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Political polarization, identity politics and social media

In modern-day politics, political parties are more polarized than ever. This division between Democrats and Republicans has prevented bipartisan legislation from being implemented to address critical issues in the United States. However, American politics were not always so divided. This begs the question, what caused political polarization in our democracy? The answer is simple: identity politics and social media. 

For historical context, in a 20221 article Elizabeth Kolbert claims that the Democratic and Republican parties were similar around the time of the 1950s. In fact, the “American Political Science Association issued a plea that Democrats and Republicans make more of an effort to distinguish themselves.” Eventually, political scientist Lilliana Mason describes “the great sorting” that took place at the start of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and Roe v. Wade. These landmark movements instigated a social sorting that eventually led to the ideological division between Democrats and Republicans. 

When thinking about the beginning of political polarization, it is essential to look at the topics of the movements that dramatically shifted American politics. Issues of racial and gender inequality, reproductive rights and political exploitation formed two distinct sides around identity politics. According to the Oxford Dictionary, odentity politics involve the “tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc. to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” As explained in this article about the ongoing debate over identity politics, those in favor of identity politics argue that America needs to continue discussing and fighting on issues such as gender equality, racial justice and LGBTQIA+ rights. On the contrary, those opposed argue that identity politics “serve as a distraction from issues they view as more important and politically palatable,” such as the economy. Essentially, this is a debate between preserving a status quo that has historically protected white, cisgender, straight men and creating space for minority groups to be included in mainstream America. While economic issues are extremely important and need to be addressed on a legislative level, there needs to be equal attention to the oppression and marginalization that American citizens belonging to minority groups are facing by upholding this harmful status quo. Additionally, this ultimatum between economic and identity issues suggests that this is an “either-or” scenario when, in fact, both of these issues can be addressed at the same time. However, political party polarization between Republicans and Democrats places limitations on making progress on both due to the increasing divide between political ideals. 

A study by the Pew Research Center shows that half of Democrats and half of Republicans believe their political opponent is immoral. Another to Kolbert’s article, a study by YouGov found that 60% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans believe their opposing party is a “serious threat to the United States.” Both of these studies show the current and dramatic political polarization in America. In fact, the U.S. is so politically polarized that the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance added the U.S. to its list of “backsliding democracies” (Kolbert). Currently, there are two issues that are limiting the potential for extreme political polarization to come to an end, both of which stem from the same source: social media. 

Not only has social media enhanced political polarization, but it has become a breeding ground for misinformation and extremism. Because moderates in the Republican and Democratic parties are not as active in participating in online political discussions, extremists serve as the dominant voice and representation for their respective political parties. Chris Bail, the director of Duke’s Polarization Lab, describes this as false polarization: individuals believe people in the opposing political party are more extreme than they actually are. This brings up the first issue in combating political polarization: those who have done the most to polarize America seem the least inclined to recognize their own “impairments.” In terms of social media, extremists on both sides have exacerbated polarization and spread misinformation, creating a false perception of the political ideologies of each party. The second issue is that while each party regards the other as a “serious threat,” this does not mean they are equally threatening. Events that occurred under Trump’s presidency and peak influence, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection over his questioning of the legitimacy of the 2020 election results, undermined fundamental trust in the democratic electoral process. This event dramatically shifted American politics and enhanced polarization among the political parties even further. While there is not an obvious solution to close the widening gap between political parties’ ideologies, recognizing the false narratives portrayed by the media is one way to limit harmful stereotypes that only advance political polarization.

Grace Sullivan is a first-year at Notre Dame studying global affairs with a minor in gender studies. In her column I.M.P.A.C.T. (Intersectionality Makes Political Activist Change Transpire), she is passionate about looking at global social justice issues through an intersectional feminist lens. Outside of The Observer, she enjoys hiking, painting and being a plant mom. She can be reached at gsulli22@nd.edu.

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The cult of the line in the sand 

Once upon a time, two brothers lived in the Cult of the Line in the Sand. 

The younger of the two, who went by the name of Leba, had been taught by his older brother about the danger of the Line. The Line marked the end of the village to the south, extending beyond the horizon into the sunset and sunrise. The Line was final, unchanging and the product of the Wise Elders who had first implanted It onto the sand. The Line was to be respected, nay, venerated — for It was the sole defense against the Outside. Thus, the Line was not to be questioned. 

