Here’s Prof. David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy describing politics through an analogy to sports (the easiest way to explain anything to me):
I then said something like – “but it does seem like the overall level of defense is improving all over – I see so many great plays these days . . .” before I recognized how stupid a comment that was. Of course I was seeing more great defensive plays than I had 10 or 20 years before – because 10 or 20 years before there had been no Sportscenter (or equivalent). In 1992 (or whenever exactly this was), I could turn on the TV and catch 20 or 30 minutes of great highlights every night, including 5 or 6 truly spectacular defensive plays; in 1980, or 1960, to see 5 or 6 truly spectacular defensive plays, you had to watch 20 or 25 hours of baseball, minimum. [That’s what ESPN was doing, in effect – watching 10 or 12 games simultaneously and pulling out the highlights]. It was just my mind playing a trick on me; I had unconsciously made a very simple mistake. The way in which I was perceiving the world of baseball had, with Sportscenter, changed fundamentally, but I hadn’t taken that into account. Without thinking about it, I had plugged into a simple formula: Old Days: 5 spectacular plays in 25 hours of baseball watching. New Days: 5 spectacular plays in ½ hour of baseball watching. And I had reached the obvious (and obviously wrong, on reflection) conclusion that the rate of spectacular playmaking had gone up.
I call it the ESPN Effect – mistaking filtered reality for reality. We do it a lot. All I hear from my left-leaning friends these days is how crazy people on the right are becoming, and all all I hear from my right-leaning friends is how crazy people on the left are becoming, and everyone, on both sides, seems very eager to provide evidence of the utter lunacy of those on the other side. “Look how crazy they’re becoming over there, on the other side!” is becoming something of a dominant trope, on left and right. It is true that we’re seeing more crazy people doing crazy things on the other side (whichever side that may be, for you) coming across our eyeballs these days. But that’s all filtered reality; it bears no more relationship to reality than the Sportscenter highlights bear to the game of baseball. My very, very strong suspicion is that there has never been a time when there weren’t truly crazy people on all sides of the political spectrum doing their truly crazy things. Maybe 1% or so, or even 0.1% — which is a very large number, when you’re talking about a population of, say, 100 million. They didn’t get through the filters much in the Old Days, but they do now. All this talk about how extreme “the debate” is becoming – how, exactly, does anyone get a bead on what “the debate” really is? In reality?
The only thing I would add is that the media consumption choices we make can have a dramatic effect on how we perceive the world. To extend the metaphor, we decide whether to turn on ESPN or to just watch reels of bloopers on YouTube (look at how uncoordinated professional athletes really are!). The news marketplace is getting more and more splintered, and so it’s becoming easier and easier to focus on the 1% or .1%, if we so choose.
This was made rather clear to me the other day when I came across a post in which the author seemed to genuinely believe that mainstream conservatism was on the verge of advocating a military coup. I would personally put the likelihood of such an event at roughly .0001%, and that’s being generous. It’s in the same league as the nutty suggestions that Obama (and Bush before him) plans to cancel the next elections. But the author was insufficiently familiar with conservatism (and had presumably been reading only left wing blogs) that he thought this was something Catholics should be concerned about. On a similar note, part of what motivates my dislike for Glenn Beck and talk radio/cable tv in general is that people get a very distorted view of the political process from those types of sources. Most people recognize they are just entertainment, of course, but I do worry that it makes it harder for people from different perspectives to engage in rational debate.