engaged in the world.
Instead of taking all this information and using it as a window to the entire world, a big part of the media industry now exists in large part to confirm your beliefs. People have figured out that there’s a lot of money to be made telling you that you were right in the first place. It makes both sides more dug in.
Having people in power like Antonin Scalia and the Tea Party caucus sitting around listening to Rush Limbaugh all day is certainly not the only reason why Washington is such a mess right now, but it can’t be helping.
Carville is a chief political correspondent for ARISE Television. He also serves as a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he lives with his wife, Republican strategist Mary Matalin. His column will appear twice a month in The Hill.