Do Democrats and Republicans hate each other? Perhaps that only applies to a small proportion of Americans, but they get all the attention because they are the loudest, regularly posting on social media. Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan find that journalists overestimate polarization because they hear from the politically obsessed, who co-inhabit bubbles where politics is always central. For most Americans, partisanship is a relatively unimportant identity. What looks like dislike for the other party is actually disdain for politicians and people who are constantly talking about politics.
Guests: Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, Stony Brook University
Study: The Other Divide
The hyper-involved versus the disengaged, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
We’ve heard that Americans are strongly polarized with Democrats and Republicans increasingly disliking one another. But what if that only explains a small proportion of the population that gets all the attention because they are the loudest, posting on social media, and talking about politics? What if what looks like dislike for the other party is more like anger at politicians, or aversion to people who make politics central to their lives?
This week, I talk to Yanna Krupnikov and Johnny Barry Ryan of Stony Brook University about their new Cambridge book, The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics.
They find that journalists overestimate polarization, because they hear from the hyper-involved who post on social media and co-inhabit bubbles where politics is always critical. For most Americans, partisanship is a relatively unimportant identity. They don’t want parents to prioritize politics over other activities, and they don’t want to post about politics online. They just want it all to stop. As a Science of Politics listener, you are part of the hyper-involved bubble. So let’s hear how the other way more than half lives; here’s our discussion.
So if you could start out with a brief summary of the book, what were the big findings and takeaways?
So in this book, really the focus is on getting at this attention divide in the American population, American electorate. We call this attention divide really an involvement divide, based on the idea that there are some people who are paying no attention, some people who are paying some attention, and then there is a group of people that is fairly small, but they’re really paying just an outsized amount of attention to politics. These are the people who are kind of checking in with politics, potentially on an hourly basis.
And so throughout the book, we find that it’s really that group that differs from everyone else in some ways that we think are fairly consequential. For example, they have different issue positions, so they prioritize different things, even within parties. So for example involved Republicans prioritize different issues than Republicans who are less involved. And then involved Democrats prioritize different issues than Democrats who are less involved.
This translates into things like how efficacious you feel about politics. It also translates into how confident and certain you are about your political position.
So people who are involved are very certain that they know exactly what to do politically, that they know exactly the right policies. This kind of translates into your social networks. Looking backwards we see differences in upbringing, education environments for people who are involved, and one of the big points here is that it translates into expression. People who are deeply involved are just much more likely to talk about politics, to post about politics on social media as well.
And so we tie this divide to how people view politics, that if the deeply involved, the people who are paying the most attention, the people who care the most are really the people who you see politically, because they’re so expressive because they’re posting because they’re talking about it, you really start to think of politics through the lens of these people.
And because these people happen to be more certain, they happen to be much more politically-polarized, you start to think of the entirety of people, like everyone around you, as potentially being super polarized partisans.
And of course, there’s kind of this component that journalists are really pivotal to this kind of environment, in that these are the people who are also getting the most media attention. They’re not just expressing, they’re not just posting, but they’re the ones who are most likely to end up in news stories. When they do go to social media, they might even get picked up by journalists for their tweets, for example.
So basically to return to Lippmann 1922, the pictures of politics in our heads are really of these people who are deeply involved, heavily certain, very, very effectively polarized, and very kind of embedded in politics.
So it sounds like you’re talking about us. You say it’s a weird group, but it’s likely to include the listeners of a podcast called The Science of Politics, or the readers of your University Press book. So is part of this sort of a message to folks in this community about the bubble that they’re in?
Obviously all political scientists and all listeners of this podcast are involved in politics in precisely the most perfect and correct way possible; when they’re certain about their positions it is because they’re actually correct.
In some ways I think that anyone who spends a lot of time in a particular social network, and they’re surrounded by people who care about the same things that they do, is going to form an impression of others that might not necessarily be correct.
If I am a huge fan of a particular TV show, and I’m surrounded by people who constantly want to talk about it, it might be extraordinarily shocking for me to realize that large chunks of Americans have actually not watched the show, particularly when it gets canceled or something like that.
