Good morning, friends. I spent 20 minutes trying to write a "trust the process" joke about the Senate healthcare bill for this newsletter, and I'm not sure I can ever show my face at a Sixers game again.
— Aubrey Whelan
The future of American political discourse, the immutability of observable facts, the tenuous bonds of civility that hold this weird old country together. (We always start this section out on such a sunny note, don't we?) But the horrendous shooting that wounded Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and three others last week — and the way we talked about it — is a case study in the political polarization that's been building here for decades.
This is Twitter and this is 2017, so within minutes after news of the shooting broke, the framing was pretty much set: The right blamed heightened rhetoric on the left — that Kathy Griffin photo, and the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar with a Caesar resembling President Trump. The left blamed lax gun laws (and pointed out that Trump is no stranger to heightened rhetoric himself — remember "Second Amendment people?")
Partisan interpretations of a major breaking news event aren't exactly new. But within those interpretations, basic facts are increasingly up for debate. And people such as Norristown's Jack Posobiec are at the center of that debate.
I wrote this week about Posobiec and the way he helped shape the narrative of the Scalise shooting spun out on the far right. A Twitter personality with more than 100,000 followers, he rose to prominence during the campaign, and his interpretations of the aforementioned basic facts — quotes, even — tend to go pretty far afield, to the point where he's been called out by both the Daily Caller, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, and the New York Times.
To Posobiec, these are just his takes on the news of the day. To observers of right-wing media, they're brazen falsehoods fueling intense polarization. And while there's some debate over whether the Internet caused this, researchers have found that hatred for the other side has skyrocketed over the last five decades —- even as most Americans' politics remain pretty centrist. Political affiliations, in other words, are becoming central parts of our identities — and the kind of news we consume, the narratives we settle on, reflects that.
"I think a lot of what we're seeing is just tribalism — doing whatever you can to make your team look better and make the other team look worse. There's a process called motivated reasoning, where people reject information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs or identities," Yphtach Lelkes, a political science professor at UPenn, told me last week. "You can't get on the same page, because you reject the information."