Media Fragmentation and Political Polarization

I’ve written about political polarization beforeRecent research suggests that media fragmentation is the culprit behind growing political polarization. A new study1 finds that

  • 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.”
  • Inequality — the divide between rich and poor — may have contributed to political polarization, but less than media fragmentation.
  • Duca and Saving test for a number of trends but find no statistically significant associations with generational attitudes, voter partisanship, economic conditions or campaign contributions. But they do find associations with income inequality and media fragmentation.
  • There is some evidence that Congress is more polarized at the beginning of a president’s second term.

Despite these findings, there may be room for caution. According to a new paper by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, the average American has not followed the political class to the fringes. Reason‘s write-up draws five lessons from Fiorina’s work:

  1. The political class is becoming more polarized: “If you limit its scope to elected officials and professional activists, the polarization thesis has some truth to it. Since the early ’70s, the parties have gone through a sorting process, to the point where the most left-wing Republican in either house of Congress is now more conservative than the most right-wing congressional Democrat.”
  2. The general public has not followed suit: “Over the last four decades, there has been little change in how Americans describe themselves ideologically—the most popular category in such surveys is still “moderate,” without a big exodus to the liberal and conservative poles. Opinions have shifted on some specific topics, but not always in the same direction: Americans have gotten more liberal on certain issues, such as health insurance, and more conservative on others, such as aid to minorities.”
  3. The more politically active you are, the less well-informed you are about these trends in grassroots opinion: “Both normal Americans and the political class tend to exaggerate the extent that the general public is polarized. But the politicos do much more of this, projecting their divisions onto the electorate at large. “Ironically,” Fiorina writes, “the great majority of Americans whose lives do not revolve around politics are more accurate in their political perceptions than their more politically involved compatriots.””
  4. The stronger your partisan affiliations, the more likely you are to misconstrue what life is like at the other end of spectrum: For example, “Democrats think that 44 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 per year, when the actual percentage is 2, and that 44 percent of Republicans are senior citizens, when the actual percentage is 21. For their part, Republicans think that 36 percent of Democrats are atheists or agnostics, when the actual percentage is about 9, and that 38 percent of Democrats are LGBT, when the true percentage is about 6. Once again, the more politically involved the respondent, the greater the misperception.”
  5. We’re not retreating into smaller bubbles: “A paper on Twitter users…found that “Twitter networks tend to be fairly heterogeneous politically, in part because many of those in them are connected by only ‘weak ties.’ Contrary to the fears expressed by those worried about ideological segregation, social media actually may lessen people’s tendency to live in echo chambers.””

All of this reinforces something Georgetown professor Peter Jaworski said: “Partisan politics corrupts your character. Instead of trying to get votes for your favoured tribe, try to make money instead. Engaging in markets makes mean people nicer, makes you more trustworthy, more charitable, and more beneficent.”