And so I think in some ways, in terms of us as political scientists, especially political scientists who are on Twitter, I think at times it is something that we intellectually know that large chunks of Americans are not following politics as closely. But I think it’s something that kind of bears an important reminder, that a lot of times these things that we are researching might be news to people when they see it in our studies.
When we ask survey questions about how people feel about certain policies and they give us opinions, it is not because these opinions are something that they have come to because they think about it on a daily basis, but it’s something that they’ve come to because we asked them and they felt like they had to answer.
And I think where this becomes especially important often is when we ask people about something like partisanship and they tell us what their partisan identity is. And they’ve given us an answer, this answer correlates with an awful lot of things, is it an identity that they carry with them every day that they think about out of like, “Oh, as a Republican, I want this. As a Democrat, I want this,” or is it something that they’ve produced on a survey?
And so I think thinking about how we are different is I think helpful, and makes for a more fruitful research experience.
So tell us about the backstory. How did this book come to be? What were the inspirations? And what’s the sort of nature of your collaboration?
John Barry Ryan:
What’s interesting about this book is I would say this book is not about polarization, but the folder on our computers that we saved all the documents on is called the Polarization Book, because it started through projects with Samara Klar, and then that developed in a project with Jamie Druckman, and Matt Levendusky about how polarized people are, and how people perceive polarization in the public.
And it was this thing where we kept hearing a lot about, we’re more deeply divided than ever, everybody’s polarized, the focus on politics is really high, but at the same time, when we thought about our own friends and family, we weren’t sure who people voted for.
We’d see things where you might have the same person posting on Facebook something that was like, “Blue lives matter and black lives matter.” There seemed like there was a lot more conflict in the public than you would read about in a lot of the articles on polarization.
But we also found that people were polarized. So what is it that’s helping predict polarization? Once we found that, well, involvement to some extent is predicting polarization. We’re like, “Well, what else does involvement predict beyond that?” And so then the book grew from there.
The original goal of the measure was just to see if we can predict the people who are in particularly polarized.
And so then when we started to think about what involvement means theoretically, about what it actually means psychologically to be involved, going for example, to the literature on cultures of fandom, you get to this idea, “Well, hold on, if they’re involved, they’re not just polarized, it’s going to affect all these other facets of the way people engage with politics, the way they interact with the world, the way they interact with the news, and things like that.”
And from there, we started doing surveys that essentially track basically these ideas, the surveys are kind of descriptive, they’re exploratory, but really to see if these theories of fandom, if these theories of involvement are predicting such different interactions with the world around us how does that translate to politics?
So in Who Governs? Robert Dahl famously says that for most people politics is a side show in the circus of life. It seems like you have a lot of evidence that that might be true. How true is it, and what’s the evidence?
So if we think about politics, especially if we think about partisan identity, we are actually not the first to suggest that partisan identities aren’t necessarily as important as other identities.
So Jamie Druckman and Matt Levendusky have a piece where they find that partisan identities are kind of less important. There are survey data, the American Family Survey that Chris Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope run kind of finds sort of the thing that people put more stock in other identities.
So in that sense, the things that we’re finding are really kind of in line with these ideas. I think another thing to remember here is that the kind of people we’re talking about psychologically, this sense of deep involvement, are people who are spending an awful lot of time on politics. And spending time on something is I think a tremendous privilege that a lot of people don’t necessarily have.
If we think about working an hourly job, like where you’re not necessarily constantly checking Twitter, or you’re not necessarily looking into what’s happening, you can’t necessarily change the course of your day to watch congressional hearings or something like that, other things become more important.
And so just to give you a super-anecdotal example, our daughter was sick, not with COVID, with RSV, and she had to get hospitalized, so she’s now in the hospital. And basically, the entire time our kid is in the hospital we don’t care what is happening in the world because there’s this tiny kid, she was two years old, she’s on oxygen, right?
And if you think about people’s lives, if they are worried about their next paycheck, if they’re worried about what’s happening with their kids, if they are concerned about all these things, they literally don’t have the time to figure out why something is trending on Twitter.
