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Obama's Golden Ear

Obama ear President Obama's State of the Union speech demonstrated once again that a great orator doesn't need a silver tongue, but a golden ear.  

He struck just the right tone because he is in perfect sync with the country's mood (some would say belatedly). 

Obviously, he understands that people are worried about jobs. In one hour, he said the word about every two minutes.  

But his pledge to change the way Washington works reflected a deeper understanding of what is bothering people.  Yes, they're worried about the economy, but more worrisome, they have also lost faith in the system that is supposed to deal with it. 

93 percent of American voters told a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll  that politics has become "too partisan." 

That's as close to unanimity on a political issue as I expect to see in my lifetime.  And it's troubling because political partisanship is not only a formula for gridlock, it sucks trust out of the system.


What accounts for such partisanship?  Recent research shows that our natural inclination to associate with those who agree with us has been magnified by the fragmentation of media channels.


For example, research by the Pew organization indicates that Fox News' audience Is 16 points more Republican and 11 points less Democratic than the public at large, while MSNBC's is 10 points more Democratic and 12 points less Republican than the public.

Furthermore,  in a separate Pew
study, 63% of those who cited Fox News as their main source of news either identified as Republican or leaned to the GOP, which was 27 points more than in the general public.

Finally, a
poll by Public Policy Polling shows that Fox News is the only news network "that more people say they trust than distrust. 49% say they trust it to 37% who do not."   Look for Fox to challenge CNN on its tag as "the most trusted name in news."


Sadly, this phenomenon is not limited to the electronic media.  A study in the June 2009 issue of the journal Communication Research found that people spend 36 percent more time reading articles that agree with their point of view than those that challenge their opinions. Even when people read articles that counter their views, they almost always balance that by reading others that confirm their opinions.

If you only pay attention to messages you agree with, you are likely to become more extreme in your viewpoints, because you never consider the other side. Furthermore, you are less likely to keep your opinion to yourself.  Recent research at Ohio State University shows that people with relatively extreme opinions are more willing to publicly share their views if they have a sense that they are in the majority even if they aren't.

For example, if a group leans moderately in one direction on an issue, those who take an extreme version of their group's viewpoint may believe that they actually represent the true views of their group. That gives them all the encouragement they need to express themselves, kicking off a cycle that feeds on itself.

The more people hear extremists expressing their opinions, the more they believe that those extreme beliefs are "the norm" and the less likely they are to seek political compromise.


Since political activity is a choice and inactivity is the norm, all of these phenomena show up most dramatically in our electoral system. A Harvard University analysis of Congressional elections from 1993 through 2000 shows that our system of primary elections tends to produce candidates with extreme views for the simple reason that voters in primary elections tend to be more ideologically extreme than those in general elections.

According to the analysis, "The more extreme the primary voters are in a district, the more extreme (or off- median) the candidates in the general election will be. Yet when an electoral district is closely contested, the probability of a change in party control is greatest, which creates a strong incentive for previously non-mobilized potential activists have to become involved in primary elections.

"Competitive two-party districts, when subjected to two-tiered elections and the selective participation of political extremists, tend to bring about extremist candidates. The irony is … that political extremists in Congress are more likely to arise out of centrist and two-party competitive districts, rather than out of districts dominated by one party or the other."

Obama's State of the Union speech asked partisans in Congress from both sides of the aisle to free themselves from this trap.  We'll see if they tuned in. 



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