Perhaps the most daunting challenge America faces today is that of healing the deep divide brought to the forefront of the 2016 election. Today, more than ever, Americans are combative and dismissive of those on the other side of the ideological spectrum. The political polarization we see today has seeped into almost all bouts of life, from where we live to where we eat. The right has begun smashing coffee machines after Keurig pulled its advertisements from the Hannity Show. Papa John’s has received an onslaught of boycotts and denouncements from the left after it was revealed that the CEO raised funds for a Trump PAC. The website grabyourwallet.org provides an exhaustive list of brands with various levels of affiliation with Trump and calls to boycott all of them. Among them are major corporations like IBM, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Amazon. If an individual from either political party wished to fully expunge companies that have any sort of affiliation with the other party, they should learn to sew their own clothes.
The boycotts, the name calling, and the endless debates all share a common space: the internet. Online forums and social media have allowed like-minded individuals to purge the other side from their sight. The rise of the Alt-Right, specifically, can largely be attributed to these online forums. For instance, The KKK used to send VHS tapes to potential members, which required the members to go onto the KKK website or call and physically order the tapes. This meticulous process called for much more commitment from potential members compared to today. Many new members of fringe organizations start slow now, visiting websites that can easily be justified to oneself, as the internet provides a certain veil where people can show their true colors without making it public.
The most egregious examples of polarization can be found on some of the most popular websites on the internet. Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit dominate online discussion in the US. These websites act as incubators for what has come to be known as echo chambers. An echo chamber is any forum that has been curated by the user to show exclusively reinforcing information, such as only following liberal or conservative pages on Facebook. These echo chambers are seldom created on purpose; rather, they are a product of various factors in American life and culture. Living in an overwhelmingly politically homogeneous area will likely result in most of a user’s friends to reside on the same side of the political spectrum, further endowing them into one side or another.
Through websites like Breitbart and the Daily Stormer, the internet has allowed white nationalists to congregate, recruit, and expand their influence far more easily than they were able to during the VHS days. It didn’t take long for fringe groups to recognize the power of the internet. In 1990, the white supremacist group known as Stormfront “spotted that networked computing would be a boon for their movement,”1 and by 1995, it had its own website and forum service. To put this into perspective, Google wasn’t even founded until 1998. Now Breitbart, a highly publicized far-right news network, has taken the status of such websites from outliers that may be ignored when talking about the average voter, to influential voices in extremist and nationalist movements that have the potential to swing elections.
This coming of age for Breitbart came when Steve Bannon, its former executive chairman, was appointed to campaign chief of the Trump Campaign. No matter how short Bannon’s tenure at the White House was (in addition to his brief time on the NSC), the fact that a founding member of a website that once proclaimed itself as the “platform for the alt-right” can be canonized in many ways legitimizes not only Breitbart and websites like it, but also the radical views perpetrated by them.
As the internet continues to allow hyper-specific communities to form and segregate, American society continues to segregate itself by party lines. The Pew Research Center, with its updated 25-year old study of the American public’s political values, found in 2012 that “the partisan gap in opinions on more than 40 separate political values had nearly doubled over the previous quarter century.” The left has moved further to the left, and the right further to the right, leaving little room for those in the middle. In the years since this study, this trend has only compounded on itself, and the past year alone has been a nightmare for everyone involved in protests. With lit tiki torches marching down the streets, Charleston showed us how easily ignitable protests are. And when a Dodge Challenger – fueled by visceral hate – came barreling down 4th St., Heather Heyer showed us.
The question that needs to be asked is how America has become this polarized. I affirm that the internet has played a vital role in this polarization, but it certainly did not act alone. It nested and cultivated the polarization, but it is not the underlying reason for it. That reason, or multitude of reasons for all we know, is a far larger undertaking that may not be immediately answered. Now is the time to lick our wounds and prepare ourselves for years to come.
Bartlett, Jamie. “From Hope to Hate: How the Early Internet Fed the Far Right.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/31/far-right-alt-right-white-supremacists-rise-online.