And so I think that is really kind of the key example here, is that it’s not that politics is unimportant, it’s that there’s so many things that people are experiencing on a firsthand basis that to them at least feel more important in the moment.
So we have had a few episodes about affective polarization, so our listeners might understand the basics of people rating the other party negatively, but you tell us that we might be overestimating it or conflating with some other attitudes. So what is the evidence there?
So if we think about affective polarization, most of our evidence for affective polarization, which is just in case, the idea that you dislike the other party for completely non-ideological reasons, they’re based again, on survey questions. These survey questions might ask you basically just how you feel about the other party. They might ask you something like social distance, so how comfortable you’d be, how happy you’d be with a child who married somebody of the opposing party; so having somebody from the opposing party in your family.
And I think there is really robust evidence that this level of affective polarization has increased over the last several decades. I think that evidence is irrefutable. It is kind of present, it’s present regardless of measurement.
But I think where things like measurement and things like question-wording come in is what is it that people mean when they tell you they dislike the other side? And it’s possible that they literally mean I don’t like the other side, but I think oftentimes as we show in the book or as we show in our research with Samara Klar and as we show in our research with Jamie Druckman and Matt Levendusky, it is conflated by questions, it’s conflated by measurement. So when people say they wouldn’t want their child to marry somebody of the opposing party, do they really mean that unconditionally or are they really saying, “I don’t want to commit to a lifetime of dinners where somebody yells at me about politics.”
I think that what our book suggests is that there are two types of people. There are people who are heavily involved in politics, and those people do mean or might actually mean I do not want somebody from the opposing party in my family. I don’t care that this person might never vote, I don’t care that this person will never speak to me about politics. I just don’t want this person in my family, I don’t like them. But I think for a lot of people, the dislike is the intrusion of politics into their lives. So they just don’t want to talk about it now. They don’t love politicians from the opposing party.
This is not the same as suggesting that they’re these like great bipartisans and they feel no partisan attachment. They have no partisan feelings. Rather it’s that their kind of focus is on activists and on elites. They’re not necessarily going to care as much about having somebody from the opposing side in their family so long as this person doesn’t really talk to them about politics.
What our book suggests and our work with Samara and Matt and Jamie is that when your impressions of politics are based on people who are kind of the most expressive and the most likely to care and talk and post about politics, this is where you get into these strange nuances of how people feel about the opposing side. When people answer a lot of these survey questions, they imagine that they’re going to be at a dinner with or talking to or engaging with kind of the most vocal, the most ideological, the most angry partisans.
And so they kind of think to themselves, “Well, I am not like this but everyone else is like this. And so I don’t want this. I don’t want to engage with that.” This is where you get a lot of these kind of affective poll relation dislikes, which are really signaling a dissatisfaction with politics rather than directly a dissatisfaction with party. So in a lot of ways, this kind of other divide that we talk about is the attention divide, but it also this divide between how much people want politics in their lives.
So you call these folks the involved or heavily involved. But to what extent are they differentiated from some old terms that we’ve used like activists or elites and to what extent are these people the what we sometimes call the hobbyists who are spending a lot of time commenting on politics but are not necessarily involved in our conventional sense of showing up?
In terms of the old terms of activists and elites, these people definitely do not have to be elites in the sense that we think of elites as people who are in government or politicians. You don’t need to be in government. You don’t need to be kind of elected. You actually don’t even need to be an activist in some sense to be deeply involved in politics. If we think back to changes in the media environment in the US, one of the things that has happened is we have a lot more news. We have social media, we have a lot more availability of information on not even an hourly basis, like something new happens every 10 minutes, some new tweet or some new piece of news. There’s just a lot more information coming in.
And so, whereas in the past you may have needed to be kind of somebody who is actually engaged in government or working in government or working as part of an activist organization to be deeply involved with politics, you don’t really need to have that level of connection anymore. You can track politics for the entire duration of your day even if you’re not a political scientist. You have the capacity to do so just based on the media environment that we’re in.
