The problem of partisan noise

Yes, the technology revolution has allowed many more people to participate in their democracy, but the most successful outgrowth of that revolution--the partisan political blog--does more to cloud than elucidate democratic discourse

The only way to start this column is by admitting I’m part of the problem, with the problem being defined as the sheer noise of democratic discourse in contemporary society complicating attempts at either moderation or leadership.

The resolution of many of our trickiest and emotionally-laden policy dilemmas in recent times have been debased by extremist noise, partisans driven by their intense emotions. In this environment the moderate and the sane are drowned out.

First, though, I believe the real value of the information revolution is that so many more people, in myriad ways, can choose to participate in their democracy. This is celebratory in every which way. The potential to better and more directly connect leaders and their governments with the people, and vice versa, has never been greater.

We saw in America this year Barack Obama maximise the power of electronic platforms to create the first truly modern, 21st Century political campaign. His ability to inform, persuade, and, crucially, mobilise his support base was hugely instrumental in both his primary and general election victories.

Howard Gardner, a famed intelligence theorist, who also dabbles in leadership, however, makes the point that an increase in quantity of information is not synonymous with an increase in the quality of information. Gardner goes on to say that another dubious consequence of the information age is the ebbing away of any sense of privacy.

Stripped of mystique, and disabused of heroes, as the distinction between private and public behaviour blurs, people have become increasingly disrespectful towards those who avail themselves for public service, or who call themselves leaders.

Worse still is the mindless partisanship that has accompanied the information revolution. It matters less in large societies, where the sheer diversity of the mass media and their opinions offers a liberating cloak to the mad internet ramblings of partisans.

What concerns me more is that in small societies like ours, where a resource-strapped mainstream media, lacking any healthy or competitive diversity and drawing from a much smaller pool of available talent, increasingly colludes or taps into partisan blogs for rumour and scandal, breaking news or analysis.

This leads me directly to the motivations and rationality of partisans. In political psychologist Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, a hugely insightful book on the role of emotions in U.S. politics, and politics more generally, the author tells of an experiment he conducted into how groups of partisan individuals process and resolve contradictory (and therefore potentially threatening) information.

Partisan Democrat and Republican supporters were presented with clearly contradictory statements from respective presidential nominees John Kerry and George W. Bush, as well as from more politically neutral figures. Subjects were asked to rate the level of contradiction on a four-point scale (0=low, 4=high).

The contradictory nature of each statement was unequivocal, yet partisans immediately reacted to any perceived threatening information in an entirely non-rational, emotional fashion. Westen found that partisans had no trouble in picking up the contradictions of opposing candidates, correctly rating their inconsistencies close to 4 on the scale.

For their own candidate, however, ratings averaged closer to 2, notwithstanding the same level of obvious contradiction present. Differences then disappeared when partisans on both sides rated neutrals because they both shared a lack of emotional attachment so processed contradictory information more rationally.

Westen found that when partisans were faced with threatening information, networks of neurons in the brain get activated. These networks produce distress for the partisan. Westen admits that it is beyond science to discern whether the distress originates consciously, unconsciously or some combination of the two in the partisan brain.

The key point he makes, however, is that the partisan’s brain immediately looks for ways to resolve the disquiet that has been created. Not only does this process occur almost immediately but Westen reported that the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning were not implicated in filtering out the perceived threat. Rather, the neural circuits involved in activating negative emotions switched off and the circuits implicated in generating positive emotions lit up.

The point of interest to me is how partisans not only suspend rationality to enable them to filter out any negative information about their preferred candidate, or party, but how their brains actually find ways of reinforcing even more strongly their positive feelings towards their party’s candidate, irrespective of clear evidence to the contrary.

Westen’s study is a very revealing one. It has helped me to understand why political partisans frequently react so poorly to any criticism of their candidates or party brand. What partisans frequently perceive as bias is simply an unbiased statement of fact. What partisans often see as bias is, if viewed from a more rational perspective, simply a matter of empirics.

Westen’s study also explains well the behaviour of so many of these partisan political blogs. Virtually every partisan blog thread leaves a trail uncannily similar to Westen’s experimental findings. Threatening information is quickly jettisoned in favour of a suspension of rationality, emotive striking out at criticism and the critic then ensues, and somehow or other partisans end up even more convinced about the positive qualities of their team’s captain.

They also become more convinced than ever about the corruption or perfidy of opponents they despise with such unhealthy intensity. In terms of its contribution to political discourse this phenomenon hasn’t mattered much to date, but one can see that through a combination of a resource-strapped and far shallower and pseudo-personality-driven journalism, the blogs will increase their penetration of, and influence with, mainstream media outlets.

This is a depressing thought although, like any market, one imagines the quality of the second and third wave of political blogs will be an improvement on current partisan sites.

There are several quality blogs here in New Zealand and some of them will flourish during subsequent evolutionary waves, such is their quality.

I was taught that reasonable people can agree to disagree, but the incendiary nature of partisan blogs guarantees the opposite. One sincerely hopes the diversion of an internet romance might lure some of our partisans away from commentary. Finding love in Nova Scotia might just prove the most adaptive contribution a partisan blogger can make to their democracy.