Essays by Herb Meyer
Our Broken Political Radar
Ricochet — September 6, 2016
When’s the last time you persuaded someone who didn’t agree with you about one of the issues that dominate this year’s political campaigns to change his or her mind? If your experience is anything like mine, it’s been a while since you persuaded someone to support your candidate, or to accept your view about how best to deal with terrorism, health care, jobs, trade, or any other of the national issues that confront us. And it’s getting harder every day.
I believe there’s an explanation for why political persuasion has become so difficult, so frustrating — so nearly impossible — that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Simply put, we Americans may still share a country, but we’re living in different worlds.
Just for a moment, imagine you’re the captain of a jumbo jet. You’re at 40,000 feet, and it’s a real mess out there — thunderstorms, mountains off both wings, and other aircraft whizzing around too close for comfort. So instead of looking out the windshield, you look down at your radar screen. After all, radar is the instrument in your cockpit that gives you — and your co-pilot and your navigator — a clear, accurate, and complete picture of what’s going on out there. Radar doesn’t tell you what to do; the assumption is that if you give competent aviators good information, they’ll make appropriate decisions.
Chaos in the Cockpit
Now imagine that you, your co-pilot and your navigator each have your own radar screen — and each screen is painting a different picture. Your radar screen shows thunderstorms, mountains off both wings, and another jumbo jet on a collision course with yours. But the co-pilot’s radar screen doesn’t show mountains, and it tracks that oncoming jet at a lower altitude and on course to pass below you safely. And your navigator’s radar shows clear skies, but with a huge mountain dead-ahead.
The result, of course, is chaos in the cockpit. It’s a shouting match, and maybe even a fistfight. You and your crew cannot possibly agree on what course to fly, simply because you’re not seeing the same things.
And this is what’s happened to us. In a free society, the press is the people’s radar. It’s our newspapers, magazines, television and radio shows, and websites we rely upon to tell us what’s going on out there; to paint a picture of the environment we’re moving through that’s more accurate, and more comprehensive, than we can see by looking out our own windshields — in other words, by going about our daily business. Just as with radar, the assumption in a free society is that with accurate and comprehensive information we’ll make appropriate decisions.
Decades ago, we all saw the world through the same radar screen. The similarities among our country’s major newspapers, and the wire services they replied upon such as AP and UPI, were more striking than the differences. In the broadest sense, they shared the same perception of the world and of America’s place in it. And the picture of the world they gave us was fairly comprehensive. If you got your news from television, it didn’t much matter if you were watching Walter Cronkite on CBS, or Huntley & Brinkley on NBC, or whoever anchored the news on ABC before snooty smirking Peter Jennings got there. The differences among the networks were stylistic rather than political. When you and your neighbor chatted across the fence, or when you and your co-workers talked about national and world events at the water cooler, or when your family gathered for its annual cousins club barbecue, you shared a perception of what was going on out there. And that perception was a fairly accurate, reasonably comprehensive reflection of reality.
That’s no longer the case. If you’re watching Fox News, and he’s watching MSNBC while she’s reading The Washington Post, you all have completely different perceptions of what’s happening. You’re furious because Hillary Clinton destroyed 13 Blackberries the FBI wanted to see. He hasn’t heard anything about this, and all she knows is that the FBI has declined to indict Clinton, so what on Earth are you blathering on about?
Readers of The New York Times are worried by the lack of jobs in manufacturing; that’s why they’ll support candidates who promise to increase unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans. They haven’t a clue that American manufacturing companies are searching desperately for skilled workers such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders, machine tool operators and the like. It’s The Wall Street Journal’s readers who know this — which is why they tend to support candidates whose programs include tax breaks for technical training schools.
What only Ricochetti Know
Even those of us who share the same political outlook now are staring at different radar screens. Readers of American Thinker are justifiably outraged by Jack Cashill’s new revelations about what really happened to TWA 800, but readers of National Review Online are completely unaware of how the FBI screwed up that investigation. And readers of both these websites haven’t a clue that today, the world is emerging from poverty at a rate never before seen in history. It’s the readers of Ricochet who’ve been following this astounding development and folding it into their world views.
Today’s news organizations have abandoned the idea of serving as the people’s radar; of competing among themselves to provide the most accurate and comprehensive picture of what’s going on out there. Instead, each organization now works to promote its viewpoint; its perception of the environment through which we’re moving. The editors of each news organization focus on those issues and events that interest them, rather than on those issues and events their readers need to know about. So even when the news organization’s viewpoint is reasonable, what’s presented isn’t an accurate reflection of what’s going on out there because — like a radar that isn’t built to display mountains — the image it provides is incomplete.
The obvious solution would be for each citizen to regularly monitor a range of news sources, so that each of us can draw our own accurate and comprehensive picture of reality. And indeed, some of us do just this and, in effect, assemble our own radars. But most people don’t. They’re too busy with their work, their families, with all the other activities that comprise our daily lives. Like pilots in the cockpit of a jumbo jet, they’re just too busy to sift through three or four radar screens; they rely upon just one radar to tell them what they need to know.
And this is why it’s become so hard — so nearly impossible — to persuade anyone to change his or her mind about which candidates to support, or about which policies would serve us best. We’re just not seeing the same things out there, so the minimum political requirements for agreement, or even for compromise, are gone.
If this keeps up, we’ll have to change our national motto from e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) to ex uno plures (“from one, many”). Yikes.