America is at war.
Yet, we are no longer fighting with blades and bullets; we fight with misinformation and hostile language. We no longer fight on a distant battlefield; we fight within our workplaces, homes, schools, and online communities. We are no longer fighting against a faceless enemy, bent on world domination; we fight amongst ourselves–our fellow Americans, friends, colleagues, and family members.
What is this new modern warfare that has seeped its roots into every aspect of our social, economic, and political environment? Political polarization. Our country is divided, and most Americans seem to agree. A study by the Pew Research Center compared ideological differences in views between Democrats and Republicans and noticed that “When [one question] was first asked in 1994, the partisan difference was 13 points… But today, the gap in opinions between Republicans and Democrats about [the issue] has increased to 50 points.” Overall, they concluded that “Across 10 measures that Pew Research Center has tracked on the same surveys since 1994, the average partisan gap has increased from 15 percentage points to 36 points” (Pew Research).
Similarly, the recent rise in social media–which eerily lines up with the rise in the ideological shifts since 1994 detailed above–seems to contribute to the chaos. Social media makes it even easier to confine yourself to your own “bubble” of information, with a majority of it often containing biases to your own side. We often look for private Facebook groups or subreddits that isolate us from the opposition so we only hear what we want to. A researcher from the University of Texas found that “People’s most common reason for joining these groups was to find solidarity or to express political opinions in a safe space.” This puts us in a bit of a “Catch 22”: We look for solitude in order to get away from polarization, which only adds to the divide. To put it lightly, we’ve caught ourselves in a loop.
Now this loop may seem never ending, but polarization can–and should–be stopped before it becomes too out of control. It may be a necessary evil that helps keep both sides balanced through a system of checks and balances. However, we won’t be able to function as a nation if political polarization controls every aspect of our politics. If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything, then how will we fix the problems we have in America? How can we help the homeless, find a tangible and realistic solution to hate speech, address mental health issues, and (in more recent months) find a way to get out of the worldwide pandemic everyone seems to be talking about? The answer: We need to address this polarization first. Political polarization is escalating all of our nation’s problems. It’s the phantom pulling the strings from the shadows. So it’s time that we cut off those strings and exposed the true puppetmaster to the rest of the nation.
Firstly, we need to look at polarization’s sources. The root of political polarization comes from the media, both the social kind and newsroom kind. With the media, we’ve managed to trap ourselves in an echo chamber, a bubble that reflects our own ideologies back to us. Instead of exploring new things, we’re sticking to what we know and what’s comfortable. It’s about time that we popped our own bubble.
So, let’s look at the media. The news didn’t always air commercials in their broadcasts, especially before the ‘70’s and ‘80’s (Goldberg). Nowadays, it seems so commonplace, so normal, to have an advert play in the middle of your morning news or a sidebar of fancy graphics taunting you as you scroll through CNN or Fox News’ websites. How does this affect political polarization? Well, when you have corporations and ad money to appease the newsroom, you start skipping over the “facts” about the news and turn to the “entertainment” in the news. Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS news reporter, touches on this issue in his book, Bias. He writes, “If I’ve learned anything after all these years as a network newsman, I know this much: never–never!–underestimate how low news executives, and TV people in general, will go in the pursuit of higher ratings.” The more these biases and “clickbait” news stories seem to infect our news sources, the more likely Americans are to take these outrageous and scandalous stories seriously.
As much as we hate to admit it, we crave this sort of scandal and discourse from politicians. Researchers from the University of Texas, San Antonio found that “Only a very small portion of tweets from members of Congress contain uncivil language. But the uncivil tweets that did exist got more engagement, regardless of gender, partisanship, number of followers or frequency of tweeting.” They push these scandalous stories because they’re entertaining when, in actuality, news shouldn’t be viewed as entertainment; it should be viewed as information. But now, fact is fiction, fiction is fact, and no one knows what to believe.
