Are Voters “Polarized?”

Posted on August 24, 2016

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Before 2000, the American news media mostly used “polarization” to refer to sunglasses or camera lenses. Not anymore.

Journalists have increasingly used the word to describe the state of partisan politics with few people challenging this perception.

Now, however, the intense media focus is on what divides Americans rather than what unites them, and it has itself come under scrutiny, and rightfully so.

A recent study of American voters finds that media depiction of a divided political scene can have two effects. One, it increases a belief that the electorate is polarized, perhaps beyond the reality in Washington or other levels of government.

And two, in a hopeful twist, this belief also helps drive voters to moderate their views from extremes within both political parties. Rather than accepting polarization as a stone cold fact, voters are falling back on the norms of independent thinking and moderation to understand opposing views.

How journalists cover polarization shapes how citizens respond to it. In particular, articles and TV reports containing uncivil and disparaging remarks about the opposition helps to drive polarization. The media amplifies what is decried.

The 2016 presidential race needs a moment of self-reflection about the effect of media choices, in both topics and words.

Voters have learned to soften their positions amid the rising noise about how divided they are. They seek consensus and compromise when confronted with descriptions of Americans as fearful of each others’ politics.

Democracy may rely on lively debate and an adversarial process. But its underlying principle is a respect and regard for one’s fellow citizens.

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