American democracy is in trouble, and things aren’t likely to get better anytime soon, a range of academic and professional experts lament. All the while the 24-hour cable news media enables fringe elements that drive gridlock, they add.
Some say there may be hope with the millennial generation, who remain free from the political burdens of the baby boomer age.
But for now, the end to gridlock remains out of sight.
While the debate continues over whether the public is truly polarized or merely mimicking their feuding leaders, the split in Congress is approaching another crisis point.
Just when the consumer confidence index and housing finally start showing signs of improvement, the House and Senate appear ready to take the country toward the proverbial “fiscal cliff.” That’s where they are headed if they don’t resolve a year-old stalemate over whether to extend the Bush era tax cuts only to the middle class, as the Democrats demand, or to give them to the wealthy, too, as the Republicans insist upon.
Failure to reconcile before the end of the year means that a combination of across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases will automatically kick in, causing national productivity to plummet by 4 percentage points and throwing the economy into recession, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Regardless of the budget deficit outcome, the United States is in more trouble than the iconic flag and passionate politicians would imply.
Bob Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University and author of “Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness,” said judging American’s performance depends on how we define a successful democracy.
“If you’re defining it as doing what the citizens want, we are doing so-so,” he said. “If you define democracy in terms of dealing with problems, (it has) led to a state of gridlock, that’s not so good.”
Shapiro said things like the impending “fiscal cliff” and the high degree of partisan conflict signify that. In the past four years, the government was only able to do something of major significance with health care, he said. That measure, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was passed with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate.
Colin Gordon, an American history professor at the University of Iowa, noted similarly that this trend isn’t specific to this election cycle. He said the country hasn’t seen substantial changes in core public policy in the past 30 years.
And most experts agree that the outlook for any immediate change in polarized America is pretty bleak.
David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, said a solution to such a large, multi-faceted problem is hard to find. “It’s a trend with a lot of causes, there is no simple solution to change one of those causes,” he said. “It’s probably with us for a while.”
One solution may be to change the institutional incentives for appealing to primary voters, Hopkins said.
“If one of the parties … drifts too far off the edge and voters perceive that they are too extreme, they might come back towards the center to win elections. That is the kind of thing that will actually make a difference,” he said.
Keith Poole, a political scientist and author of “Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches,” said he believes the solution lies with political parties, as well.
“Something has to occur that would cause the parties to realign, breakup, change,” he said. “I don’t quite see that in the cards. I think we’re kind of stuck with what we see right now.”
Marc Hetherington, a political scientist from Vanderbilt University, suggested a few solutions, but categorized his feeling that something would change in the short to medium timeframe as pessimistic. “Polarization may not be such a big problem as the millennial generation comes into its full flower and replaces these baby boomers who have fought battles in the past, and are jaded by them,” he said.
If the issues that divide us — like gay rights — change, polarization also could dissipate, he said. These hot button issues are prone to cause people to see their differences, instead of similarities, Hetherington said.
Or if the economy took off and people were extremely satisfied with the president, opposing him would become more costly and encourage bipartisanship, he said.
But Hetherington said he doesn’t see that being likely anytime soon.
But most experts generally are in agreement that there is no silver-bullet solution to the nation’s gridlock.
With no solution in sight, they place some of the blame on television news.
Another Base to Blame: The Viral World
Former Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., said the continuous style of the media is, in part, responsible for the polarizing nature of our government. The 24-hour news cycle requires reporters to fill the airwaves with stories and news, even if there isn’t enough news to go around, he said.
“So they can stay on the air, it behooves them to bring on people who are controversial and who stir emotion,” Tanner said.
And those ideas aren’t always popular mainstream opinions, he said.
Natalie J. Stroud, author of “Niche News: The Politics of News Choice,” said in an email that this constant news cycle “rewards candidates who make more bombastic partisan statements with air time.”
Gordon, the UI history professor, said it once was easier for candidates to tailor speeches to a particular group. But now, all speeches can go viral because of today’s media accessibility. “Fringe elements of our political parties have a higher profile now,” he said.
