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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.