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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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Rooney Center survey reveals worries about American civil war, partisan divides

According to a new survey released by the University of Notre Dame’s Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, about half of Democrats and one-third of Republicans believe that the United States is on the brink of a new civil war — numbers that Matthew E.K. Hall called “shockingly high.”

“I think these results highlight the extremely volatile nature of American politics in this era — especially the intense polarization that defines modern politics,” said Hall, who directs the Rooney Center.

The survey results demonstrated that Americans are profoundly concerned by the state of American democracy, though there are significant differences across party lines.

The Rooney Center facilitates research on American democracy and political institutions, as well as encouraging Notre Dame students to be engaged in civic and political life. Its programming includes weekly research workshops, a speaker series, graduate research grants and the Hesburgh Program in Public Service for undergraduates. The Center also oversees the Washington Program, a semester-long study abroad program that allows undergraduates to live, study and intern in Washington, D.C.

Hall said the survey is part of the Center’s efforts to understand “how much danger American democracy faces in the current climate, how we got here, and what can be done to protect our democracy.”

Survey respondents answered questions about voting rights, free speech and the “American way of life.” Courtesy of the Rooney Center

According to Hall, the Rooney Center contracted NORC, an independent, non-partisan research center based at the University of Chicago, to conduct the survey. The survey’s goal was to gauge support for core democratic values among the public.

Researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,500 adults residing in the United States from Oct. 20 to Oct. 26, 2022.

Two key principles of American democracy — free speech and voting rights — provoked highly distinct answers from Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats tend to be more suspicious of free speech rights: 44% of survey respondents indicated that they believed government should be able to shut down media outlets if they spread disinformation. On the Republican side, 52% said this should never be allowed. On the other hand, 37.9% of Republicans disagreed with the statement, “Everyone should be allowed to vote.” This compares to just 13% of Independents and 6.7% of Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats also widely disagree on the 2020 election, according to the survey. Just under half of Republican survey respondents agreed that Joe Biden and his party “stole” the 2020 election. By contrast, 88% of Democrats disagreed with that statement.

About half of surveyed Republicans believe that there will be a substantial amount of election fraud in upcoming elections, demonstrating a deep mistrust in the stability of the American electoral system.

The survey from the Rooney center asked respondents about the 2020 election, future election fraud and the potential for another American civil war. Notably, the election fraud questions provoked very different answers from Democrats and Republicans. Courtesy of the Rooney Center

More questions and data from the survey will be released soon. However, Hall said that these results indicate that threats to democracy have never been more serious.

“Interestingly, Americans are not more divided over issues than they were in the past,” Hall said. “They simply feel more negativity toward members of the opposing political party than they did in the past.”

Given the recent midterm elections, the results of this survey are especially relevant. Hall previously said in a press release that the proceedings of the midterm elections are not necessarily anti-democratic, but they might install officials who could challenge American democracy in 2024.

“Students should understand that we are living in an unusual and—in some ways—unprecedented time in American politics. The traditional norms of our political discourse are fraying in important ways, fueled by polarization, misinformation, and distrust of institutions. And this situation poses a critical threat to our system of government,” Hall said.

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Riding the No. 2 bus

The No. 2 Bus is the route in Seattle that slices right through the city’s heart. Flying over the high hills of Queen Anne, winding through the tight one-way streets of the city center and crawling next to the thriving bike paths.

This route is unique not only because of the diverse terrain it covers but because of the people who consistently ride it. You experience every sect of humanity — the wealthy tech bros coming from their million-dollar mansions on Queen Anne, the unhoused trying to find some warmth on cold days, businessmen early in the morning on the way to the market opening, single moms headed to work in the city center and everyone in between.  

I think about this route a lot when discussing my grandma, Moo, and when thinking about what it means to be part of a democracy. 

Moo spent most of her career running hospice care for folks living and dying with AIDs, politically organizing (even running the first campaign of our former mayor) and protesting the lack of medical care offered to marginalized communities. 

Moo has told me since I was little that the best leaders she’s ever met are those who consistently ride the No. 2 bus — that if you want to truly know democracy, it requires less rendezvous with Aristotle and more with your next-door neighbor. The No. 2 bus is one of the few places in the city where everyone is able to interact with everyone.

Moments of democracy and citizenship. While fulfilling the duties of a citizenry, I’ve felt jaded at times, seeming to go through the motions of the processes without the motions themselves seeming to have merit. Voting for the first time, signing up for the draft and being called for jury duty — all actions of being a citizen, but each one never feeling fully satisfying on its own.

My first authentic rendezvous with democracy was in August of 2021. Sitting in the backyard of St. Paul Bethel Baptist Church in South Bend, Indiana, on a warm and friendly summer day with organizers from Faith in Indiana discussing plans for the upcoming year.  

The pastor sitting on a swing set. Small metal chairs squeak with every movement. Small, manicured lawn. Our faces still hidden under masks. 

One of the lead organizers’ voices rings in my head as she says, “I talk to people who tell me they’re not interested in politics, that they exist above the fray. Politics is about who gets resources and who suffers. There is no way to exist outside of it.”

An understanding of politics as decisions between who suffers and who gets fed makes it easier to reconcile differences. On this cool summer day, I found myself sitting between a Mormon and a Quaker talking about racial justice in South Bend. The connecting of people from multiple creeds and codes, discussing what our dream is for life together. A winding street of the brotherhood we all share in.

A few weeks ago, I was riding back to campus late at night on the South Shore Line. Currently, part of the tracks is broken and requires a bus for the middle section to Gary, Indiana. I was last off the train getting on the bus, and there was one seat left — at a table with two other people. I sat down a little drowsy and ready to crash as soon as I got home. 

