Rollins College

Radicalizing Reverberations by Christian Santiago

A response to “Polarization is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics” by Nate Cohn (NYT)

Anyone who has been following the affairs of the United States government during the past few years is painfully aware of how polarized the two major parties have become. For those who haven’t, try mixing oil into water, you’ll have an easier time doing that than getting Democrats and Republicans to play nice.

In an article published in the New York Times, Polarization is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics” (2014), Nate Cohn argues that the politicians whom we charge with being too one-sided may not be completely at fault in this situation. He explains that the voters whom these law-makers are accountable too are at the heart of this problem due to the fact that they are becoming more polarized and expect their representatives to uphold their (increasingly radical) views if they want to keep their position. He goes on to cite the plight of former Virginia House Representative Eric Cantor, who was voted out of his seat for daring to take a few small forays into the ideological gray-zone on some major legislative decisions. I agree with Mr. Cohn’s interpretation that polarization stems from the sentiments of voters and in this post I aim to explain an avenue through which the public can become increasingly divided in their political views.

It is my belief that this public polarization stems from voters’ membership in social network groups (both digital and societal) and their reliance on these groups to obtain and interpret information. In his article, “Shortcuts Versus Encyclopedias: Information and Voting Behavior in California Insurance Reform Elections” (1994), Arthur Lupia argued that, for the average voter, the opportunity cost associated with doing independent research to make a good voting decision is too great. As a result of this, he explains, the average voter is more likely to use a heuristic (short-cut) approach, where they listen to the information provided by their social networks and use that to formulate their stance on an issue.

At first sight, this heuristic-based approach would seem to be a good alternative for information gathering as it provides voters with limited free-time a strategy for information acquisition. However, this approach has the potential to turn social groups (i.e. Facebook communities, workplaces, book-clubs, etc.) into echo-chambers, where members (whom share similar views) constantly share similar ideas with one another and eventually begin to support more radical (polarizing) ideas as they naturally surface.

Aside from the risk that this mob mentality produces by its mere existence, it is also a breeding ground for “fake news” which, by its nature, tends to be polarizing in order to elicit strong reactions from its audience. In their article, “Fake News Did Have a Significant Impact on the Vote in the 2016 Election” (2018), Richard Gunther, Paul Beck and Nisbet describe the impact that these pieces of propaganda can have on eliciting certain thoughts in voters. In their study they found that a substantial number of voters whom had voted for Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama in the 2012 election switched allegiances and voted for Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump in 2016 after they were exposed to fake news. According to Oscar Barrera et al. in their article, “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics” (2018), knowledge gained from fake news, that becomes established in a social group’s ideology is also especially dangerous in that it is extremely difficult to correct, even in the face of trustworthy sources that prove it wrong. This is because the “insight” gained from the fake news becomes ingrained in the echo-chamber ideology, where members are rewarded (by the support and agreement of others) for adopting these polarizing ideas regardless of their validity.

In some cases, the mere existence of these social groups and the knowledge that another group exists that is opposed to them (e.g. two Facebook communities devoted to opposite political parties) may be enough to polarize these groups and cause them to form social identities defined by their hatred for the other group. In her book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (2018), Lilliana Mason draws a parallel between the tension that exists between Democrats and Republicans today and the Eagles and the Rattlers in 1954 Robbers Cave experiment, where young children, who were placed in two separate groups, naturally began to form strong polarizing (and somewhat violent) sentiments about the opposing group for no reason other than that they were an opposition to their own. If nothing else, this experiment exemplified the natural human instinct (present in all voters) to form radical opinions when introduced into isolated groups.

Considering this information, can the blame really be placed on politicians for being so polar? Are they not merely reflecting the views of whichever group is in the majority in their constituency? Maybe not. However, it is certain that the government cannot stand for long in its current state and the causes for this polarization must be found and mitigated.

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