Polarized Politics in the Internet Age
By Griffin Foster
This election cycle, a common media narrative describes American politics as more polarized than ever. Although past debates over slavery and independence were more contentious than those we have today, the current polarization is much broader than ever before. On nearly every issue, the two parties hold diametrically opposed views on the role of government (notable exceptions include U.S. policy toward Israel and support for veterans). Popular explanations for this polarization include increased gerrymandering and the fragmentation of cable news, but this isn’t the primary cause. The internet has revolutionized the way Americans get information and interact with their elected officials—resulting in a more engaged populace and a more polarized government.
First, the proliferation of internet news sites has enabled anyone to find a media outlet that fits his or her interests and viewpoints. Most people seek out sites that align with their existing beliefs rather than those presenting a wide variety of viewpoints. This creates a “feedback loop.” As people read articles that reinforce their own beliefs and biases, they become less interested in finding opposing opinions and data. As a result we know more “facts” than ever before, but the facts we know don’t paint a complete picture.
Ironically, the technology that was supposed to broaden our horizons often creates insular communities of like-minded people. Instead of interacting with those in close-proximity, like coworkers or neighbors with divergent viewpoints, we join nationwide networks of people with similar beliefs and never discuss politics with anyone with whom we might disagree.
Second, the internet has made everything instant and instantly shareable. Social media allows elected representatives to hear from their constituents within seconds. Details about political negotiations that used to be confined to the political elite now flood thousands of email inboxes every day. Elected officials shy away from controversial statements or viewpoints, paralyzed by the fear that well-funded interest groups can ignite a political firestorm within hours. In many ways, our system works best when both sides have the political space to negotiate in private.
The combination of these two factors has helped create a Congress where two parties, largely unified on opposite sides of an issue, attempt to develop a sufficiently large majority to ram through their entire political agenda. This political tug-of-war has created the gridlock that prevents the vast majority of legislation from ever leaving the drawing board.
If Americans are to get the bipartisan government we want, we need to become more educated and sophisticated in wading through the constant stream of information and interaction with our representatives. As citizens, it is our responsibility to truly understand both sides of an issue before we make demands of our representatives. For their part, elected officials have a responsibility to speak clearly about the challenging issues we face and the true cost of addressing them. Even more importantly, elected officials must be willing to negotiate and compromise in good faith, rather than holding out for an ideal proposal.
The virtues of the Internet age are well known, but its negative impact on political polarization is only beginning to be understood. My hope is that Americans will work to understand these changes better, so we can move toward the functional political system that we both want and deserve.