A popular theory has it that the Internet is contributing to political polarization by providing innumerable blogs, news aggregators and other websites that enable users to filter reality to fit their ideological preconceptions. Whether that’s really true is still open to question, but I recently noticed some anecdotal evidence in the form of a couple of web essays that tends to confirm it. The first was a piece written for the Telegraph by Janet Daley, who (for a European at least) showed a remarkable grasp of the reasons for the popular unease that fuels the Tea Party movement and disenchantment with Barack Obama and Big Government. For example, quoting Daley,
The president’s determination to transform the US into a social democracy, complete with a centrally run healthcare programme and a redistributive tax system, has collided rather magnificently with America’s history as a nation of displaced people who were prepared to risk their futures on a bid to be free from the power of the state.
Americans who have risen from poverty to become qualified tradesmen or entrepreneurs generally believe that they have a right to put what wealth they produce back into their own businesses, rather than trusting governments to spread it around among those judged to be deserving.
What is more startling is the growth in America of precisely the sort of political alignment which we have known for many years in Britain: an electoral alliance of the educated, self-consciously (or self-deceivingly, depending on your point of view) “enlightened” class with the poor and deprived.
A little later I ran across the second piece, which seemed almost purposely written to confirm Daley’s take on contemporary America. Written, appropriately enough, for CNN (you remember, the news organization Germany’s Spiegel Magazine recently described as “non-partisan“) by Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton and a quintessential member of the elite Daley was writing about, it was entitled, “Why Obama’s poll numbers have sunk.” Zelizer’s take:
How should we understand the fate of a president and a party who have been relatively successful at passing their agenda, yet don’t seem to be enjoying an electoral bounce?
With the unemployment rate over 9 percent, many Americans are unhappy and scared. But there is more to it than that.
The first factor has to do with President Obama’s decision to focus on controversial issues that he felt were important to the nation, even if they were not the most beneficial issues for his party. In other words, Obama selected issues such as health care and financial regulation that were sure to stimulate conservative opposition and cause concern among moderates.
At the same time, the president is a pragmatic politician who has been willing to cut deals to survive a notoriously difficult legislative process. In making those compromises, he has often angered many of his supporters on the left.
…citizens are deeply cynical. Given the large donations that private interest groups make to candidates, including the health care industry and Wall Street executives, it is naturally hard to believe that Washington would ever really pass government reform.
And so on. In other words, the factors that Englishwoman Daley has apparently had no difficulty understanding have gone completely over the Princeton professor’s head. He can come up with all kinds of good sounding reasons for Obama’s drop in the polls, but the one reason that is energizing the Tea Party movement and is ubiquitous above all others on every conservative and libertarian blog, not to mention talk radio and Foxnews, namely, unease at the cancerous growth of the nanny state and the intrusion of state power in the lives of average citizens, has gone completely over his head. It’s as if the citizens of the United States could not possibly fear the growth of big government itself. In the good professor’s alternate universe, the possibility that any of them might object to the prospect of serving as dutiful milk cows, exploited by the state to support programs that benefit other people, whether that prospect is real or not, could not possibly even occur to them. Based on his article, the thought has never even entered his mind. Mind you, we’re not discussing whether the real motivations of Obama’s opposition are real or imaginary, rational or the product of some strange hysteria whipped up by Rush Limbaugh. We’re talking about the very existence of that concern.
If members of the elites Ms. Daley refers to have not merely discounted popular unease at the growth of big government as a problem in itself, but have so insulated themselves from reality that they honestly believe that unease doesn’t even bear mention as a reason for Obama’s drop in the polls, to say they are out of touch is an understatement. A large and growing number of the citizens in this country fear their future role will be as tax slaves to an alien state power that will milk them to support programs whose chances of ever providing them with benefits in any way commensurate with the resources they will be forced to hand over are vanishingly small. The question about whether they are right or wrong in that surmise is not the point. The point is that elites who pride themselves on their infallibility actually seem unaware that such concerns even exist. The “best and the brightest” among us are, once again, suffering a remarkable disconnect with reality. It wouldn’t be the first time.