Polarization keeps voters from getting informed

By Ryan Johnson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, October 18, 2004

In front of thousands of Democrats that had gathered to watch the final presidential debate together at Tempe Beach Park, Mark Manoil, a relatively unknown candidate for the Arizona Corporation Commission, took the stage.

Manoil was clearly qualified and knowledgeable about this complex office, but he came out talking about specific aspects of utilities regulation. About his ideas and policies. His applause was limited.

Then after him, Nina Trasoff, who is also running for the five-person commission, walks up with a bright sign with her name on it held high. Her speech mentions almost nothing about the office. Instead, she says there's five Republicans in there now, implying that that in itself is bad. She slings mud at one of the Republicans, says her name and walks off the stage to loud cheers.

Call it crude, call it unintellectual, but definitely call it in tune with those at the rally. Trasoff understood that politically passionate people don't want to hear new ideas or brilliant minds. They want self-validation that they are correct and that the other side is wrong. Nothing more.

And if Trasoff had it right, the Foo Fighters were the masters. After a three song set right before the debate, Dave Grohl said nothing more than, "We're going to play one more song, and then you guys can watch Bush get his ass whooped." Thunderous applause.

And don't say it's just a problem with the D's.

Dave Hardy's speech. Michael Moore's speech. Midnight Madness.

Over the past two weeks I've had the opportunity to attend all of the above. Not as a reporter, but as an observer, as part of the crowd. An observer of the crowd, if you will.

One pattern dominated.

Polarization is the law of the land nowadays. And because people respond better to it, it generates a positive feedback loop that guarantees that it will only continue and even get worse.

And what does Midnight Madness have to do with Michael Moore? A full arena waited to see Michael Moore unintelligently bash Republicans, and the only ones that left were the aforementioned Republicans.

At Midnight Madness, the crowd of nearly 10,000 waited all night to see the men's basketball team, but when the team finally split in two to scrimmage itself, droves upon droves got up and left.

Why would people pay hundreds for eBayed season tickets but walk out of a free scrimmage? Simple. People aren't there to see good basketball. They're there to see the UA dominate opponents. UA vs. UA? Unappealing.

Personally, I'd take the artistic victory over Gonzaga in the 2003 tourney over a blowout against Stanford any day. And I'd take "Bowling for Columbine" over hearing Moore speak.

The press likes to say that young people are apathetic. That we don't care. I would say there's a significant population that is uninformed, but there's also a barrier to being informed that this polarization creates.

What is an uninformed voter going to learn from David Hardy calling Moore narcissistic and egomaniacal? Or from Moore saying that Republicans don't represent the majority anymore?

And most spin is so obvious that even concrete facts can't be taken for granted.

People that watch the TV ads, the speeches or even the debates aren't going to hear much actual analysis of the issues. They're going to hear accusations, meaningless terms like "flip-flopper" and endless spin.

How can college voters get informed when the politicians seem to be preventing it?

Read newspaper articles. Read newsweeklies. Read an array of professional columnists. Read The Economist. But don't listen to Sean Hannity and Al Franken. Ignore those who make statements such as, "Bush has ruined our country" or "Kerry winning would be a victory for the terrorists."

What's ironic is that this country is actually in so much more agreement than political battles make it seem. As Alan Wolfe, author of "One Nation, After All," put, "When one of society's deepest divisions is over stem cells, that society is pretty unified."

But politicians continue dividing people, and people cheer for it. John Kerry would have gotten no better response Wednesday at the rally than if he crowd-surfed to the stage, yelled, "Did we show how stupid George Bush is or what?" and left.

But voters deserve more. The question is, do they want it?

Ryan Johnson is an international studies and economics junior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.