So to that extent, we’re talking about really different people. These might be people who will actually never do anything that is described in some way as an activist. They might never organize any sort of kind of political action. They might just kind of talk about politics a lot. They might tweet about politics a lot. These are people who might never run for office. They’re just kind of regular people who spend a lot of time thinking about politics.
In fact, I think one of the things that sort of differentiates this group from kind of the activist group is this way that they use social media. People who are activists on social media are often going to tweet about sort of similar things a lot. They’re going to show a commitment to a particular cause. Here we’re talking about people whose kind of unifying theme for their political expression might just be an ideology or a party or really just politics. So this is sort of a really different group.
This of course gets us to this question of, well, are they hobbyists? What sort of differentiates the perspective from Eitan Hersh’s hobbyists is that I think in Eitan’s view, the hobbyists are engaging with politics because it is sort of enjoyable for them. We do hobbies because hobbies are fun and they’re enjoyable. I think people who are deeply involved would never describe politics as fun. Rather, it’s this sense of I follow this because it is my duty. I think a lot of people who are deeply involved would actually say politics is absolutely no fun for them, that it’s terrifying and like anxiety provoking and horrible, but that they have to follow it because it is sort of an almost moral obligation.
John Barry Ryan:
I would say the one thing that Yanna and I sort of differ on this on a bit is whether or not they think it’s fun. I think they might think it’s fun sometimes, but I don’t think the fun is necessarily a problem. So if you have a world in which you have somebody who’s talking about politics and they’re like, well, I just view it as a game, there are risks of that. But presumably not the risk is demonizing one group and asserting that only one solution to solving world problems is an issue. And so hobbyists might on occasion be like, well, it’s just a game, we’re just playing this game, and that is bad. But the deeply involved would never say it’s a game or at least a good portion of them because it’s so important.
So if they have fun, it’s the social aspects. It’s getting to work with people, all this sort of stuff that’s fun about it. The politics isn’t fun. The politics is hard and it’s tough and it’s important. It would be sort of like the same thing if you were in volunteering with some people who are very downtrodden in a country that was experiencing a famine. You might consider it rewarding, you might say we had some laughs, but you wouldn’t say primarily what we were doing was fun. You would say what you were doing is important. And so I guess it’s the subtle differences between Yanna and I in that standpoint, but for the most part it is we’re in agreement that that’s what’s separating us from Eitan’s book.
And just to add another kind of finer point on it, I guess, I think one difference in terms of what these people are doing between kind of thinking about them as pure hobbyists is how they perceive this expression of politics. I think politics is for power. So in Eitan Hersh’s book, the perception there is that if these people are basically kind of just expressing when they’re just talking about it, they’re tweeting about it, they’re talking about it, they’re reading the news, and that they realize that they’re doing kind of the easier, the more enjoyable thing, whereas sort of volunteering, doing on the ground work is the harder kind of less enjoyable thing.
And I think that is 100% true. I think obviously volunteering of the type of action that Eitan describes could be harder. But I think people who are deeply involved perceive kind of what they’re doing as actually like really important political action. I think it’s not coming from a place of I’m doing the easiest thing. I think it’s coming from a really kind of well-meaning place of expression of I have to say this because it’s important that people hear it. So I think it’s a belief that you are kind of affecting change through this form of expression.
You have a lot of data on social media use. To what extent is the social media itself actually responsible for these misperceptions that people have and is the sort of primary arena in which the involved are involved, and to what extent is it just that’s where we see it and social media is just a way of seeing what is also occurring in the offline world?
John Barry Ryan:
I think the problem is how we view and use Twitter. We focus on, when we talk about politics, all these people who are tweeting about politics, ignoring the fact that a lot of people are tweeting about other things, and that should give us a better view of the world. When we’ve talked about this book, we’ve talked about our colleague at Stony Brook, Jason Jones’s data, which looks at Twitter bios, and you do see an increase in people putting things like BLM, MAGA, nonpartisan political things. So that’s sort of interesting. But then those sorts of posts are dwarfed by dog cat, which is dwarfed by sports, which is dwarfed by family stuff.
