20 August 2015

The Internet is Making us Politically Smarter

I used to bemoan the fact that political coverage wasn't policy coverage. All the focus on personalities seemed to ignore the larger, more important question of how policies might actually change quality of life for real people.

Then it dawned on me: this political process we have actually does get us talking about policy. It seems at first blush to be about "Trump!" or "Hillary!" but the real meat of the discussion about these people is less about who they are than about what they would do. The candidate becomes a shorthand for the sort of policies they represent.

Mike Huckabee, for instance, came out as a national figure in the 2008 Republican primary, having been governor of Arkansas for the decade prior. He was folksy and seemed affable. I kind of liked him. Now this year, he clarifies that if he had his way, a 10 year rape victim would be forced to give birth to her rapist's baby. (Paraguay actually did just this. Huckabee thinks that is good policy.) It doesn't matter that Huckabee seems likable. He has become the face of an extremist position on abortion. This is not a personality issue. This is a policy issue.

The internet has seemed to divide labor in an interesting way. Traditional media gives us people. The internet gives us arguments.

The media tells a story about a person: "Trump says that 14th amendment is wrong. It's not enough to just grant citizenship to anyone who is born here." The media tries to pin him down on this but Donald being Donald largely refuses to elaborate, usually just reiterating what he said before. (And Donald isn't particularly unique on this. No candidate seems to stray far from talking points during interviews. And really, you can hardly blame them. One simple mis-statement that characterizes most interesting conversations can be enough to define them.)

Then Facebook and blogs and tweets become the forum for actually digging deeper into the policy that makes some people love Donald and some people hate him. People end up substantiating their seemingly visceral reactions to a person with arguments about their policy. "Putting aside feelings, it would be nearly impossible and incredibly expensive to find and deport millions of illegal aliens." "Oh yeah. Well why do we make things worse by letting illegal aliens sneak over our border to give birth to children who are automatically given citizenship?"

People's initial reaction might seem like a knee jerk reaction to a particular personality, but knowing that they could be challenged they often go do homework. They look up a claim at Politfact. They read a piece from one of their thought-leaders. They learn arguments from their favorite talk-show hosts. What starts out as a claim about a person often gets substantiated with arguments about their policy.

It may well be that we all just become more entrenched in our beliefs but it also seems that even that comes with more knowledge. Our cousin's husband will call us out on a false claim. Our old frat friend will throw facts at us that ... well, really do challenge our position. Even the most tightly managed social group includes people who think differently from us and those people have access to all kinds of facts and arguments that we might need to refute. This forces us to become smarter.

Steven Johnson argues in Everything Bad is Good for You that even TV plots are becoming more complicated, requiring more brainpower. So many different things - from video games to the vast array of choices that we face at the grocery store - are making us smarter. The same test results that would give you a score of 100 on an IQ test in 1950, would give you a score of 85 today. The difference between 100 and 85 is not the difference between an A and a B. It is the difference between scoring higher than 50% of the population or scoring higher than just 15%.  It makes sense that political arguments could contribute at least as much as game shows to our growing intelligence. And that can't help but bode well for future policy.

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