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Opinion

The problem with conservative echo chambers

Separate spaces such as A Conservative Cafe in Indiana lead us further from a united America.

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But conservatives have transformed a solid argument about liberal bias into something else entirely. They argued that institutional liberalism was not a reflection of the zeitgeist but rather a result of a liberal elite forcing everyone in its reach to march in ideological lockstep. Based on this argument, the right built an ever-growing network of conservative media, foundations, universities, and organizations – what liberal commentator Sidney Blumenthal called the counter-establishment.

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The counter-establishment's foundation on the idea of an entrenched liberal elite colors the mission of today's conservative enterprises, which tend to assume anything not labeled conservative is liberal by default. Conservapedia, which proclaims itself "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia" warns that the founders "do not allow liberal bias to deceive and distort here," implying all other encyclopedias do.

Likewise, A Conservative Cafe's owner insists that coffee houses are "havens for liberal ideas and decaying social values." Yet modern coffee houses are hardly liberals-only. Starbucks, for instance, flourishes in GOP strongholds, be they in northern Virginia or the reddest reaches of Idaho. Orange County, Calif., is littered with latte peddlers.

Liberals, too, have carved out spaces for themselves – places such as the website DailyKos or The Nation magazine – but they have not created a set of replacement institutions.

Some may say that there is no real harm done by conservative self-segregation; that those who choose it are not likely to change their political stances anyway.

But shared experiences are a key component of democratic culture. Without the cross-pollination of ideas that occurs when people with opposing views come in contact, ideologies harden, extremism flourishes, and prejudices grow.

Sustaining a common political culture is tough enough when Americans share less public space and participate in fewer organizations. To limit commerce and conversation and even cups of coffee to political comrades leads us further and further from a united America.

A common political culture doesn't mean we all agree. Americans will always have fierce disagreements over the role of government, the nature of liberty, and the future of our country.

But those arguments serve little purpose if they only occur among like-minded people. So let's keep the partisan spaces online and in print and save physical spaces – the coffee shops, the bookstores, the colleges – as ones where all ideas are welcome. Let's discuss, debate, and fight in a common space. Maybe even over a cup of coffee.

Nicole Hemmer is a former fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a history of conservative media.

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