So if we’re thinking about Twitter as a whole, it actually is pretty representative of what’s going on. But when we talk about, well, what does Twitter tell us about politics, we just focus on the political tweets, ignoring the fact that a lot of them are not about that. And so that gives us a sort of distorted view of the way people are because what we do then is we attribute sometimes what we’re seeing on Twitter about politics to the larger group of people, many of whom would not be doing it.
Now, to what extent is this caused by Twitter but didn’t exist before? I would imagine the main difference is that it allows people to find like-minded individuals in one way, in terms of like being able to talk more. The other thing it allows us to do is it allows us to see people who think completely differently from us and to look at them and say, “Well, that’s really weird. I don’t like that.” And the interesting thing is we might have a neighbor who has very similar viewpoints, but when we’re talking we’re talking about the local school, the local sports team, whatever it is, we’re not talking about the politics.
And so we like that person, but then we don’t think of them as a political person at all. But we think of the person who we see on Twitter and be like, “Oh, I don’t like that person.” They become our political exemplar, and the problem is we, again, forget, well, hold it, there’s all these other people who are just like that one and I like them. And so in that way it can distort our views just because it’s exposing us to other people.
And then lastly, because of the nature of politics itself, the people are also probably going to be a little bit louder, a little more aggressive who are tweeting about politics. That might also make us more inclined to dislike them and certainly more opinionated. One of the hallmarks of the involved people is that they have opinions and they’re certain about them. And so you’re not going to see a lot of wishy-washy Twitter takes even if that’s how most people feel because when most people have a sort of, well, I can see it both ways, they’re not sitting down to type that up. No one is raising a banner and starting a revolution to indifference and apathy and confusion and ambivalence. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here. Let’s take up arms. I don’t know what we want.” You don’t really get that. And Twitter is kind of like that, that you’re not necessarily starting a revolution but I’m putting my views out there, I should at least have some.
You also try to explain how the super involved got to be super involved and you have a lot of data on college networks, but you also assess, I guess, the more traditional paths of socioeconomic status and parental influence and talk about social networks. To what extent is college a big part of this process of how we get the super involved, and to what extent is that just a window into seeing how social networks develop generally?
Obviously, we cannot randomly assign people to go to different colleges and then track their involvement over time. Right? A lot of this, by the very nature of the data, is correlational. We can’t necessarily say it’s causal, but we find that people who go to very selective liberal arts colleges are more deeply involved.
Now, do high school student who have these more deeper political leanings self-select into these more selective liberal arts colleges? Are they more likely to get into these very selective liberal arts colleges? Entirely possible. We do try to get at this idea in the book to the extent that we can get at this self-selection idea, there is some evidence that there is something about this very selective liberal arts environment that does lead to greater involvement down the line.
Why might that be the case? Well, there’s research and education that suggests that, in certain liberal arts colleges, there is just a greater environment of civic and political action. These colleges are also much better resourced. You’re, to some extent, more likely to have offices and environments that help people engage in these various forms of political action, these various forms of civic action.
What we see is this outcome that it’s not just the people who have higher levels of education are more likely to be deeply involved. Though that it is the case, right? There is a correlation between level of education and deep involvement, but that it is really a specific form of college environment that contributes to that particular level of involvement. Where this might be because of the resources at these colleges, these might be because of the other types of students who end up there. You’re around these types of people. But we do see that connection in our studies.
I was just going to say, what about the broader social development? Is this something where you get it when you’re young and, if you get it, you’re going to be politically crazed for forever? Or obviously we just had two very high turnout elections, so there are some people who get activated by the political environment. Is this you get socialized and then you’re there, or is there ups and downs?
