In 1966, American psychologist Timothy Leary famously urged thousands gathered at a sit-in to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” A proponent and prodigious user of psychedelic drugs, Leary’s message – which he said came from Canadian philosopher Herbert Marshall McLuhan – resonated with the 30,000 hippies assembled in San Francisco. This was the prelude to the celebrated Summer of Love. Oddly, there appear to be many similarities between the tumultuous ‘60s and today as Americans traverse an acerbic and bitter political divide once again.
Unity, Wherefore Art Thou?
Many Americans who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 claimed to do so because of his unity message. The president postured as a calm, gentle, empathetic senior citizen, and a large portion of the US electorate bought that image in a desperate effort to ease the partisan rancor. However, the Biden administration so far has not paved a route to peace, harmony, and kumbaya. Far from it. Americans find themselves entangled in a political atmosphere more polarized than ever. Simply put, the Biden Silk Road has thus far made for a very bumpy ride, and the man leading the charge, say some, is nothing more than a poseur.
Yet the electorate has found several ways to deal with this reality. A few prominent leftist news outlets have written articles recently based on a Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which showed Americans tuning out the news in droves. The report called it “selective avoidance,” which means many who regularly consume information have stopped reading, watching, or listening to it.
The reasons vary: Some say they can’t deal with it. Others stay in their own news ghetto and consciously eschew information from the other side. Recently a family member asked my opinion of a digital news site that advertises itself as unbiased. Unsurprisingly, it barely showed up in the SimilarWeb digital rankings. One can only surmise this means there is no such thing as totally unbiased news, or the public is not interested in it. It could be a bit of both.
Gallup recently reported on trends and patterns in social and policy issues. “Political polarization since 2003 has increased most significantly on issues related to federal government power, global warming, and the environment, education, abortion, foreign trade, immigration, gun laws, the government’s role in providing healthcare, and income tax fairness,” wrote Gallup author Frank Newport. That pretty much covers the waterfront.
Pew Research has been following American political discourse and found that “close to half of all U.S. adults acknowledge that they have stopped discussing political and election news with someone.” So all those stories about being unable to talk politics with Aunt Thelma over the Thanksgiving table just may be valid. Only a “slim majority of American adults (54%) say they have not cut off political conversation with someone because of something they said,” Pew reported.
Dropouts From the Complex Political Divide
TMI, or too much information that always seems urgent, can wear on the nervous system. Fox News, for example, seems to have an ALERT every other hour. News burnout and exhaustion can give way to apathy and avoidance. There is also the issue of complexity. Something like Watergate makes perfect sense: A couple of guys broke into the opposing party’s national headquarters, and the president got caught trying to cover it up.
But overly complicated political scandals are routinely ignored by the public writ large. The moms working part-time and raising three kids don’t always have the time or emotional energy to wrap their heads around a story that involves 17 shell corporations, a variety of Russian oligarchs, and millions of dollars changing hands for “What was it exactly?” The Reuters study found, “A significant proportion of younger and less educated people say they avoid the news because it can be hard to follow or understand.” Uh-oh.
These coping mechanisms aren’t far from the hippie handbook that told young people in the 1960s to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” But when they dropped out, they were sent straight to Vietnam. There is no longer that sword of Damocles, but one wonders if these methods of handling a bitter political divide will yield better results than they did in the 20th century.
Still, does the blame rest with the American people or those of us who make a living delivering information? Do we explain things clearly and make an effort to uncomplicate the complicated? Do we maintain a thoughtful perspective that doesn’t turn everything into a four-alarm fire? And, finally, are we willing to engage our readers in a way that is informative without ratcheting up the rancor that already exists in a volatile political environment?
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