The sirens are pretty hard to ignore.
Forest fires raged across the western United States and Canada, spreading smoke so far that the sun turned red and burned people’s eyes and throats as far as New York. One of the fires is so big that it creates its own weather. The West has suffered its fourth heat wave in less than two months. Coronavirus cases are rising again nationwide, mostly among unvaccinated people, and states like Florida and Missouri are experiencing devastating and fatal surges.
But despite the raging crises, the corridors of the American government seem as deadlocked as ever – partly because of the intensity of polarization among Americans, and partly because Republican Congressmen have even rejected some measures that polls show that bipartisan voter majorities support like stricter limits for power plant and vehicle emissions.
Major action against climate change is only conceivable through action by President Biden’s executive branch and a bipartisan balancing act, as Coral Davenport, a climate reporter for the Times told me this month, and even such actions may not be ambitious enough to meet the climate goals of the country.
Millions of Republicans still oppose receiving coronavirus vaccines and condemn the Biden government’s vaccination spurt. They even did so when lively reports from medical workers in the hardest hit states make it clear just how awful the delta variant of unvaccinated people is.
The problem is that in a polarized era, “the political elites have every incentive to politicize these things early on, and so politics-minded people are picking up on the framework that elected officials and the media use,” said Jaime E. Settle, Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Laboratory for Social Networking and Political Psychology at the College of William & Mary.
Even catastrophic and highly visible events like the forest fires and heat waves don’t necessarily move the needle because “what happens is that people are interpreting these events out of the way they started,” Settle said. So if a person starts not to believe the mainstream science of man-made climate change, they will likely look at the recent evidence of climate change and say, ‘Well, that’s not evidence,’ or ‘It’s evidence, but people are it’s not to blame. ‘”
Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale who studies political polarization and political violence, said the environment today is reminiscent of earlier periods of extreme division, including the 1790s, 1850s, and 1960s.
“What these periods have in common is when things are so polarized, there is a lack of trust in just about everything – a lack of trust in information, a lack of trust in each other, a lack of trust in national institutions and their ability to handle things, ”said Freeman. “Although these things are happening right in front of our eyes, so many people distrust the information they are given. You cannot avoid this fundamental mistrust in order to get at facts or even at things of the utmost urgency. “
She added, “If you don’t trust lawmakers and the press, and you don’t trust people in positions of authority outside of the little sphere in which they operate, how on earth can you draw people? together to tackle something bigger? “
As my colleague Alex Burns wrote this month, seismic events that almost certainly would have changed American politics in earlier eras simply no longer make a dent. We could soon find out “whether the American electorate is still capable of major shifts in opinion.”
As for the ability to change a person’s views – or the acceptance of facts – through face-to-face conversations, Settle said the challenge is to base our arguments on what would change our minds rather than what they would other would change. And we don’t even have good forums to have these conversations with.
“There is a small but growing amount of research on how you can set up online interactions to improve them,” she said, “but the kind of organic options we currently have on social media and comment threads, are just a disaster. ”
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