John Barry Ryan:
When we measure involvement, it’s a continuum. Right? We have the people who are listening to this podcast, and they would score above average on the continuum. But the people who then get to the next level, the deeply involved level, would have to listen to this podcast and tweet about it or Facebook about it, et cetera. When you see in the socialization measures the things that are constantly popping up into that deeply involved thing is political discussion at home and with their friends in school. It’s the talking. Being in student government, being in sports, which sometimes pops up as a predictor of political involvement, taking civics classes, writing, all those sorts of stuff, they’re not predicting involvement. They might be predicting, for example, I just vote. I think it’s a duty to vote, I think it’s a duty to read the newspaper, but not that next level. Talking. Talking at home is what’s separating it.
Now, what’s interesting when we talked about social media before, the deeply involved are more likely to post about pretty much everything. The effect is strongest for politics, but they’re more likely to post about most things. As a result, you could imagine that, if you’re expressive in the home, it’s not surprising that you become expressive as an adult. Right?
You do see these things that try to measure social network discussion, and those will go in waves. In October, it’ll increase, everybody starts talking about politics, and then November comes, there’s an election, and it falls off the cliff. Thanksgiving, Christmas, they focus on New Year’s and all that sort of stuff. This group will keep staying on politics, right? But that’s because their thing is talking, and talking about politics specifically. That’s one of those things that will sustain throughout. Because it’s always important to note, when we talk about the deeply involved and everybody else, a good portion, potentially most of the everybody else, is voting. Right?
They almost all know who the president is. They know a lot of things about politics, but they’re not necessarily talking about it and they’re not necessarily following it for the day-to-day ups and downs. Right? It’s like I’m just trying to get a sense, because at some point I need to make some voting decisions, and so I just need to know generally what’s going on, or else I need to just be responsible as a person and have some sense of… The people who are not deeply involved, it’s not like they go outside and like, “What? COVID? I didn’t know about this.” They know about things that are going on in the world. They don’t know about the minutia, which they’re deeply involved with, and they’re not talking about the minutia.
You also have some fun studies of people judging parents for either attending political rallies or athletic events for their kids. Talk a little bit about what we can learn from that, about how the politically involved are perceived.
The studies about parenting really come out of the socialization chapter. One thing that’s really hard with socialization is that it’s difficult to figure out whether people are getting political socialization, political stuff from their parents, because the parents are doing it very deliberately. A parent has decided, “I’m going to teach my kid to be a member of X party,” whatever party, or whether this is a purely accidental exposure. Some parents tend to talk more about politics, a kid will overhear it, that’s how they’ll discover that there’s a particular party their parents prefer, and it goes down the line.
The problem, of course, with asking people how they parent is that that’s a social desirability-laced kind of question, and so there’s research to suggest that parents, especially mothers, will answer questions in the ways that you don’t want to be seen like a bad parent. Right? As we’re having this podcast, I am concerned that you will think that we are bad parents as we wheel our baby from room to room while we record this, on this point.
The track we take to really think about how people view parenting and if they’re differences between the deeply involved and those less so is we give these hypothetical situations about parenting. There are some additional benefits to that. First, how you parent and what you transmit to your kids, if we think about the government perspective, is indicative of what values you think are most important to society. You’re essentially giving your kids the values that you believe are most important for future generations.
The second benefit to doing it experimentally is that you can give people costs, essentially. If your kid had infinite time and they could presumably do everything, then sure, they can go to the rally, they can go to the soccer game, they can do whatever they want. But if your kid’s time is finite in a day, which everyone’s is, you’re constantly making these choices for your child in terms of how they’re going to spend this finite time.
In our studies, we give people trade-offs. Your kid could go to this political rally, or your kid could go to the soccer game, and by the way, your kid is not the star of the soccer game. This is not an important soccer game. It doesn’t really matter. Your kid’s team will lose. What we find is that people really dislike explicitly political parenting. They’re across a number of studies and we try to replicate by changing the kid’s age, we try to replicate it by making the political event actually entirely nonpartisan and almost civic. Right? It’s a voting forum. Across all of these studies, the one thing we find is that people aren’t supportive of parents who pick the political thing.
Now, what’s interesting is that the deeply involved also aren’t super, super supportive of parents who do the explicitly political thing, but they’re of course more supportive than other people of this type of action, and even more importantly, they’re the ones most likely to report, “Yeah, I would make the same choice. I would also tell my child, let’s skip this soccer game and go to this political event.”
