Perceived Political Polarization: The Loss Of Purple Politics
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You’ve heard the narrative before. Republicans are getting redder, Democrats are getting bluer, and the middle is dissipating. Media coverage, divide in Congress, and the way people talk about politics with friends and family all seem to be evidence of this overwhelming and omnipresent political polarization. While there is empirical evidence of polarization growing in the United States, it is often misinterpreted. A 2014 Pew Research study on political polarization in America is often looked at by social psychologists and news reporters as evidence of a dangerously divided America.
The public opinion study found that Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades, and that partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive than ever before (Pew). While these partisan divides are real and do have legitimate consequences, this talk of polarization ignores a key faction of the electorate: moderates. Realistically, much of the American population has what I like to call “purple politics”: those with a mix of conservative and liberal positions who have some sympathy for both sides. However, these individuals often do not show up to the polls on election day, which results in a government that fails to represent the.
To understand how political polarization is exaggerated, it is important to first look at the Americans that make up a roughly equal number of conservative and liberal positions: 32% of the population (Kiley). The trope of political polarization often overshadows Americans’ unity on essential issues. For example, 82% of Americans believe that the wealthy have too much influence in politics and 85% want a serious overhaul of campaign finance (Kellman). Even in an issue as seemingly divisive as gun control, three-quarters of people polled said gun laws should be stricter than they are today (Khalid).
That’s an increase from October 2017, when NPR conducted a similar survey in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, in which 68% of participants wanted stricter gun laws (Khalid). The poll also found widespread bipartisan support for a range of gun-control policies, including requiring background checks for all gun buyers (94%), adding people with mental illnesses to the federal gun background check system (92%), raising the legal age to purchase guns from 18 to 21 (82%), banning bump stocks (81%), banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds (73%), and banning assault-style weapons (72%) (Khalid). While other studies have shown that the media, elite, and already partisan Americans are undoubtedly radicalized, such is simply not true for the general population in the United States: a people full of multilateral beliefs.
Even deeply red or blue states are more purple than they appear. Take the 2016 election, for example. Nearly 4.5 million Californians voted for Trump, and almost 3.9 million Texans voted for Hillary Clinton. The midterm elections of 2018 have revealed that states should not be typecast the way they often are. For example, Texas Senate candidate Robert ‘Beto’ O’Rourke has managed to bring out fervent levels of nationwide interest, and is currently only 4.5 points behind his Republican opponent, Ted Cruz. Here, it is important to keep in mind that in Cruz’s 2012 election, he won by sixteen points; a typical margin for Senatorial races in Texas. Whether or not Beto’s fundraising and political organizing will be enough to trump Cruz in November remains unknown, but the fact that the race is competitive in the first place reveals a Texas less ruby red than advertised.
The general population is quite purple: proclaimed political polarization exists mainly within both the far right and far left. Dr. Markus Prior, a Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, found that political polarization from media follows this trend as well. His 2013 study explores whether or not the emergence of more partisan media has “contributed to political polarization and led Americans to support more partisan policies and candidates” (Prior). Contrary to popular belief, Prior finds “no firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan, as the political attitudes of most Americans continue to be fairly moderate.” However, evidence does point to polarization among the politically involved: the audience of ideologically one-sided news exposure may be small, but it is a “highly involved and influential segment of the population” (Prior).
In other words, most voters avoid partisan media altogether or mix and match across ideological lines, whereas those who follow partisan media closely and select mostly one side are already partisan. To apply this tendency more concretely, we can look to the viewership of different media. Conservative Sean Hannity, for example, gets 3.4 million viewers on an average night; liberal Rachel Maddow attracts 2.8 million viewers (Chapman). However, this viewership is only a fraction of the overall electorate, as nearly 230 million adults watch neither. Though the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC have larger viewership, their combined audience amounts to less than 10% of the adult population (Chapman).
Although social media is often blamed for locking Americans into echo chambers that reinforce their views daily, the same trend is true in regards to polarization only amongst individuals that are already partisan. Hunt Allcott, an associate professor of economics at the New York University, and Matthew Gentzkow, a professor of economics at Stanford University, conducted a survey on the effect of the media in the 2016 election. Gentzkow and Allcott found only 14% of American adults reported that social media was their most important source of news for the 2016 election (Allcot). Similarly, Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, reports that 96% of Facebook users do not click on more than one opinion piece every three months (Chapman). Although both media and social media do play a role in politically polarizing those who are already partisan, it has little to no link in radicalizing a mainstream audience.
Doug Ahler, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley addressed these misperceptions on polarization by asking the very same question this essay asks: do ordinary citizens perceive themselves to be more extreme and divided than they actually are? To test this hypothesis, he relied on a population-representative survey of 2,444 registered voters in California in April and May of 2013. Ahler asked Californians who call themselves liberal and Californians who call themselves conservative where they stood on two issues: how much the government should manage social welfare and the economy, and how much we should prioritize protecting the environment versus protecting jobs (Ahler).
