How “Yanny” Versus “Laurel” Explains Today’s Politics

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks—and, even if you have, if you’ve had wi-fi there—then you’ve surely heard “Yanny” or “Laurel.” But not both. And that, in a nutshell, is the same dynamic corroding American politics today.

“Yanny” versus “Laurel” is, of course, the question posed by a short audio clip circulating online. Roughly half of Americans hear “Yanny,” and roughly half hear “Laurel.” In that respect, it’s just another argument that divides our nation—not so different from the viral debates of the recent past, such as whether it’s a gold or blue dress, or whether it’s a duck or a rabbit.

But here’s what’s different: if you’re a person who hears “Yanny,” you can’t hear “Laurel” no matter how hard you try (absent deliberate modification of the audio clip, of course). Your brain is simply unable to hear it the other way. Gold dress people can see it as blue once they look again; duck spotters can find the rabbit once they re-focus their eyes. But “Yanny” people’s minds are totally closed to “Laurel.”

And that’s, alas, precisely where we are as a country. It used to be that Americans disagreed on policies—passionately, vigorously, adamantly—but at least could see why someone would hold the opposite view. The great policy debates that have shaped our nation—federalism versus nationalism, the welfare state versus the assault on “big government,” regulation versus deregulation, and so on—have involved differing views held by politicians, thought leaders, and segments of the public that generally could at least comprehend and acknowledge the other side’s perspective.

No more. Too many Americans don’t just have different policy preferences; their starting point is increasingly based on different understandings of the facts and thus of reality itself. Those differing views of reality are then compounded by filter shrouds, in which social media not only envelops…

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