To some extent, we see this evidence that when it comes to what values you want to transmit to children, when it comes to early socialization, it’s really the deeply involved who are more likely to put politics front and center, and it’s the deeply involved who really do believe that politics is a value that we should transmit more directly.
One place you do seem to find that the hyper involved are really efficacious is that they get to journalists. You show that journalists really perceive polarization in part due to the people that they experience on social media. How much is your story the story of over-perceived polarization?
John Barry Ryan:
Journalists have a hard time because, if you’re covering politics, you have to cover the people who are most active in politics for a lot of reasons. One of them is the job of a journalist is to tell a story, and there is no story in the people who are like, “I’m too busy to pay attention to politics.” There is no political story there. But there’s also this thing where everybody understands that, when covering aviation, journalists cover plane crashes. They don’t cover all the planes that are taking off and landing. Right? Now, it is a responsibility of the reader to understand that, if you read about a plane crash, that this is not typically what happens, and to understand that they are not reporting on the thousands and thousands of thousands of planes that safely landed that day.
It’s not so much a problem necessarily that reporters are covering the hyper involved who tend to be more polarized. If we all understood that, well that’s a group of people that exists in the world and in the country. That’s not everybody. But you see this constantly with journalists, politicians, individuals just saying, “In this deeply divided country.” That’s how everything gets phrased, and that seems like that’s going too far.
There’s also another problem in terms of covering partisan gaps that exist. How do you cover vaccine rates, for example, when most Republicans, especially the most at-risk Republicans are vaccinated? But they are vaccinated at much lower rates than Democrats. Right? Are you covering the gap or are you covering the absolute rates? You have to cover both, but people are going to be drawn to the story of the gap more than the rate. It is the better story in some ways.
But then there’s another aspect to this. Building off of Amber Boydstun’s work and talking about journalists going to patrol mode and getting on a beat, and so if you were on the aviation beat, because there had been a couple plane crashes, there was that time in 2001 where there were a couple plane crashes even after September 11th in short order, and you’re like, “Well, we now need someone who’s covering this.” Or the air max that was the max, the planes that had to be taken out of service. Now you’re on this beat and planes aren’t crashing, and so now you start covering turbulence, because that’s what you got, because you’re on the beat, you have to find something. We have the insurrection at the capitol, and then it becomes, “Well, there’s going to be something on January 20th.” And then there isn’t. “Oh, the there’s going to be something later on.” And there isn’t. It’s like, “Well, I have to find something, and there are people out there who will give me something,” and so then it starts to become less representative and starts to become that sort of problem that a lot of people experience in January and February of the year of reporting on the snowstorm and the snowstorm doesn’t come. But at the same time, it might come.
The journalists are in the worst possible position on this, and so as a reader or as a viewer of the news, you have to come up with some way of understanding what they’re writing, how do I think that reflects reality, and it’s the standard man bites dog versus dog bites man. We intellectually have a hard time remembering that. Right? That if we’re reading this thing about this outrageous event that happened and we can’t believe that it happened in terms of some sort of political everything fell apart at some place because of politics, and we’re like, “Ah, I can’t believe that happened,” well, okay, then you should assume that’s not what normally happens. Right?
And just because you saw it in the news, that doesn’t mean that’s the typical thing that occurs. It means it’s a thing that does occur. And so when we talk about the involved or the polarized in the book, the point isn’t to say, “Well these people don’t exist.” The point is to say, “What is it that is more representative?” And it’s much more representative to say that people dislike out-party politicians, than to say, “Well, they dislike rank and file voters, and love their in-party politicians.” But it starts to become conflated in people’s heads based on the sort of narrative stories that they’re reading.
I’ll just speak for me. I thought it would be a really nice ending if we could just say, “Well, if journalists did this thing differently, everything would be so much better.” Because it’s so easy to just pin whatever’s happening on journalists. If they just reported this thing, everything would be so, so, so much better. And the thing that I was going toward was this idea that if journalists just didn’t interview exemplars, everything would be better. If they just used survey statistics and they didn’t find this person who tweeted this, or they didn’t do the person on the street interviews, looking for people who said these particular things.
