Conformity and Democracy: a Study

Talking Points Memo’s “Table For One” today features author and professor of law Cass Sustein. He has used his Table time to discuss a fascinating study done in Colorado exploring the effects of socialization on political opinions. Groups of basically like-minded people were first polled on political subjects, then allowed to discuss them with the group, then polled again:

Colorado Springs and the Politics of Conformity | TPMCafe

The results were simple. In almost every group, members ended up with more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. . .. . . Aside from increasing extremism, the experiment had an independent effect: it made both liberal groups and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous—and thus squelched diversity.

“Extremism” is perhaps a poorly-chosen word for what he’s talking about, as furious commenting suggests. The point is that people of like minds, when discussing politics at any length, tend to become even more strident in their beliefs and swing harder towards their respective wings. In his second installment, he goes on to explain that not only was this not any kind of specific benchmark of Internet culture, but in fact that sitting Federal judges displayed the same “joiner mentality,” leading to far more extreme positions in situations where like-minded judges sat in the same court.

What this all means for modern politics is interesting to consider. Professor Sunstein insists that the conclusions of his book are not as dire for political expression online as one might think, but certainly we can see that the blogging community has had this case-hardening effect in many quarters. There’s no question that, while I certainly have always been politically-aware, there’s never been anything in my life quite like DragonFlyEye.Net. Moreover, DFE had originally started as just an “About Me” type of webpage, and only for the purposes of practicing some of my then-hobby, web design. w00t! How times have changed!

On a more disappointing note, you can’t escape the fact that the Supreme Court is now populated by the most Conservative judges in a generation. If this idea of like-minded individuals swinging harder is true, I am very, very concerned for the future of this country with such group of men chatting amongst themselves. I wonder if Thomas and Scalia have taken to throwing stuff at Bryer and calling him a wussie. . .

Here in Monroe County, we can hope that the thinning of the Republican herd in the Legislature might have the opposite effect: in addition to the fear of losing more seats, the fact that there are less Conservative minds to speak in the Lej might hopefully mean a smoothing over of the rougher Conservative edge just by virtue of this above-cited effect. Unfortunately, the rules of the Legislature as outlined by the Monroe Charter are, as I understand them, entirely weighted towards the majority party, so this might be a pipe-dream.

But back to the conformity and extremity question:

I think most of us assume that the ability for the average private citizen to blog means greater diversity of thought, not conformity. Are we wrong?