And what is happening today with the Internet is similar to the communication advances of the 1790s with the newspaper boom, according to John Zaller, a UCLA political scientist who studies political representation and responsiveness.
Zaller said people from different places could watch what elected officials were doing when newspapers became available to all edges of the country. It is happening again today. “The Internet makes it really easy to monitor. Activists all around the country are totally wired into the votes,” he said.
Dietram Scheufele, a life sciences and communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said the Internet also has changed the role of how the media determines what is important. An editor doesn’t determine prominence, he said. “Now that is determined by an algorithm.”
Essentially, news judgment is decided by which story is the most popular, by how often it is forwarded, and how much time people spend reading it on their computers and tablets, Scheufele said.
The public chooses what it wants to view, he said, and that’s what becomes the news. “It’s reinforcing that spiral of polarization,” Scheufele said.
It’s All About the Money
Pleasing the audience is the best business model around. Scheufele said most people don’t watch the evening news in the new, fractionalized media environment. Instead, they have their own sect, which is why Fox News is profitable, he said.
“The opinion-dispensing shows are actually the most profitable,” Scheufele said. A spokesperson for Fox News declined comment for this story.
Barry Hollander, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, said this business model is most prevalent on television news. “CNN tries to skate down the (ideological) middle and they’re in fourth place,” he said.
Shows that choose a side are making a smart business decision, but not one that is necessarily healthy for democracy, Hollander said.
Because of the fragmentation of media, audiences who never cared about the news have plenty of opportunities to avoid it, he said. Technology has given people a choice, and that has led to the loss of the casual audience. The people left are those whose interest is high, he said. Broadcasters like Rachel Maddow simplify the world’s complexities and put issues into a certain narrative, Hollander said.
Some news is in the form of entertainment, like on The Colbert Report or The Daily Show. Other news is delivered in the form of anger, which draws an audience, but doesn’t necessarily inform, he said.
“Real news is like taking your medicine. Instead, it is more fun to drink a Coke,” Hollander said. “We fill up on a lot of empty calories by being entertained by our news. We’re not filled up, we just feel full.”
However, Hollander said he doesn’t believe “for a minute” that the media are making people more polarized, although they might be reinforcing views.
Zaller, the UCLA professor, similarly downplayed the media’s role in causing polarization. “The social media, cable stuff — there is just not enough. The parties are much more important objects,” he said.
Cable Journalists Need a Change
Charles Lewis, a journalism professor at American University, said cable television news stations “have found a way to stoke the partisan fires as a revenue motive.”
Lewis said cable news stations need to make money, and they do that by selling advertisements. And cable news sells lots of ads, especially around campaigns.
Lewis said Supreme Court rulings like Buckley v. Valeo — turning money into speech — and the Citizens United case against the McCain-Feingold Act — extending free speech to corporations — hasn’t helped the situation any.
“All you can hear is ka-ching,” he said.
The local and cable news stations are required to fill their airwaves with material, while trying to grab the public’s shortened attention span with graphics that tell them how to feel, Lewis said. And as a result, people tune out.
Although Lewis said he doubted a change in his lifetime. If anyone could do it, he said, it would be the younger generation.
“Every significant change from U.S. history, from civil rights to women’s rights, change was all done by people in their 20’s,” he said. “The ones with the limitations are not the ones who reform things.”
Young people today are using social media to get everything from entertainment to news. Hollander said social media can help democracy. “All you have to look at is the Arab Spring and the power of Twitter,” he said.
However, he said, social media, the Internet and television media have their pitfalls as well. “For every Arab Spring we can point to a million other ways that cable news makes it worse.”
No matter, Zaller suggested perhaps the most positive solution to our nation’s polarization problems.
“(People should) not be excessively partisan, try not to hate the other side. On both sides there are people who want to throw gasoline on the fire,” he said. “Try to get along.”
“Path to Polarization” is a three-part series by IowaWatch assistant editor Emily Hoerner that examines modern-day polarization in American politics. Hoerner did this project as an honors journalism and mass communications student in her senior year at the University of Iowa. Check out the blog she kept while researching and reporting this story.