Hi. I’m Dain (or “Mupetblast”) from Oakland, California. TGGP is kind enough to allow me to do my thing here from time to time, so I’m much obliged. I’ve blogged at the late The Art of the Possible as well as my original, personal site which goes by the name of “Dry Hyphen Olympics,” the title of my old radio show, circa 2000, on KDVS, the official station of the University of California at Davis.

I’m a fan of TGGP’s polymath approach to politics and economics, and his widely read, informed pronouncements. We are also mutual admirers of Jeffrey Friedman, a much under appreciated scholar and editor of the fantastic academic journal Critical Review. TGGP links to Friedman’s work in a post below. He even gets a shout out in the introduction to the newly republished The Myth of Natural Rights. Anyway…

Diana C. Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania has done some excellent work on the degree to which deliberation and participation in our modern representative democracy are working at cross purposes. The problem is that exposure to different viewpoints – deliberation – is negatively correlated with political participation, because people don’t often voluntarily pursue intellectually antagonistic relations. In other words, individuals associate with like-minded others. Duh. When people get involved in politics it’s to get that “fellow feeling” based upon a shared…hobby, quite frankly, albeit one with a sense of intrinsic worth that can rival that of a religion. 

Mutz’s rather bleak finding is that inducing deliberation can inadvertently strengthen partisanship, as the increase in potentially heated and uncomfortable political disagreement causes conflict-avoiding folks (most of us) to retreat to friendlier territory. However, there is a way to salvage the goal of exposure to different points of view in her opinion, and that is by way of non-political means; the incidental political discourse that appears in sports bars, county fairs, online chat rooms for fans of Lost, and other forums for people who share what sociologists call “weak ties” can indirectly serve the same function as deliberation. Workplaces, especially, have this effect. Somewhat vindicating the “civil society” crowd, which encompasses both libertarians and social democrats, it would appear that the interpersonal is the gateway to political tolerance – the micro to the macro. When you’ve already shared a hookah watching the final episode of Battlestar Galactica at your friend’s cousin’s house, what kind of monster would you be to rebuke said cousin after learning she is a member of the Save Darfur Coalition? (As a libertarian with an Old Right disposition toward world affairs living in the bay area, the above hypothetical rings familiar.)

Of course, to imagine that the kind of discussion that would go on in the local tavern could approach anything close to the level of analysis shared by professional policy wonks and political philosophers is wishful thinking, but Mutz only wishes to spare representative democracy an unproductive and malicious partisanship that prevents both principals and agents from getting on with goodly and peaceful governing. In this sense she’s perfectly institutionally conservative. This comes through in her approach to the mainstream news media (MNM). 

In this paper, Mutz argues that the MNM is the best impersonal source of exposure to cross-cutting political viewpoints for ideologues of all stripes, hunkered down as they are in their echo chambers. Regretfully she seems to take at face value the idea that the MNM is a kind of clearinghouse for political perspectives that sheds ideology in favor of open-minded, “real” deliberation. But I see little evidence of that, or at least not enough to quell the charge that the MNM is an outlet for the ideology of “centrism,” “pragmatism,” or other such supposedly non-ideological viewpoints, which when looked at closely reveal a typically Herbert Crolyesque…ideology. Though I think Mutz’s assertion that the MNM is the go-to source for conflicting viewpoints is correct, unfortunately all that reveals is the ubiquity of the 24/7 television news channels, not their inherently deliberative “roundtable” approach.

Even assuming away the problem of thinly veiled ideology in the MNM, the ideal of an objective media encounters problems in practice, not the least of which is the selective “balancing” of reporting where it isn’t warranted and a consensus view where one doesn’t exist. One of Kevin Carson’s posts at TAOTP discusses the superiority of an “adversarial process” in truth acquisition reminiscent of Popper, difficult though it may be in social “science” contra the natural. And in an article for Public Choice, Deva Woodly shrewdly dissects the claims of MNM impartiality by noting what is called the index effect, or the tendency of the MNM to take white house pronouncements (especially) as particularly salient and newsworthy, as well as the problem of journalistic mental schema that doesn’t easily congrue with the facts, whatever they may be. With the professionalization of journalism and the concomitant funneling of elite reporters through credentialed institutions, the problem of uniform thought processes becomes quite relevant, no?  

Given the plethora of ideologies, with Centrism being one of them (though it’s interesting how many different “centers” there are – the world’s centrist opinion on Israel’s actions recently are to the left of center to our own), the kind of cognitive dissonance one feels watching the MNM could be replicated when facing anyideology other than ones own. Mutz explicitly calls for a reduction in the public’s ability to selectively expose itself to media – i.e. to freely associate. Of course the problem then becomes deciding just what will be available for informational absorption.

Video with Diana Mutz here.

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