Potential Solutions to the Polarization Problem

Originally published 10/31/2018 on Arc Digital

There has been great interest among the chattering classes concerning the degradation of our democracy. The topics by now are familiar: political polarization, media fragmentation, the culture of outrage and demonization, conspiracy theories, election meddling, tribalism, populism, fake news, echo chambers, incivility, and so on. In many respects, these are overlapping and intersecting maladies. But by far the most significant effect of our polarized moment is the diminishing ability of Congress to address national challenges.

Some of the commentary on this issue is alarmist; some is purely analytical. Only occasionally are solutions actually suggested, such as legislative proposals, partisan crusades, or attitude adjustments. Let us evaluate a few of the solutions—though, fair warning: skepticism is merited.

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Democracy and the Deterioration of Journalism

A Review of
Informing the News (Author: Thomas E. Patterson)

An informed citizenry is essential to a well-functioning democracy. We all assume that the “fourth estate” is what engenders citizens’ understanding of our national situation. In the last three decades, unfortunately, the quality of news has degenerated, raising questions about what the news can realistically be expected to accomplish.

The causes are technological (cable, internet, social media) as well as economic (audience fragmentation, advertising no longer can support costs of journalism) and sociological (the nationalization of politics, the changing style of journalism). The effect, according to a Carnegie Corporation report, is that “the quality of journalism is losing ground in the drive for profit, diminished objectivity, and the spread of the ‘entertainment virus.’”

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You Can’t Fight Polarization Until You Understand It

A Review of
Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Author: Lilliana Mason)

Lilliana Mason uses extensive social psychology research to explain how today’s polarization works. The two parties have become heavily “sorted”, and victory for the “team” eclipses attention to actual issues. She concludes:

The social sorting of American partisans has changed the electorate into a group of voters who are relatively unresponsive to changing information or real national problems. The voting booths are increasingly occupied by those who fiercely want their side to win and consider the other party to be disastrous.

And there are real effects:

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