When President Barack Obama entered the national stage, he did so by downplaying the differences among various groups of Americans. More than a decade later, Obama has bemoaned the fact tribalism is so entrenched that it threatens our democracy — and he believes media is one of the main culprits.
At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama called out pundits who built ratings by sowing division and told them their depiction of the United States was an inaccurate one.
“I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America," Obama said then. "There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
Those lines were generally well-received and became perhaps the most quoted of the iconic speech. But they did not ring completely true to many people. Identity politics had long been alive and well, and the America people experienced was very much shaped by the identities they possessed.
And that has since become increasingly obvious, in part due to partisan news outlets. Obama, who has frequently criticized Fox News — a network whose hosts still frequently lob jabs at him nearly two years after he left the White House — described media-fueled tribalism at the 25th anniversary gala celebration for Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy earlier this week.
“Whether it was (Walter) Cronkite or (David) Brinkley or what have you, there was a common set of facts, a baseline around which both parties had to adapt and respond to," Obama said. "And by the time I take office, what you increasingly have is a media environment in which if you are a Fox News viewer, you have an entirely different reality than if you are a New York Times reader.”
This continues to be the case and is often evident when Americans who only consume one type of news share their views about an issue with reporters at a campaign event or in the comment sections in response to articles.
Data supports this. According to the Pew Research Center, which has tracked 10 political values for nearly 25 years, the partisan divide is at its highest point in recent history.
Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew Research Center, previously analyzed various issues of interest to those on the right and the left including race, global affairs, sexuality, economics and government intervention. Doherty concluded, “There is now an average 36-percentage-point gap between Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and Democrats and Democratic leaners. In 1994, it was only 15 points. The partisan gap is much larger than the differences between the opinions of blacks and whites, men and women and other groups in society.”
These different perceptions are certainly in large part shaped by the conflicting narratives told in the media people consume.
Obama, who frequently criticized the media (and not just the partisan outlets) while president, seems aware that major outlets are not likely to change the business models they depend on for profit. But he appears to believe that concerned Americans can change their behavior and engage news differently by rejecting propaganda and seeking to learn about people not like themselves.
His call isn’t necessarily that people begin to vote differently as much as it is that Americans better understand why different people vote the way that they do. But there is science that suggests doing so could be less effective than some think.
An experiment conducted by the leaders of the Duke University Polarization Lab sought to expose Republicans and Democrats to social media posts from elected officials, think tanks and influential leaders from the opposing side. The results weren’t changed minds but the opposite. Those on the right viewing the Democratic feeds became much more conservative, while those on the left exposed to conservative posts reported slightly more left-leaning perspectives.
“If you expose someone to an opposing view, their first instinct is to counter-argue it," sociologist Christopher Bail told The Washington Post’s Carolyn Johnson earlier this year. "And by virtue of counter-arguing and coming up with lots of reasons they might disagree with it, they’re left with more reasons to disagree than they had to begin with.”
The media climate has changed significantly in the past decade or so, with outlets once viewed as extreme now playing important roles in elevating candidates to office. It’s not clear whether the American electorate is a mirror of the media it consumes, or vice versa.
Obama and what he represented to some people likely played a role in that shift. The America that the former president observed before he entered the White House was quite different from the one that existed by the time he exited. So while the country may not have been as unified as his speech suggested, it is likely that he saw things so differently before he was president because things actually were different in terms of the media’s role in stoking division.
In a newly divided Congress, some incoming lawmakers who have shared a desire for more civility, collaboration and less division now have the opportunity to display the type of unity the former president desires from this country’s citizens. At any rate, the fact that the divisions are now impossible to ignore, even for the former president known for his formerly aspirational rhetoric, seems like a step toward recognizing the problems that need fixing.