Tag Archives: political polarization

How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go Now?

This semester, I am teaching an elective course that I “invented” some years ago; it is called “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” and the readings and class discussions center on the proper role of the state, and the optimal balance between respect for individual autonomy and the needs/interests of the society.

Because it is an elective, the students who choose to enroll tend to be engaged, and the discussions have generally been thoughtful and substantive.

The class meets on Tuesday nights, and Tuesday–today– is election day. In consideration of that fact (and, admittedly, the probability that several of them would skip class in order to watch the returns), I decided to forego our usual class meeting in favor of an effort to connect the more abstract principles we have been discussing with the very immediate realities of America’s political environment.

Here is the assignment I gave them. What would your answers be?

________________________

The 2016 election campaigns have been among the most contentious in our history, and have displayed wide—perhaps unbridgeable–disagreements among Americans not just about the comparative merits of individual candidates, but about the proper role of government and the nature of the common good.

Our next class is scheduled for election day. As these campaigns conclude, and in lieu of holding that class, I am asking you to consider the opposing views and attitudes that have been revealed during the course of these campaigns, and to write a 2-3 page essay addressing the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the Presidential candidates’ visions of the common good/national interest?
  • How would you describe their respective approaches to balancing protections of individual rights against the interests of the country as a whole?
  • In the wake of the election, how do you see Americans resolving our very different perspectives and deep disagreements? (In other words, given the incredibly acrimonious nature of the campaigns, do you see efforts at reconciliation or continued animosity, and in either case, with what result?)
  • In your opinion, what is driving Americans’ current partisan polarization and anger?

Media Matters

If there is one observation about American politics that everyone agrees on–whether they are left, right or center–  it’s that the electorate is deeply polarized.

There are a number of theories about why political actors are unable to agree on even the most pedestrian and formerly uncontroversial issues. A recent study suggests that our fragmented media environment has a lot to do with it.

In “Income Inequality, Media Fragmentation, and Increased Political Polarization,” published in Contemporary Economic Policy, August 2016, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas looked for evidence that media fragmentation plays a bigger role in polarization than income inequality. They looked at variables across six decades: indexes of polarization in the U.S. House and in the Senate, family income data from the Census Bureau and the percentage of Americans with cable or satellite television. The data confirmed that polarization has increased rapidly since the 1980s, but did not point to a cause.

Two of their findings:

  • The growing plurality of news sources as well as the increasing access to cable television made the greatest contribution to political polarization. Two phenomena, or a combination of the two, are responsible: Individuals seek out “self-reinforcing viewpoints rather than be exposed to a common ‘nightly news’ broadcast” — this is sometimes called siloing. Also, individuals are jettisoning news programming for entertainment, “thereby reducing incidental or by-product learning about politics.”
  • The decreasing exposure to alternative views and the increasing buttressing of one’s own views has combined to create less sympathy for others’ views and less of an ability to understand others’ views. “This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding.”

Other research has reached similar conclusions.The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014, including five key takeaways. In 2016, Pew also looked at ideological gaps between people with different education backgrounds.

As the Journalists’ Resource notes,

Harvard University Professor Thomas Patterson’s book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage 2013), describes, among other things, how in 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rescinded the Fairness Doctrine, giving rise to extremely slanted radio and then cable news talk shows. The Fairness Doctrine, Patterson writes, “had discouraged the airing of partisan talk shows by requiring stations that did so to offer a balanced lineup of liberal and conservative programs. Once the requirement was eliminated, hundreds of stations launched talk shows of their choosing, the most successful of which had a conservative slant.”

People who consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to believe the truth even when they are presented with clear evidence they are wrong, according to research published in 2016 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and flagged by the Poynter Institute.

When America is going through a particularly nasty period, it’s often comforting to remind ourselves that “we’ve been here before.” (Think civil war, the 60s, etc.) But we haven’t had social media and the internet during previous rough patches. We haven’t been able to choose our realities, insulate ourselves in our preferred “bubbles” and shut out inconvenient facts.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think that makes a big difference….

 

 

The Dangerous “Big Sort”

Ben Bernanke wrote an interesting article for the Brookings Institution recently, exploring public sentiments about the economy. Overall, he found little support for the thesis that the public anger and frustration that are thought to be important to Donald Trump’s campaign are rooted in economic issues. Instead, views of the economy seem to be correlated with political ideology.

I suspect that greater social and political polarization itself has a role to play in explaining reported levels of dissatisfaction. To an increasing extent, Americans are self-selecting into non-overlapping communities (real and virtual) of differing demographics and ideologies, served by a fragmented and partisan media. We see, for example, a sharply widening partisan gap in presidential approval ratings (Figure 5). As the figure shows, to a greater extent than in the past, people tend to have strongly positive views of a president of their own party and strongly negative views of a president of the opposite party.

As Bernanke notes, our “echo-chamber media” and shrill political debates give commentators and advocates strong incentives to argue that the country’s future is bleak unless their party gains control.

In this environment, it seems plausible that people will respond more intensely and negatively to open-ended questions about the general state of the country, while questions in a survey focused narrowly on economic conditions elicit more moderate responses. Without doubt, the economic problems facing the country are real, and require serious and sustained responses. But while perceptions of economic stress are certainly roiling our national politics, it may also be that our roiled politics are worsening how we collectively perceive the economy.

Bernanke’s observations are yet another data point in the thesis–first highlighted by Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort–that Americans are moving into enclaves of the like-minded. This movement is both physical and informational, political and ideological. We are increasingly walling ourselves off from contact with people who do not share our values, opinions and lifestyles.

It may be comfortable to walk my neighborhood and see the other “Pence Must Go” signs; to log into Facebook and read posts with which I agree; and to go to parties where we all shake our heads over the same news items. But living in a voluntary ghetto does not prepare anyone for reality.

When we don’t need to defend our points of view against different perspectives, we get intellectually lazy. When we don’t consider ideas we may not have previously encountered, we  can remain lodged in narrow perspectives.

Actually, my own lack of experience with people who don’t share my worldview gives me a recurring nightmare: what if there really are more people than I think–more people than the polls reflect–who will vote for Donald Trump? ( I remember the law school buddy who was absolutely convinced that McGovern would win easily; he lived in Greenwich Village.)

Tribalism may be tempting, but it isn’t good for our souls or our intellects. And taken too far, it’s terrible for democracy.