Polarization Creates a Toxic Environment that Feeds Itself

By Rachel Fritz

On Monday morning, the Washington Center hosted our first seminar that discussed the issue of polarization. Since then we have had numerous site visits and seminars where the same theme has emerged. That Monday afternoon, we spoke with Sen. Chuck Grassley’s legislative director, James Rice, at the Hart building where he touched upon the topic of polarization. During this, Rice noted that Congress is a mirror image of the American public; therefore, if Congress is polarized, it is because the public is. This was a bold assertion that has been strengthened by multiple other speakers we have encountered at the Washington Center. There are many theories and reasons for why Congress and the public are so polarized. Brian Lamb, CEO of C-SPAN discussed the issue of individuals consuming information from only one media source. Another speaker, Mo Elleithee, of Georgetown University, talked about how “sorting” can reflect why individuals and groups are so polarized. This concept of the public and Congress being polarized is detrimental to the efficiency of our legislature.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 68% of U.S. adults obtain their news from a social media site, with Facebook being the leader at 43% (Matsa & Shearer, 2018). The issue with this is there is no form of consistency for the reader by consuming only one source. The reader is limiting the information they retain. The fundamental problem with individuals only gathering information on a certain issue from one source is that it allows them to have a very narrow view because there is a lack of sources. This source, in turn, could be unreliable, which then promotes the spread of misguided information. For instance, Fox News and CNN have the reputation of being biased by only reporting from one side of the political spectrum, thus leaving out other points of view. Therefore, a constant habit of this causes individuals to develop a one-sided viewpoint, and when in discussion with others can lead to a conversation filled with tension. Therefore, the benefit of individuals using multiple news sources to conduct research allows a broader range of ideas and opinions rather than a narrowly tailored one by a single source.

On the other hand, Elleithee raised the idea of partisan and geographical sorting leading to polarization. Sorting is the idea of individuals move toward geographic areas where other people hold the same ideology and viewpoints as they do. This is a fascinating idea because we all essentially do it. In our group meeting tonight, we talked about how for the most part we do this at Drake University. Most of our friends hold similar viewpoints as us and there is nothing wrong with this. People tend to feel comfortable around people who share the same views on issues. However, when individuals associate and surround themselves with others that hold similar ideas as they do, it limits their perceptions and doesn’t really question people to think about their own views. Instead, these individuals tend to agree instead of being challenged to explain why they believe what they do. Therefore, it limits the ability to be surrounded by people who believe differently, which can potentially lead to closed-minded people, which just fuels the fire for polarization.

With all of this in mind, we are less likely to live in areas with neighbors who disagree with our viewpoints. The example, that was discussed in the seminar reinforced the idea that in the 2016 election if you lived in an urban area you were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. However, if you lived in a rural area, you were more likely to vote for Donald Trump. In a study conducted by the Brookings Institute, they found geographical sorting worsens polarization in many ways. When counties all across states become homogeneous, then it makes it more difficult to make districts competitive when redrawing them (Galston & Nivola, 2008). This is also accurate for a presidential election; when states are very homogeneous, it can be very discouraging for individuals who support the less favorable candidate. In the end, this increases the majority’s advantage in the election (Galston & Nivola, 2008), a vicious cycle where polarization creates a toxic environment that feeds itself.

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