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Are Politicians More Dangerous to American Democracy than ISIS or Al Qaeda?

America can learn a lot from tribal dynamics. Sebastian Junger says if we wish to be united, we can start by looking at US platoons serving overseas.

Sebastian Junger:  I think everything we do is a form of tribalism. We’re evolved for that. We’re wired for that. The question is how big do we want our tribe to be? England seems to be saying we want our tribe and at our choice. All right so that’s a point of view I understand. So it’s a legitimate point of view. Equally legitimate is the opposite point of view where there should be a broader pan European tribe as it were to protect itself and reinforce itself in a dangerous world. That’s also tribalism. It’s just a matter of how big you draw the tribe. At its essence, at its core every individual has to decide whether they’re an individual or are they part of a larger group. Are they part of their neighborhood and are they part of their community. Or do they just exist to serve themselves. What England is facing is something that every single human being in the world faces at some level in their lives about their own personal interests versus the interests of their group.

Personally I think that democracy is a messy experiment and there’s a lot of discourse, a lot of conflict, a lot of argument, a lot of debate and a lot of dislike. I mean we’re not required to like each other. I think about the platoon that I was with in combat, the most stressful environment conceivable. There was a log of dislike within the platoon. There were guys who didn’t like each other at all. But the one thing they never did was speak with contempt about one another. They argued, they fought, they disagreed but they respected each other. And you don’t disrespect someone inside the wire as it were. What’s disturbing right now in this country is that there are very, very powerful people – politicians and media leaders who are disrespecting other people inside the wire. They are speaking with real contempt and derision about their president, about aspects of the government, about segments of the population. You just don’t do that. You never know when you’ll need those people for survival, when your life will depend on those people or you’ll be asked to save their lives. You just don’t know.

And the idea that this country can’t overnight be turned into a combat, you know either this country can’t overnight be turned into one huge combat outpost is absurd. We just don’t know what’s going to happen. And so when you have politicians speaking like that it’s not just the messy debate of democracy. It really undermines the basis of our country, the moral basis of our democracy. It’s much more dangerous to our democracy than Isis is or Al-Qaeda is. It also is a good campaign strategy and that’s the tragedy, right. I mean you have politicians who appeal to a kind of tribalism by saying look, it’s us against them and the them are actually other citizens in this country. When you do that you create very, very strong support in your base but it’s the long term consequence that you’re talking about the country as if it’s being split in two. It’s a little like marriage counselors advise, you know, just don’t say the word divorce within your conversations as a couple. That the idea of splitting up is not acceptable and what I would say personally as a citizen to politicians is stop talking about this country as if it’s conceivable that it’s actually two countries. Just don’t do it because you’re starting a very, very dangerous dialogue and you don’t know where it’s going to end.

Well this country is an example of a modern country that has overcome its internal divisions and has existed for over 240 years as a nation. And I mean we’ve had a lot of rocky times and unfair laws and everything else but we’re a nation of 330 million people and we’re still together. The democracies of Europe likewise. I mean it’s not pretty but neither is family life. I mean no one guaranteed you pretty. Do you know what I mean. But it is working and it’s a continual work in progress. What we all have to do I believe is keep reminding each other of our best qualities. An interesting thing about humans is that the worse the situation, the better we act. When you have the flood, the hurricane, the civil war, the blitz in London, whatever it may be, that’s when people will really step up and achieve a kind of loyalty to the common good. A kind of selflessness, kind of blindness to race and politics and religion and everything else that can divide us. And as things get better, as circumstances get better and easier people start to act worse. And I think it’s very, very helpful to remind your fellow citizens and remind yourself that in our very darkest days we all act quite well and that’s what we should aspire to throughout the course of our lives and throughout the course of our democracy.

Tribalism means belonging. It means acting in a way that demonstrates loyalty to and respect for a specific community of people. Sebastian Junger, war reporter and author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, equates tribe to country.


Of course, it's also much more than that. Humanity was based on the idea of tribes for thousands of years. Society as we know it evolved from these small groups of 40-50 people, maybe 100-150 people, traveling and working together to ensure survival. Now tribes have grown to the volume and strength of a country, and in some ways, even a continent.

One thing that Junger noticed while he spent a year immersed in a platoon in Afghanistan, filming the Academy-Award nominated documentary Restrepo, was the way men in the platoon behaved. There were approximately 40 men (the same size as a typical tribe – coincidence or not?) and no one inside that group disrespected each other. They could not like each other on a personal level, but at the end of the day, each soldier respected one other.

American democracy right now is quite the opposite. This year is a circus show of politics, with crazy nicknames and trending topics concerning the presidential candidates. There’s little to no respect up on the stages as the candidates slander and berate each other. It pits two halves of a large tribe against each other.

Britain has just retracted from the EU tribe with Brexit, threatening everything from employment, residency, and trade which will echo into the stock market. Political cartoonist Humon (aka Scandinavia and the World) depicted some of the direct results that leaving the EU had on the Union, and why sticking together in tribalism would have been the best thing.

For the tribe of America to hold together, people have to work past the hatred and disrespect of the Other, be it the other political party or another race. The USA has gotten past worse things before, be it Pearl Harbor or the Civil War. It is tribalism that has held the country together, everyone working together with pride singing 'God Bless the U.S.A' by Lee Greenwood. Sebastian Junger reminds us that the best thing people can do to hold countries together is to be good to each other, and remember the only way to get through the downturns of the country, whichever one it is, is with the help of our fellow tribespeople.

Sebastian Junger's book is Tribe.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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