The Echo Chamber, Choices, and the 2016 Election
by Dr. Craig Miller
Professor, History/Political Science, Department Head
This election, indeed all elections, is primarily about choices. Your vote matters, despite what you may hear—but your ability to think critically about your vote matters even more.
In a society in which the majority of information about political choices is filtered through different mediums-social media, radio, internet, television, and is compounded by the views of pundits, politicians and their surrogates, it’s easy to find information that conforms to or supports what you already believe. Political scientists call this the “echo chamber” effect. In the echo chamber, information is filtered to cater to your preexisting beliefs, biases and ideologies. Think about the ways in which you can construct your Facebook page to deliver information from particular news sources, while ignoring others, and you have the general idea.
The echo chamber effect is compounded by our two-party system. In this system, citizens are encouraged to think of choices in terms of absolutes: one side is right, the other is wrong. The problem with this approach is that it eschews critical thinking in favor of party loyalty or an ideological position. There are few issues in American society in which one political party, policy position, or viewpoint has a monopoly on truth or correctness. The issues being discussed (however marginally) in this election cycle are complicated. Abortion, immigration, terrorism, education, taxes, gun rights, and race relations are all complex issues for which all policy choices will have both positive and negative consequences.
For example, during the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, northern delegates opposed to slavery pushed for and won a ban on the international slave trade. While they couldn’t convince southern delegates to abolish slavery, they believed making it illegal to import people for the purposes of slavery would eventually lead to the death of slavery. It did the reverse. Southerners, who were given time to make the transition (the ban didn’t take effect until 1808), began to shift to breeding, rather than importing, slaves. This practice broke up slave families and actually led to an increase in the number and distribution of slaves, particularly in the West. While well meaning, northern delegates contributed to the perpetuation of an institution they abhorred.
The point here is to be wary of pundits, politicians, and surrogates who try to argue that there is only one correct position on any given issue, or who try to demonize their opposition rather than engage them. When voting you are making choices. Your choices should be based on a critical examination of candidates and issues that includes examining the potential downsides of ideas and policies-particularly those you support. As college-educated people you are uniquely positioned to make more informed choices, as you are encouraged to think critically in your classes on a daily basis. I encourage you to utilize those same skills when making political decisions this election season.