Could Ideological Self-Rankings Curb Polarization in America?

December 22, 2018 – Tucker Carlson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Gage Skidmore | Wikimedia Commons)

On March 26, 2017, Ted Koppel was speaking with Sean Hannity on CBS Sunday Morning, and the following exchange occurred:

Hannity: “You think I’m bad for America?”

Koppel: “Yup. You know why? Because you’re very good at what you do, and because you have attracted people who have determined that ideology is more important than facts.”


Koppel was speaking the truth: people like Hannity are bad for America, although, I would argue, for a different reason than he states. It’s not necessarily that Hannity peddles solely (or even primarily) in falsehoods, as implied by Koppel. Instead, it is because there is no nuance to his views, and he consistently fails to acknowledge any merit to opposing positions.


To believe all of Hannity’s opinions leaves a viewer with no option other than to believe that there is no valid reason for the Democratic Party (or liberals in general) to even exist. They must be on the wrong side of every political issue – be they social or economic. And if one starts from that viewpoint, it’s just a short step to conclude that those who espouse such liberal views, whether politicians or the media, must be stupid or ill-informed, and the public who receives those views must stupid and gullible as well.  Hence, to follow Hannity is to intensely dislike or at least feel pity for the Other Side.


I am going to define two terms: “Unnuanced” and “Other Side.” The former is any commentator or politician whose stated views on any issue have no nuance at all, meaning that there is only one correct perspective to the issue, without even acknowledging that other valid viewpoints may exist, even if ultimately not correct. The “Other Side” are those who espouse or believe in views on any issue which are the opposite of the Unnuanced person.  So, using Sean Hannity as an example, he is an Unnuanced commentator on the right because there are never any shades of gray to his analyses.


But here’s the thing: Hannity is far from alone in peddling Unnuanced opinions, and this is certainly not a left/right divide. Virtually every person in America who has a platform—be they a media figure or a politician, and who uses that platform solely to spew Unnuanced views or to denigrate the Other Side, does America no favors and contributes heavily to America’s polarization. We tend to rightly focus on media figures or politicians who have considerable reach – whether Democrats or Republicans – but there are an incalculable number of Americans who follow their lead and use the Internet to perpetuate one-dimensional perspectives. Koppel’s criticism of Hannity could be applied just as easily to every influential Unnuanced person in America.


Moderation and compromise are in short supply, while fear of being primaried by those with more extreme views appears to be the main concern of many politicians. To win a primary nowadays means that any politician must not cede any ideological ground. As such, one thing you almost never hear Unnuanced commentators or politicians say to someone on the Other Side, on any issue: “Your opinion is not unreasonable, and there is certainly some basis for it, but here is why I ultimately think you are wrong….”. This is unfortunate because sentient people intuitively know that there are two sides to most stories, and there is no surer way not to change minds than by not acknowledging this. Unnuanced commentators like Rachel Maddow or by Laura Ingraham do not change minds despite how bright they may be. On the other hand, people like Bill Maher, Chris Wallace, and Michael Smerconish, who are definitely not among the Unnuanced, can change minds, because viewers know that they don’t have rigid perspectives on every issue.


The issue is not “fake news,” as implied by Koppel. The Unnuanced could – and often do – have their facts on any story entirely correct. Rather, the issue is one of omission. Whether intentionally or not, Unnuanced commentators ignore the additional facts or perspectives that complicate the one-sided narrative they are trying to advance. Those who ingest the viewpoints of the Unnuanced cannot be blamed for believing them. They think they are getting the full story, which comes with implicit permission to treat the Other Side as moronic or dishonest.


One often hears that the way to redress this polarity is to absorb news from both the left and the right: from Fox and MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. That is well and good, but that approach still tends to serve up a diet of one Unnuanced person after the other, even if they have opposing views.  One should not attempt to achieve a weight equilibrium by alternating between gorging and starvation.


So, what is my solution to address our ever-increasing polarization? I propose that every politician and every media figure should be required to publicly assign themselves a ranking on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the most liberal and 10 being the most conservative.


If a person really does have a ranking of 1 or 2, or 9 or 10, on a particular issue or overall, they are virtually by definition among the Unnuanced.  There is no major political issue in America that does not have huge chunks of the population on both sides of the issue, be it abortion, crime, the environment, tax policy, immigration, education, student loan forgiveness, gun control or racism.


