Martin: Public opinion: National drift toward extremes

Martin: Public opinion: National drift toward extremes

January 8th, 2014 by David Martin in Opinion Columns

I subscribe to a ton of magazines.

A few years ago, the number of subscriptions delivered to my home teetered on the verge of hoarder status. But I'm better now. Really. After a serious purge, I now subscribe only to a reasonable quantity of periodicals -- an amount that I can actually read fully and whose content I can realistically absorb before another edition hits my mailbox.

No, they're not all politically focused, but the publications that I do get from that genre run the gamut. To balance out the liberal flavor of my Harper's reading, I look to The Weekly Standard, and to offset my subscription to The Atlantic, I'll flip though a conservative favorite, The National Review.

Until lately, periodicals seemed to be the last stronghold of civility in political treatments.

Boy, has that changed.

I didn't get past the second page of a magazine the other day before the GOP had been compared to segregationists and white supremacists, and tea party gatherings labeled the "stupidest manifestations" of racial anxiety. This coming from an historically reputable publication.

Writers have strong opinions just like everyone else. But in the past, the most respectable penmen could find creative ways to make a point without resorting to cheap jabs. Now that writing manners are apparently a thing of the past, it's nearly impossible take refuge from extremist racket anywhere.

While pondering this sad state of affairs, I recently stumbled upon a Duke University study that links ideological extremism to a concept called "belief superiority." The authors of the piece wrote that they had "been struck in recent years by how many pundits, politicians, and even commenters on online news articles seem so confident that their own views were better than everyone else's."

To quantify this growing American trend, the researchers measured the attitudes of more than 500 people on nine contentious political issues. The investigation showed that people with more extreme political views tend to score very high on the belief superiority index -- meaning they believe their positions are more correct than anyone else's.

And it's very important to note that belief superiority is not a conservative or liberal phenomenon, as it exists in strong degrees on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

To connect belief superiority to the current dysfunction of American politics, the Duke study was layered on top of a recent piece of research done at the University of Georgia, which revealed that the chasm between liberal and conservative views in Washington is the widest it has ever been and that the number of moderates -- consensus builders -- in Congress is at its lowest point in nearly a century. While the middle class is shrinking, the middle road has been completely washed out.

With this study, it is so easy to see why our elected officials prefer stalemates and shutdowns over conversation and compromise. The drift of American politics toward the extremes is being fueled by a faulty belief that anyone who doesn't think exactly like you is an idiot -- a dangerous "my way, or the highway" mentality.

Belief supremacists live in a black- and-white world. There are no shades of gray, no middle ground, and no compromises.

The authors of the study say that more researchers are at work to detail the effects of belief superiority on other facets of society, from religion to sports. Their findings should make for some interesting reading. And I'll need all the good reads I can get since I'm thinking about canceling a few magazine subscriptions.

David Martin is an adjunct professor of history at UTC.