Apr 10, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: "Polarization is a choice, not a destiny"

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

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel called to tell us a simple truth he discovered in 2019 during an epic bike ride around Lake Michigan (four states, 13 days, 984 miles):

  • "The worse the cellphone coverage is, the nicer people are. It's just that simple," said Emanuel — former Chicago mayor, Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff. "If it's spotty, people are actually decent."

Why it matters: Emanuel was part of a flood of reaction to Tuesday's "Behind the Curtain" column on America's reality distortion machine. On almost every topic of outrage, the column points out, fringe views and edge cases are being shamelessly amplified by social media and politicians.

Rarely do we hear from across the political spectrum, in real time, that an article has resonated so deeply — and made a point everyone should reckon with.

  • "Polarization is a choice, not a destiny," Steven Law, a longtime GOP insider who runs the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, told us after tweeting his agreement with the column.
  • "It's amplified by what the media chooses to highlight and what it finds uninteresting. For the rest of us, it's fed by choosing to stick with our tribe instead of being open to other people and perspectives, even if they make us uncomfortable."

A longtime Democrat agrees. Kalee Kreider — a former aide to Al Gore who's now president of the Ridgely|Walsh advisory firm, and lives on a farm outside Nashville — says America isn't as divided as we think.

  • "I am a member of one of the oldest churches in Tennessee, Bethlehem Church of Christ, and my community is called Tuckers Crossroads," she told us. "I dearly love my neighbors. And while I feel sure that most of the people who live near me are Republicans, we honestly just don't talk about it much."
  • "We are too busy farming, canning, talking about our families or just living life," she added. "The biggest bone of contention among farmers is usually whether they got four-tenths or a half-inch of rain. The joke is that whoever got more in the rain gauge probably put a little more money in the collection plate on Sunday."

Discussing the column on "Morning Joe," Jim said that if you're living on X or TikTok, "people who have the loudest voices, who often say the most provocative things, tend to dominate that conversation. And it leaves you thinking: 'Wait, does everyone think this? Does everyone feel this? Is everyone so worked up that they're maybe about to conduct a civil war to defend their party versus the other?'"

  • "And you realize: No! Most people actually have a life. Most people aren't making politics of the beer you drink or the store that you shop at."
  • "Have there always been fringe people who think nutty things? Absolutely. But what's different is there's just a new way to amplify that through social media ... on cable, and certainly through these tribal battles that we see at the base of the two parties."

Willie Geist said during the "Joe" conversation that he calls this under-covered majority "normies."

  • The New Yorker's Evan Osnos, who interviewed President Biden in the Oval Office in January, told us: "We have way more in common than the fringe on either side would suggest. One other person who believes this: Joe Biden."

The bottom line: We'll end where we ended Monday's column — with a thought experiment.

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

Most of 'em, right? That, friends, is normal America ... the real America.

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