There are reasonable arguments on both sides of every one of these issues. Indeed, if there were no such arguments, then they wouldn’t be “issues” at all. To be clear, to be at an extreme of an issue does not simply mean holding a fervent belief as to its ultimate accuracy; rather, more significantly, it also means denying or refusing to acknowledge any legitimate opposing points of view.


If a politician or media figure truly is among the Unnuanced, having to rank themselves should present a dilemma for them. On one hand, they can be honest, and proclaim themselves to be a 1 or 10. While that may have the upside of honesty, they are then (perhaps proudly) telling us that they are an Unnuanced person who sees no shades of gray, who cannot acknowledge the slightest validity to arguments being made by the Other Side. Such a person reaches their political conclusions robotically, without forethought, without research, and must conclude that those on the Other Side are clueless idiots.


For those who are truly on the extremes, then they are Unnuanced, but I can’t imagine that any politician or commentator would wear that label proudly. There are always reasonable perspectives and facts on both sides of every issue.  If an Unnuanced person is correct in his or her worldview, and the Other Side is wrong on every issue, then why should the Other Side exist at all?  It does no good to go on an abstract disquisition about the merits of a two-party system, or the need for checks and balances if you don’t believe in the need for checks and balances when it comes to specifics. Again, the issue is not whether or not Unnuanced people might not ultimately be on the “correct” side of any given issue, but whether, by refusing to even acknowledge the existence of opposing points of view, the Unnuanced are “bad for America” and contribute to our ever-widening polarization.


Of course, a media figure or politician who is Unnuanced may have an incentive to fudge on the self-ranking. It would be (or should be) embarrassing to admit that one is biased in their coverage. Therefore, to come off as more reasonable and thoughtful, the Unnuanced may try to rank themselves closer to the center than is warranted – the 1s may call themselves 3s, and the 10s may call themselves 8s. But even if they try to forego honesty, they will need to ultimately justify their (false) ideological self-ranking.


So, for example, if an Unnuanced person like Joy Reid or AOC tried to argue that they were not 1’s or Sean Hannity or Texas Senator Ted Cruz tried to argue that they were not 10’s, they would be forced to give examples of instances where they have publicly staked a position that to some degree acknowledges the validity of argument being made by the Other Side, and presumably would be unable to do so.


The most honorable rankings are those towards the center between a 4 or 6.  To have those rankings is to acknowledge the merits of the positions of the Other Side while still concluding that the balance of the arguments lies ultimately in your favor. Ultimately, this is the goal of the self-ranking system.


There are third-party websites that already offer biased rankings of the most prominent media figures and outlets, such as the Ad Fontes Media Chart. But third-party rankings are not nearly as effective as forcing the Unnuanced and politicians to grade themselves.  After all, they could all simply claim that they disagree with the scores assigned to them without ever stating what scores they would ascribe to themselves. To force media figures and politicians to self-rank will present a dilemma for the Unnuanced because they will be forced either (1) to announce themselves as a robotic extremist, with blinders towards the existence of legitimate opposing points of view, or (2) to simply lie, in which case they should be asked to provide examples of their alleged nuance.  It is an uncomfortable question that would make the Unnuanced squirm, and that is exactly the point—they should squirm. Yet, unfortunately, media figures and politicians are virtually never asked to rank themselves in this way. One hopes that the Unnuanced may eventually hit upon the idea that one way to avoid the “Unnuanced Dilemma” is to actually become more nuanced on the issues and reduce polarization in the country in the process.


I look forward to the day when politicians and influential media figures—especially the multitudes of the Unnuanced among them – are routinely asked: Where do you rank yourself on a liberal-conservative scale of 1-10?  Hopefully, they eventually tire of having to announce themselves as extremists, or of lying, and may actually consider the alternative of becoming less extreme and reducing our polarization in the process.


Peter Meltzer

Peter Meltzer is a lawyer in Philadelphia, specializing in commercial litigation, real estate and creditors’ rights. He is also an author about both legal and nonlegal topics, and has been a frequent guest on the Michael Smerconish program. His nonlegal books include: “The Thinker’s Thesaurus”, which has sold over 100,000 copies, “So You Think You Know Baseball? A Fan’s Guide to the Rules”, named one of the top baseball books of the year by ESPN, and books about the presidents of the United States and about rock and roll music from 1965-1975. His legal articles have been cited by courts from around the United States.


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