How the iPod is Killing Political Discourse


I was discussing gun control with My Not So Humble Wife the other night, and something strange happened. She’s mostly libertarian like me, but unlike myself, she actually believes in putting certain limitations on gun ownership. Tanks, for example, are straight off her list for private ownership (no, I am not kidding, this was a serious part of the discussion). I personally see no problem with it for several good and sundry reasons that I won’t get into now, so she upped the ante to nuclear weapons. I couldn’t name even a theoretical reason why someone might want a nuke (self-defense? sport? cocktail party conversation starter?), and I had to concede that even my tank argument didn’t apply. Let’s face it, if you need a nuke to defend yourself against the government, the situation is already well beyond salvageable.

This is when things got weird: we talked it out and came to a reasonable solution we could both be okay with. She conceded that the government didn’t need to have gun registration laws (it’s no business of theirs who owns which guns), and I conceded that certain classes of people (namely felons) shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns, so background checks are acceptable. I couldn’t get her to budge on non-violent felons, but my big beef there is with drug laws, and that’s a different issue anyway, so I was willing to concede the point. We also both agreed that waiting periods should be abolished, because the technology exists to do immediate background checks, and those checks should be done everywhere, including gun shows.

What’s so weird about all of this? Watch fifteen minutes, or even five minutes, of political television and then ask me that question again. Granted, we came from roughly the same starting place, but we still had some strong views that we disagreed on, and we both gave a little to get to something we could agree with. It’s called “compromise”, for those of you too young to remember what it looks like. And I blame the iPod for its absence in contemporary politics.

Sounds crazy, right? Bear with me for a little while and you’ll understand. When I was a kid, we had one TV in the house (well, two, but the one in the basement was tiny, black and white, and got crap reception, so it doesn’t count). It got exactly two channels: whatever my sister and I could agree on, and whatever Dad decided to put on when he got home. Occasionally, when I was very lucky, my sister would be at a friend’s house before my folks got home and I would have a few hours of TV to myself, but that was a rare luxury and one I didn’t count on.

Growing up like that I had to learn the art of compromise. Granted it usually involved a lot of yelling, screaming, cursing, and more than a little hitting, but that’s politics for you. What I didn’t learn was an attitude of entitlement, one that said I could have whatever I want whenever I want and everyone else could go suck an egg. That all changed when the iPod came along.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPod was and remains one of the greatest inventions in human history. The chance to have your music, your way, whenever you want wherever you want is a glorious thing. But it shapes expectations; people become accustomed to having what they want, without having to negotiate with others. It’s not like the boom boxes and ghetto blasters I had as a kid, when “sharing” music was a very immediate and sometimes involuntary experience. Facebook and other social media have only exacerbated the phenomenon; people choose the stories they want to hear, and they shape the media they are exposed to before and as much as the media shapes them.

This sort of “a la carte media” has expanded into all aspects of life. If you can’t find a cable channel that caters to your specific tastes, there’s a YouTube channel that will. Streaming radio will introduce you to new music, unless you skip past a song you decide you don’t like in the first few beats. And there’s a website out there dedicated to every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that aren’t.

What is the net result on politics? The politicians we elect reflect the media of our time. It used to be that politicians were like mass media: they appealed to broad demographics, even to the point of being criticized for chasing “the lowest common denominator”. But hey, at least they were accessible to everyone. Now every politician is like a personalized playlist, narrowly targeting key demographics with a hyper-partisan message, and who can blame them? The electronic graffiti that litters the walls of our social media pages screams for it, begs for it, demands the same hyper-partisan rhetoric they are only too happy to deliver. If we aren’t getting the politicians we want it’s only because we’re getting the politicians we’ve been asking for, and maybe deserve.

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