The 2010 midterm elections and the events in their wake were driven by extreme partisanship, arguably more intense and more widespread than the nation had previously experienced. If this trend continues, we will pay dearly over time.
The vitriol was so hot in some places, candidates asked their supporters to cool it. And following the shooting in January of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, President Barack Obama traveled to Tucson to ask members of Congress and ordinary citizens to try a little civility.
Obama's plea fell mostly on deaf ears, especially in my home state of Florida, where partisanship thrives.
Why are we ignoring the calls for civility, which is in the best interest of the nation? Scholars for the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project believe they have some answers. According to the organization's recent Internet report, nearly as many Americans now get their election campaign news from the Internet as from newspapers.
They found that online news tends to be partisan, and 55 percent of those polled agree, saying they believe that the Internet enables extremism. The Internet helps those who think alike and who are ideologically driven to easily discover one another.
Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist for Pew, said that 73 percent of adult users (representing 54 percent of all American adults) searched online for news or information about the 2010 midterm matchups. An earlier study showed that 22 percent of Americans who use the Internet also used social networking sites or Twitter for politics during the 2010 campaign. Smith said that 26 percent of U.S. adults resorted to their cell phones for information and for ways to participate in the campaign.
Although the Internet offers diverse sources, users do not always find truthful sources. "When it comes to online political engagement and information seeking, Americans view the Internet with an appreciation for its benefits but also with some apprehension toward its broader societal impacts," Smith said. "Even as they use online tools to connect with fellow activists around the country and track down interesting nuggets of political information, they tend to worry about the influence of extreme points of view and the overall accuracy of the political debate."
Pew found that the Internet plays to party affiliation. Polls show that 44 percent of Republicans, compared to 37 percent of Democrats, get most of their political news online.
The organization also looked at partisanship related to television news during the 2010 elections. The three major networks and CNN attracted 50 percent more Democrats than Republicans. As expected, however, Fox News Channel pulled in more Republican viewers than Democratic viewers, 47 percent to 15 percent. I would be remiss if I did not point out that Fox News is the only network that is enjoying rising numbers of viewers, loyalists who are ideologically driven.
In the long run, this trend will become more corrosive by raising the volume in the echo chamber, where more like-minded people further separate themselves from those with whom they disagree — even slightly.
Extremism will grow as we seek only opinions we like. MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte was prescient when he predicted that the Daily Me would become America's main way of getting news and information. He defined the Daily Me as a virtual daily newspaper customized for an individual's perspective and tastes. We will look only for what we want to find. We will read only our own opinions. We will watch only the news we want to watch.
When extremists, liberal or conservative, are in the majority, history shows that "tyranny of the majority" results, when decisions reached by the majority control everything. Only the interests of the majority matter, while the dissenting individual's voice and interests are ignored or even suppressed. "Mob rule" is another name for this scenario. We see it in several states, including Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin.
More states will join the roster as more voters get their news and information exclusively from Internet street corners and extreme TV networks and radio programs. Future election cycles will make 2010 seem mild by comparison.