On the turbulent heels of a historic election, one can’t help but wonder just how we’ve arrived here. Donald Trump, a party outsider, is the nominee for the Republican party, up against Democrat Hillary Clinton, a polarizing establishment figure. As if you needed reminding, discourse is steeped in hostility: just take a look at any given comment section on a political post.
This election has been a divisive one, to be sure, but the division didn’t begin with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Partisanship can be traced back to the founding fathers when a two-party system first emerged in 1796. What seemed like a trend soon became the norm, and in centuries since, two dominant parties–now, Republicans and Democrats–have butted heads continuously.
There is no denying that partisanship has gained observable strength and toxicity in recent years (2016 in particular). According to Pew research, it’s at its highest in decades, with the majority of Republicans and Democrats holding an unfavorable opinion of their opponents. To the shock of no one, around half of each party harbors feelings of “anger and fear” toward the other.
Though emotions and stakes are certainly high, I think it’s a shame that every attempt at a constructive conversation seems destined to devolve into a cesspool of negativity. We have become I like to call the Überpartisan America–a nation polarized by changing technology, attitudes, and demographic shifts. Beneath the perplexing surface are some very real factors we should all keep in mind moving forward.
Technology has insulated us
When it comes to news consumption, the Internet has utterly transformed the first world. Once upon a time, you waited for the newspaper. Articles were (for the most part) carefully reported, painstakingly objective, and thoroughly edited. Everyone trusted them because it was all we had.
Today we no longer need to wait for the news, nor are we limited to one or two options. Instead, news is generated constantly by hundreds of media outlets. The news finds us, and it’s rarely good news.
As William Connolly writes for the Cato Institute, “The media loves to report on the planes that crash, not the thousands of planes that fly successfully every day….Conflict is what gets covered as opposed to consensus, exaggerating the level of contentiousness in our politics.”
The problem here is manifold, starting with sensationalism. Hot takes and op-eds flood our feeds with personal opinions packaged like news. Too often, they come from low-quality sources pumping out a high volume of posts for maximum traffic: the newest model of journalism. Predictably, anger and fear are their bread and butter. It’s no wonder we’re all feeling it.
Then there’s social media. Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, your newsfeed isn’t a reflection of the world at large—it’s a microcosm consisting of your acquaintances and the sites you enjoy. In other words, your feed is self-filtered to reinforce your belief system.
This creates a homogenous bubble filled with like-minded folk, and it’s only reinforced by algorithms that quickly learn what you like and serve more of it to you. In fact, The Pew Research Center found that when it comes to news consumption, “liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds” with “little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust.”
It’s hard to fault the media completely, though, if we’re willing participants. Whether or not we realize it, most of us don’t want to be challenged (or even informed) as much as we want to be right. As a result, we curate our lives to meet our pre-existing ideologies. At even a hint of dissent, vitriolic commentary bubbles up, and why? Because it’s easy to put someone down from behind a screen.
The vanishing line: opinion vs fact
Network television is another factor worth considering. Fox News and MSNBC are prime examples of the different realities liberals and conservatives have come to occupy, and the distrust that has grown between them. For every conservative complaining about the “liberal agenda” of the mainstream media, there are five liberals accusing Fox News of brainwashing its audience.
Sadly, there is truth on both sides: Fox may not be as “fair and balanced” as it claims, but the same goes for MSNBC. And when you’ve been told by your preferred network that its opposite can’t be trusted, you instinctively reject anything that comes of it.
According to economist Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, “Measuring media bias is a really difficult endeavor because unlike what economists usually study, which are numbers and quantities, media bias is all expressed in words.” When married with cherry-picked data, these expressions can be used to support any policy or idea.
Where does that leave us? Who are we to trust, and is it possible to have an objective conversation anymore? This type of structure—by which two distinct realities are at war—diminishes empathy and respect among party lines.
As a lifelong conservative, the values that I hold hinge upon respect (for life, freedom, rights, etc.), and the policies I endorse, upon dialogue. Without constructive conversations, we’re all at a standstill—online, in person, and when it comes to moving the country forward.
Demographics and extremes
Additionally, it would be foolish not to acknowledge the shift in attitudes and party demographics in furthering the divide. Another Pew study finds that the Democratic and Republican parties of today are completely different than they were as recently as 1992.
As the electorate ages and becomes more diverse, both parties have become more homogeneous. Back in the days of Reagan, Conservative Democrats and Liberal Republicans weren’t uncommon. But as demographics have shifted over the course of several decades, the economic and social issues these groups care for have become more polarized, both organically and by design.
But there is one startling mutual agreement that has reared its head this election season: distrust in the government and the idea that the system is broken. While proposed solutions are radically different, anti-establishment rhetoric has created internal division within each respective party.
For an example of this, look no further than this year’s primary season. The success of Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, was unprecedented, as was Donald Trump knocking 16 competitors out of the game. Though Sanders did not ultimately clinch the nomination, his and Trump’s achievements show us that the nature of partisanship has shifted, perhaps for good. Distrust of government has lent power to the extremes, which are propped up by passionate bases and corresponding media and special interest groups.
Still, Pew makes an important distinction on partisanship in America—“those at both the left and right ends of the spectrum, who together comprise about 20% of the public overall, have a greater impact on the political process than do those with more mixed ideological views.”
In other words, people on far ends of the spectrum tend to be loudest and the most influential, but they do not comprise the majority. There are more people with mixed ideologies than the news or even the polls would have us believe. They just aren’t well represented.
For example, a CNN poll shows that more Americans have become pro-life over the years, with 58% in opposition in 2015 regardless of party affiliation. Similar mixed views exist surrounding gun control, gay marriage, marijuana and other social issues, according to the Wilson Quarterly.
They may not be loud or active, but these mixed ideologues and moderates do exist, and they do vote. So, in spite of what seems like a polarized climate, the millions of Americans who don’t identify with a political party will be heard on election day.
I like to think these issues—partisan media outlets, social media bubbles, changing demographics, etc.—are part of a greater learning curve in the evolution of American democracy. At this stage, we’re experiencing stubborn partisanship, exacerbated by too much bad news, too much bad data, and an obstinate approach to discourse.
But this election will come and go, and as times change, parties must too. If today’s Überpartisan America represents peak polarization, a bipartisan future could be in sight. If not, prolonged partisanship could lead to a turbulent future we simply can’t afford.
In the meantime, it’s up to American citizens to shed the negativity and engage freely and openly with friends and neighbors about the issues of our time. It may seem a tall order right now, but I believe that with practice, we can empower moderate voices and discover common ground. An informed citizenry that understands and respects differing perspectives is the greatest asset our country could ask for. In the wake of this election, we should muster what dignity we can and seize this opportunity head on.