The Bubble also becomes dangerous when we fail to reach out to the other side. We’re only hearing from other like-minded individuals, which inevitably pushes that great ideological shift we’ve been stuck in since the ‘90’s. We begin to agree more and more with the extreme instead of the moderate “middle ground” and “as a long traditional [sic] of psychological research on ‘group polarization’ shows, when people with the same beliefs talk only with one another, they drift toward more extreme positions. If what you know about the news comes chiefly from partisan media and like-minded friends, you may misread what is happening in the wider society”.
There is substantial amounts of evidence that prove these bubbles exist. A recent study found that “Republicans preferred to watch the Fox News Channel, which is perceived as right-leaning, and to avoid news from CNN and NPR, which are perceived as more left-leaning. Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals were more likely to pay attention to CNN and NPR while avoiding Fox News.” We’re trapped in this safe little bubble when really, we should be pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, allowing ourselves to see the other side of the story.
So what can we do to pop our bubble of information?
The first step is recognizing it. Many people don’t realize that they’re stuck in their own world. Start to gravitate away from news sources with large amounts of ads and partisan bias. While you aren’t going to find an exact “cheat sheet” of sources to stay away from, CNN and Fox are the best ones to cut off first. To take things a couple steps further, get your information and “sound bites” from the actual source itself. Watch the politicians speak in the exact video, don’t watch the edited summary on the news. Cite statistics from the actual study, not the New York Times article about the study. Follow politicians on Twitter and social media. Even if you don’t agree with them, it’s an important way to get firsthand information about what they’re doing to help the country and exactly what they have to say on issues.
The next step is reaching out to the “opposition.” This might be a family member, colleague, or friend that has opposing views. This can be difficult, especially because of the hostility people often receive for doing so, but it’s important for you to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. If they happen to be hostile to you, simply take a deep breath and move on. They’re expecting you and want you to engage in an intense argument. You’re looking for a discussion. It may take a while, but you’re bound to find someone out there who’s ready to hear your side of the story.
The final step is to listen. This is the hardest part. The person you’ve found from the other side of the spectrum could be spitting out insults and lies and information they heard about from the most ridiculous sources. All you can do is smile and nod, but make sure to respectfully stand your ground. At some point in the conversation you need to interject and talk about your side. Remain respectful, as usual, even if they aren’t respectful to you. Having a well-constructed argument is often what prevents insults from being thrown out as a panic mechanism.
Try and put yourself into their shoes. Why do they believe what they do? Where are they coming from? Arthur Brooks makes a good point in his Ted Talk when he says that “Most people are walking around saying, ‘You know, my ideology is based on basic benevolence. I want to help people, but the other guys? They’re evil and out to get me.’” So, don’t just try and know their views, understand them as well. Try to understand why they believe what they do, because most people aren’t irrationally following a cause for no reason. In the end, if you still don’t see their side, you shouldn’t dislike the person, just their ideas. You’re not trying to “convert someone.” You’re only encouraging them to understand your perspective.
The final thing to remember when having these conversations is to remove all stereotypes or preconceived notions you might have about a political party or alignment. The majority of news and social media sources often show each side as a one-dimensional group of people that can’t think for themselves. According to recent sources, some political analysts like Morris P. Fiorina argue that “only political elites have become polarized and that the public at large continues to be predominantly moderate.” Vice President Mike Pence shared similar views when discussing polarization at the vice presidential debates in 2020 when he stated the following:
“Here in America, we can disagree; we can debate vigorously as Senator Harris and I have on the stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans… We love a good debate. We love a good argument. We always come together and are always there for one another. And we’ve especially learned that during the difficulties of [the pandemic] this year.”
Whether or not you agree with Pence’s policies and viewpoints, his words are definitely ones to reflect on. At the end of the day, we’re still Americans, and we’re all pushing what’s best for the country. We just have different ways of making that push towards greatness. Now, America should be looking to make a new push for change, whether in our own “bubbles” or the greater two-party system that has seemingly failed us. Sooner or later, it’s going to catch up to us. The more polarization there is, the less policies, changes, and important laws will be passed in our government.
So now we look at the unknown future of our country, desperately hoping that we can someday come together in some form of unity. President John F. Kennedy closed his speech at Loyola College in Maryland with these simple, yet powerful words: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past–let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Let us uphold this responsibility, and push for a better future for our great United States of America.