Durkheim’s Concepts in Political Debate:
According to Durkheim, a “minimum moral consensus” and a “minimum logical consensus” are necessary for a society to exist and cohere (16). The extreme polarization of U.S. politics has led to a situation in which two distinct and mutually incompatible moral and logical consensuses have formed. In a recent debate between Van Jones and Ann Coulter, Van Jones pointed out that while he and many other liberals agreed with the anti-free-trade stance taken by Coulter and other conservatives, he found the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the conservative viewpoint so morally anathema that he could not take advantage of the opportunity to find common ground. (3:31 below, or https://youtu.be/MRgQo4zFkag?t=3m31s) The fact that moral consensus has broken down to the point that liberals and conservatives cannot even have a non-oppositional conversation about – let alone work together on – issues about which they actually agree on many points suggests that the social experience of party membership has led to the construction of two distinct moral and logical worlds.
In the course of the debate, when Coulter denounces political correctness as suffocating and oppressive, Van Jones counters by arguing that in order to be part of a single society, individuals must compromise on a form of communication, giving up the ability to say certain things without social censure in order to be able to communicate and cohere as a group. (19:47 below or https://youtu.be/MRgQo4zFkag?t=19m47s) His point recalls Durkheim’s argument that participation in a social collective requires us to compromise against our natural inclinations: “So that we can fulfill our duties toward [society], our conditioning must ready us to overcome our instincts at times…” (321). The divisiveness of political correctness suggests that people are conditioned for coexistence with is the political party, not the country as a whole.
Logical Consensus and Fake News:
In addition to controversy over political correctness, communication across party lines is further hindered by competing definitions of “fake news.” In an Editorial following the election, the New York Times posited that, “Donald Trump understood at least one thing better than almost everybody watching the 2016 election: The breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard, but an opportunity.”
Let’s consider this. How might our new President have profited off a breakdown of logical or moral consensus, or what’s also been called a “post-factual election”? Aren’t successful coalitions formed through unifying rhetoric, rather than alienating, closed-off discourse?
Think back to another term heard frequently in the election: “fake news.” It was coined by the kinds of “conventional media outlets” like the New York Times and the Washington Post to describe voters’ increasing trust in unreliable, often factually inaccurate reporting, and the increasing polarity and hyperpartisan pitch of our political discourse.
As the New York Times explains it, “while some fake news is produced purposefully by teenagers in the Balkans or entrepreneurs in the United States seeking to make money from advertising, false information can also arise from misinformed social media posts by regular people that are seized on and spread through a hyperpartisan blogosphere.”
Yet no sooner had establishment news sources begun to say “fake news” than conservative commentators and political operatives flipped the term back on them to describe the very “mainstream media” sources they so distrust.
Asked about controversial and often unfounded pieces published by Breitbart News, an alternative organization run by Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign chairman, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway deflected, saying “the biggest piece of fake news in this election was that Donald Trump couldn’t win.”
President Trump himself called CNN “fake news,” a claim that sparked a chorus of dissent even conservative media like Fox News. Discussing the claim on MSNBC, host
Chris Hayes seemed incredulous. “They’ve all now appropriated this term, ‘fake news,’” he said. “It’s a sort of judo move where everything is now fake news.”
The use of the term “fake news” could be seen as a meta-example of the failure of political discourse in the last election; both parties see “fake news” as the other group serving their political agenda, to such an extent that they can’t even get on the same page long enough to talk about where their definitions of facts diverge. If two groups are doing the work of world-making, of creating a shared system of language and ground rules, entirely separately, the total clash of those worlds, brought together on one national stage, seems inevitable.
The failure to communicate makes more sense when viewed through a Durkheimian lens. “To live, [society] requires not only a minimum moral consensus but also a minimum logical consensus,” Durkheim tells us (16). If logical consensus comes out of the social experience of group membership, the breakdown of shared language and “facts” in political discourse must reflect some heightened participation in polarized or isolated groups, or to use the current buzzword, the proliferation of “ideological echo-chambers.”
Two Political Worlds Determine Individual Belief:
A Pew Research Center study on the increasing political polarity of the past decade links increasing ideological division to an uptick in people’s preference for their community to share their beliefs. The more conservative you are, the more you want your friends to be conservative. This helps to explain why fake news stories circulate so quickly and their claims go unchallenged, especially in social media circles.
According to Durkheim, the practice of world making shouldn’t automatically lead to polarity, but rather towards cohesion. He uses effusive language to describe the process of world-making, writing “The individual gets the best part of himself from society––all that gives him a distinctive character and place among other beings, his intellectual and moral culture” (351). The issue here is that there are two separate processes of world making happening simultaneously between the two political parties, rather than one collaborative process as a country, and as such, there are two separate intellectual and moral cultures being created. To Durkheim, the collective one is a part of entirely determines one’s ideology and worldview.
In the U.S., not only are these two processes of world-making are happening separately, but also once individuals establish their “intellectual and moral culture[s]”, they have very few chances to interact with those who don’t share that understanding. As the Pew study illustrates, someone’s social circle (or social media circle) is determined by shared beliefs, and so they rarely have the opportunity to engage in the process of world-making, and therefore, determination, with people outside of their circle.
A map of 2016 election results by county reveals a similar sentiment: communities that differ in beliefs are not only ideologically isolated, but geographically isolated, and therefore have fewer chances to try and work towards shared understanding, whether intellectual or moral. As such, with very little exposure to opposing viewpoints, the individual’s worldview is entirely determined, and when she does have the chance to interact with someone from a different circle the two have trouble even agreeing on definitions, much less political solutions to problems. These two worldviews are determined entirely separately, and not through the individual, and because the individual is so entrenched in her circle she has very little chance of ever escaping said determination. Durkheim wrote that it is necessary that the individual’s worldview be determined by her collective, but he provided no guidance on what to do when two separately determined worldviews share a political system.