The results showed that “both liberal and conservative respondents significantly overestimate[d] both groups’ extremism on the proper role of government and environmental issues”, which implies citizens believe their peers to be more polarized than they actually are. Ahler then conducted a second study, during which he asked respondents about their own views on these issues, but only after telling the them the true positions of both parties. The result was stunning: they were eight to thirteen percent more moderate than those not given the correct information. Telling people that the world is not as polarized as they thought actually made their own views more moderate. In this sense, misperceptions of polarization seem to be self-fulfilling: inaccurate beliefs about the extremity of liberals and conservative citizens lead individuals to adopt views that are slightly more extreme. Although liberals and conservatives do have real differences in their political opinions, Ahler’s study reveals that we do not perceive these differences accurately. As such, finding a way to broadcast the true distribution of public opinion may constitute a start toward improving the political climate and re-engaging citizens in constructive political discussion.
Matthew Levendusky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy at Stanford University, conducted a study very similar to Ahler’s in 2015. They argue that Americans significantly misperceive the public to be more divided along partisan lines than it is in reality. This phenomenon, known as “false polarization,” is caused by people perceiving both their own party and the opposing party to be more extreme than they are in reality. A key point to note in this scholarly article is that “perceptions of the extremity of opposing partisans are even more skewed” ((Mis)Perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public).
Levendusky and Malhotra’s findings directly correspond with that of Ahler’s study. Beyond just identifying these “negative advertisements,” Levendusky and Malhotra also foresee significant implications of these empirical patterns for American electoral politics. For instance, these patterns “may detach people from the political process, decreasing their participation as they feel they are unrepresentative moderates in the extremist milieu of American politics” ((Mis)Perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public). The Levendusky and Malhotra study, along with Ahler’s findings, confirm that our own ideologies appear to function as red or blue filters, when in fact the reality is more purple.
Thus, it is clear that polarized politics is not the overriding sentiment of people, but rather the two-party system that accommodates those at either end of the political spectrum at the expense of those in between. In 1959, Vice President Richard M. Nixon portended the political extremism of today, saying “[i]t would be a great tragedy if we had our two major political parties divide on what we would call a conservative-liberal line.” In recent decades, the two parties have become more ideologically defined: which was exactly what Nixon warned against. While Democrats used to have a conservative wing, and Republicans used to have a liberal wing, this is simply no longer true. Today, the most conservative Democrats in Congress are more liberal than the least conservative Republicans (Kiley). The root of polarized politics is not the sentiments of the people, but rather the increasingly confined two-party system. This radicalization of the parties excludes the aforementioned third of Americans that do not fully identify with either party.
The extreme radicalization of political parties is influenced by the way mass media portrays each party. In another study by Levendusky and Malhotra, they argue that the mass media depict ordinary Americans as more polarized than they are through two approaches. First, the mass media’s discussion of mass polarization has increased substantially over time (Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes). Second, the mass media convincingly depicts polarization as widespread. Levendusky and Malhotra argue that the media does so by discussing polarization not through numbers and statistics, but through the experiences of particular people. This rhetorical approach is often referred to as exemplification. Exemplification is a very common technique in journalism, and studies have found that the vast majority of news stories use exemplars to illustrate their arguments: doing so sways readers more than statistical information does (Zillmann, Gibson, Sundar, & Perkins, 1996). Imagine, for instance, there is a politically moderate individual named Alex. Alex is watching an interview on CNN of a man who strongly identifies as a Republican.
The man explaining why they hold conservative positions on the issues, and is also speaking of his support for Republican candidates. As result, our old pal Alex is likely to associate the attitudes and beliefs of the entire Republican party based on that particular citizen’s attitudes and beliefs. Through both the media’s increased discussion of polarization over time and use of exemplification, “depictions of a divided populace transmitted through the mass media can increase perceived polarization” (Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes). Similar to the consequences of negative advertisement, it is possible that “media coverage of polarization may make citizens more detached from and less trusting of the political system, leading them to withdraw from politics” (Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes).
While the general population may still be largely purple, the core issue is that these are not the individuals voting on election day; each Congress is more radicalized than the one before. This increase in partisan politics not only fails to represent the numerous middle-of-the-road Americans, it also produces policy gridlock, degrades our public discussion, and undermines trust in each other. Thus, I propose two steps we must take as a society to prevent further polarization and to have a truly representative government: direct action and structural action. Direct action will require voter mobilization of political moderates, which is best done through the personalized approach of appealing to friends and family. By ‘peer pressuring’ them, we can convince those within our own circle that their vote matters.
Structural action requires that the American education system instructs Americans not only on the importance of voting, but also on the true nature of polarization. When people are taught that politics are less polarized than perceived, they often find themselves more moderate. This sentiment can be applied beyond just the educational system, though. This information can also be taught in workplaces, portrayed on television, and talked more about in the news. By taking these steps to get out the vote and break down our red versus blue outlook, we can see American politics in its truest color: purple.