Apr 9, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: America's reality distortion machine

Illustration of a close up of the Statue of Liberty's face with the bottom half melting off into stretched pixels falling off screen.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Here's a wild thought experiment: What if we've been deceived into thinking we're more divided, more dysfunctional and more defeated than we actually are?

Why it matters: Well, there's compelling evidence we've been trapped in a reality distortion bubble — social media, cable TV and tribal political wars — long enough to warp our view of the reality around us.

The big picture: Yes, deep divisions exist on some topics. But on almost every topic of monthly outrage, it's a fringe view — or example — amplified by the loudest voices on social media and politicians driving it.

  • No, most Christians aren't white Christian nationalists who see Donald Trump as a God-like figure. Most are ignoring politics and wrestling with their faith.
  • No, most college professors aren't trying to silence conservatives or turn kids into liberal activists. Most are teaching math, or physics, or biology.
  • No, most kids don't hate Israel and run around chanting, "From the river to the sea." On most campuses, most of the time, students are doing what students have always done.
  • No, most Republicans don't want to ban all abortions starting at conception. No, most Democrats don't want to allow them until birth.
  • No, immigrants who are here illegally aren't rushing to vote and commit crimes. Actual data show both rarely happen — even amid a genuine crisis at the border.
  • No, most people aren't fighting on X. Turns out, the vast majority of Americans never tweet at all.
  • No, most people aren't cheering insults on Fox News and MSNBC in the evening. Turns out, less than 2 percent of Americans are even watching.

Reality check: But our politics are hopelessly divided, Jim and Mike! You're naive!

  • Yes, current politics, and particularly the House, seem hopelessly dysfunctional. But this flows in part from majorities so narrow that fringe figures can hijack institutions, again particularly the House, and render them dysfunctional.
  • The actual dysfunction runs much deeper for structural reasons, such as redistricting, low voter turnout in off-year elections and geographic sorting (Democrats in cities, Republicans in rural areas).

What has changed is political activism invading everything, from football to beer to Target. Here, too, most normal people just drink, watch football, and shop —without giving a damn about the politics of it all.

  • This fringe nonsense plays out in the social media bubble before oozing into our lives.
Share of U.S. adults who say the following rights and freedoms are important to the country's identity
Data: AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (Margin of error: ±3.8 points.) Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

This new poll by the AP and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows a striking amount of agreement on some very big topics. Roughly 90% or more of Americans — Republicans and Democrats — agree the following rights and freedoms are extremely or very important to a functioning America:

  • Right to vote.
  • Right to equal protection under the law.
  • Right to freedom of religion.
  • Right to freedom of speech.
  • Right to privacy.

Hell, almost 80% think the right to own a gun is important to protect.

  • "If you get a bunch of normal people at random and put them in a room together and chat about issues, there's a lot more convergence than you might imagine," Michael Albertus, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told AP.

That's been our experience as we travel the country and dig deeper into how people are getting and sharing "news."

  • The "shards of glass" phenomenon we wrote about two weeks ago — we've shattered into information bubbles based on age, politics, professions and passions — is real. And it makes people fuzzy about what's really happening and what's really true inside and outside of their bubbles.

Between the lines: The acceptance of former President Trump's language and tactics by so many Republicans can be partly explained by this reality distortion phenomenon. His base often feasts off edge-case outrages — wacky liberal professors saying wacky things, illegal immigrants committing brutal but isolated crimes, surges in shootings in specific cities.

  • These edge cases rocket through podcasts, social media and on Fox. It seems like the apocalypse — when, in most cases, the numbers show that in reality, things are next to normal.
  • Similar edge cases pulse through liberal channels and the word police. This helps explain how "LatinX" went mainstream, then got dumped.

Truth is, there's little market in the modern media environment for calm analysis of genuine holy-crap developments such as the explosion of green energy progress in red states, or once-in-a-generation job market and rising wages among minorities that started under Trump and has been largely sustained under President Biden.

  • There's little talk on left or right about the entrepreneurial dynamism still unfolding in America (look at America's early AI edge), or fading poverty, or bipartisan consensus on handling a rising China.
  • And even with all of Washington's dysfunction, there have been big bipartisan victories we didn't pay enough attention to

Even those of us in the media, who are paid to marinate in news and trends and reporting, find it hard to determine if something that seems big on X or partisan media is moving the needle with more than a few loudmouths.

  • A big reason: X, Facebook and other platforms are powered by the people with the biggest followings — which almost always flows from being the most provocative, partisan or pugilistic. The algorithms amplify it. This can make small things or small divisions seem huge.

Here's a thought experiment to end on (Jim does this during speeches after testing it on his kids and friends):

  • In a given year, you meet scores or more people you spend enough time with to appraise their character. Think about them: How many do you think are decent, normal people who do volunteer work, help shovel after a storm, look out for family and neighbors?

The answer will help pop your reality distortion bubble.

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