“He who disturbs the Line has no choice but to bear Its judgement,” His brother had told him. Leba did not like the way darkness flashed behind his brother’s eyes whenever he spoke of the Line. Leba could not bring himself to ask what happened to those that received Its judgement. 

Only the Council was allowed to trek up the hill that marked the edge of the village to convene next to the Line when making decisions. The Council was composed of the greatest devotees of the Line, handpicked by the collective to impart Its divine will. As such, they too were to be respected. 

“The Council protects our way of life, Leba,” His brother reminded him frequently. “They uphold a great responsibility; none but them could keep the Others on the Outside.” 

The Outside was ruled by the Others. They were barbaric and did not understand the ways of the Line. Worst of all, they did not respect It. If one does not follow the Line, they are bound to be judged by It. For the Line always knows better. Men are flexible; men are fallible; men are corruptible. The Line is not. The Line chose those to reside within it, the Chosen Few, and those that did not, the Others. The Chosen Few are to lead the world and cleanse its evils, for that is the duty imparted upon them by the Line. 

Then, one evening as Leba played on the shore of the lake, he met another child. Her eyes were mismatched, her skin was the color of sand and her hair so interlocked that the wind could not toy with it. Leba had never seen her before. 

“Who are you?” Leba asked. 

“Caasi.” She replied meekly.

“Are you one of the Others?” In response, she turned her head to the side in slight confusion. Leba’s breathing began to accelerate; the Others were notoriously dangerous. She was unpredictable. He had to find his brother; he would know how to deal with her. 

“Why do your people hate us so much?” She said, her brow wrinkled into an anguished expression on the verge of tears. Leba was stunned; the Others were not capable of emotion. It was bound to be an act, his mind alerted him. Yet, his heart skipped a beat. Her tears looked as salty as his. 

“It was not a choice for us to make. The Line judged so.” In the corners of his soul, there was an unmistakable feeling of pity, even though he knew it was pointless. No one but the Line could change the situation. It was no fault of his. But … it was no fault of hers either. 

“What line!?” She stood up, her sorrow evolving into anger. Leba flinched backwards, instinctively wondering whether someone would hear his screams were he to be attacked. “You speak on and on about this fabled line, this great line that supersedes all authority, this line that has chosen I am inferior and worthy of pain by your hand! That is but a lie!” Her chest trembled as each sentence sent shockwaves through her entire body. She raised her arm. Leba braced for the aggression but instead she extended an index finger. Caasi pointed at him. “This line does not control your actions, you do. The line is not responsible, you are. Only you are to blame.” 

Leba remained speechless. Caasi’s heavy breathing faded away, as did the sun on the horizon. The blood reds melted into feeble violets as the divided world entered its slumber. 

“Arbitrary and cruel — simply, despicable, that is what you are.” There was no fury in her voice any longer, only a crushing melancholy. “How does your being born here make you any different? Any more special? How have you defined your entire being by a line drawn in the sand? That is … pitiful.” 

He had no reply. 

After some time, she walked away, silently blending into the night. Leba would not move an inch for hours. 

He never saw her again. His brother, Naic, would tell him to forget about her, that she never existed to begin with and to never let an Other’s opinion influence his own. He said that their brains worked differently, that their culture was inherently violent and that their voices should be ignored for their own safety. Yet no matter how hard he tried, Leba would always remember the sadness in her gaze. One that could not possibly be fraudulent.

Atop the hill south of the village, where the Council convened and conversed on the manners with which to keep the Others in the Outside, where Cassi would later that morning face her judgement, no line in the sand was anywhere to be seen.

Carlos A. Basurto is a first-year at Notre Dame ready to delve into his philosophy major with the hopes of adding the burden of a Computer Science major on top of that. When not busy you can find him consuming yet another 3+ hour-long analysis video of a show he has yet to watch or masochistically completing every achievement from a variety of video games. Now with the power to channel his least insane ideas, feel free to talk about them via email at cbasurto@nd.edu (he is, tragically, very fond of speaking further about anything at all).

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.