I accidentally stumbled into a conversation with the pair of Hoosiers — Andrea and Paul (names changed for privacy). Andrea, a nurse, was surprised with a trip to Chicago by her son. 

They had spent the day scootering around the lake, visiting Boystown, eating deep-dish pizza and enjoying the big city atmosphere. Paul, a contract driver, obviously loved his mom more than anything in the world and could not stop talking, in the most endearing way, about all of the ways she had changed his life. 

We got on the topic of South Bend and what their thoughts were on the midterms. Their three biggest issues for their votes were crime, homelessness and the economy. 

Andrea talked about the ways she had seen the really scary downwind effects of people messed up by addiction, and she saw homelessness both as a problem of public safety and of human dignity. But it’s impossible to ignore the way their issues of choice melded so neatly onto national Republican agendas being spread.

In some ways, the reason these topics had become such prevalent issues before the election is because of the nearly 10 billion dollars spent on the midterm campaigns. With Republicans focusing 32% of their ads on public safety, 32% on inflation and 18% on immigration. 

However, it’s also Democrats attempting to spoon-feed issues to voters instead of listening to their concerns first. Three quarters of voters said violent crime was a major issue for them in voting. The majority of voters cited the economy as the top issue. 

And many of the voters just didn’t trust Democrats on those issues because they didn’t contest their narratives on them. According to a recent poll, voters trusted Republicans to do a better job handling the economy by 39 percent to 29 percent. They did not contest economic narratives that did push for their policies and that would provide more freedom and choices for working class Americans than Republican plans would.

These tensions remind me a lot of my grandmother, Moo. My neighborhoods in Seattle are more divided than ever from the downwind effects of redlining (political policies in the early 20th century that restricted neighborhoods and real estate to limit where people of color were able to buy houses) and generational wealth. 

Church is still one of the most “divided hours in America” — schools, places of work and social clubs are all segregated, too. These spaces we hold as sacred spaces of interaction are often divided across race, class, socioeconomic status, gender, faith, etc.  

The No. 2 bus is a place where people are in community with one another. Obviously, everyone doesn’t need to literally ride the No. 2 bus in Seattle, but if we actually desire a functioning democracy, we need to figure out ways to systemically build the No. 2 bus into our ways of life. If we want to be individuals actually engaged with the world, we need to meet the world in our backyard barbecues and coffee meetings.

Democrats are increasingly the party of college-educated coastal elites. The people who staff Democratic campaigns, offices and policy shops are even more coastal, affluent and elite. They don’t have a good finger on the pulse of where people are standing, often overestimating the levels of progressiveness of Black and Latine voters.

Even if their economic agenda and social agenda are better for the liberation and advancement projects of people, their messaging and choice of issues show a removedness from everyday life. Coming from someone in a wealthy and high-powered educational institution, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that people are suffering and the messaging isn’t connecting.

Democrats tried to tell voters to care about abortion and an elusive “saving of democracy,” which are important, but they didn’t listen to the issues voters said they cared about most. Democrats just didn’t know how to meet people where they were at and didn’t even attempt to persuade voters that they know how to best deal with the issues most pressing to them.

Democracy involves disagreement — the counteracting and discussing of views to come up with some sort of solution. It’s not the 10 minutes we spent filling in bubbles on our ballots, but the years of talking back and forth in a jambalaya of ideas.

Over the next two years, we should look towards the No. 2 bus to save democracy and should spend more time in community with each other — and less time theorizing about the best ways to trick each other. It’s time to get into the arena.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or lsherma2@nd.edu.

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

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University groups hold student engagement opportunities on Election Day

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the midterm elections will be held for all 435 seats of the House of Representatives, 35 out of 100 U.S. Senate seats and thousands of local elections in each state. With many students voting for the first time, the midterm elections are an indication of where the nation will head towards. 

However, many students try to avoid political conversations — and those who don’t prefer to engage in political conversations with those from their political preference.

As NDVotes co-chair Grace Scartz wrote via email, “We have seen that ND students often shy away from conversations seen as political, or will only engage with people they know believe the same things as they do.” 

Additionally, Scartz said she believes students feel as though they cannot make a significant impact in the political world and are discouraged from engaging in politics altogether.

“Lots of students also feel that they cannot have an impact on politics and feel disaffected by the acrimonious political environment all around us,” Scartz said. 

Many clubs around campus will host events for students on Nov. 8 regarding the outcome of the midterm elections and to increase political engagement on students. 

NDVotes, in alliance with the Student Latino Association as part of the ‘Nuestro Voto” (our vote) campaign, will host a Pizza, Pop, and Politics in 1050 Nanovic Institute from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The meeting will host professor Ricardo Ramirez, director of the Hesburgh Program in Public Service, to discuss civic engagement from Latino voters in these midterms. 

The College Democrats will host a meeting in the Montgomery Auditorium at LaFortune at 7 p.m. to discuss any concerns regarding the midterm debate last week. The meeting will be an open forum among club members to discuss any concerns they had over last week’s debate, co-president Anne Guzman said.

“[O]ur club has taken actions to keep our community on campus safe,” Guzman said. “We created a full plan of action to make sure that what was said during this debate doesn’t go unaddressed because of how harmful it is to the campus community at large.” 

The College Republicans will host an Election Night Watch Party in 155 DeBartolo Hall at 7 p.m. The watch party is set to serve Chipotle catering and drinks to its guests, as they watch the results of the midterm elections.

“Tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new day for America,” president PJ Butler wrote in an email. “For two years, the Democratic party has done everything that they can to bleed this country dry. But the bleeding will finally stop when red prevails.”

Students whose permanent address is in St. Joseph County can vote in-person tomorrow. Voting locations can be found on the St. Joseph County website.

Contact Sam at sgodinez@nd.edu.