But then as part of the book, we interviewed practitioners, working journalists. And talking to journalists, it becomes a lot more difficult to make this argument. It becomes more difficult to pin it all on exemplars or on narratives. In part, because we can also think of cases where these narratives are really, really good. These narratives are more vivid, and they help people picture stories and events that happen to others in ways that survey statistics never could.
So one of the journalists we interviewed referred to a series that another journalist had done where they had covered people who were economically struggling because of the pandemic. And it’s true. It was really powerful, that it was likely more powerful because of its use of narrative at exemplars way beyond actual statistics and economics could have been. So journalists are basically in a very difficult spot. They have to retain audiences. They have to transmit information to people that is really, really difficult. And so to say as just scholars looking over this, and as just to say, “Don’t use exemplars,” is to me at least, from my perspective having talked to the journalists, having looked at the data, seems actually quite unfair.
John Barry Ryan:
One more last thing along those same lines. When we were writing the book or talking about what the book was going to be, we’re like, “Well, this is going to be the book that describes the electorate as a whole.” And then as we were writing it, it’s essentially, “Here are the deeply involved. By the way, they’re weird.” Constantly. It’s just easier to write about the obsessive in so many ways, and the people who are not so … We wouldn’t necessarily call them obsessed, but who are active. Because there is a story to tell, and so we fell into the same … I don’t even want to call it a trap. It’s just the way to explain it to people. And so in the course of hundreds of pages, we’re able to say, “And this is how that makes them different. That makes them different. That them different.” In an AP wire story, those last [inaudible 00:49:07] which would say, “Hey by the way, they’re different,” those are going to get cut out. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to describe public opinion because it’s dry. And because if you’re trying to explain it to people, you are going to be drawn to the outliers. And so it’s up to us to remember, “Well, they are the outliers.”
So polarization is a story of overtime change, but you’re mostly dealing with current data. So is it possible that your story has always been true? In fact, it was actually more true in the past, and it’s getting slightly less true over time. There’s still polarization because people interviewed in the 70s couldn’t tell you the difference between the parties. And now they’ve been able to pick a side.
I don’t think we’re saying that there is no polarization. There is certainly a polarization. It is certainly … There’s more polarizations, more profound than there were decades ago. That is an irrefutable, empirical finding. What we are suggesting is that this polarization is especially pronounced amongst a certain group of people.
Now, are there more people who are deeply involved now than there were in the past? That’s certainly possible. Though of course, we don’t have the data for it because we don’t have our overtime measure. But it would be plausible given changes in the media environment, and the affordances of social media. If one of the things that makes you involved is constantly following information and finding people like you to talk to about these kinds of things, it would certainly be much easier to be deeply involved now than it would have been in the past.
Could that make the polarization more profound? Possibly. Could that contribute to this exemplar aspect with journalists? Because now there are more people providing tweets and quotes that get to this point? Also plausible. We don’t have this overtime data. But our goal in the book is not to suggest that polarization isn’t real, because it certainly is.
This is not a hopeful book about the state of American politics. This is not, “And actually American politics is rainbows and sunshine, and everything’s great.” Rather, it’s a book to suggest that underlying the divide we constantly talk about, which is the Democrats and Republicans, the polarization, is, to state the title of this author, divide, which is this divide in involvement. A lot of what manifests itself as polarization, as this partisan divide, is undergirded by the attention that people are paying to politics. And people who are paying a lot of attention also happen to be the most polarized. They also happen to be the most vocal. So when we take stock of what the populace looks like, it just so happens that we’re most likely to see the people who are most polarized.
It is, I guess, hopeful in the extent that we suggest that there are certain people who are less involved, and therefore they direct most of their partisan dislike toward politicians rather than ordinary voters. Maybe that’s hopeful. But that’s the idea. That when we think of this overarching, unconditional affect of polarization, there is a strong connection to involvement. And it’s important to think about people who are less involved, who are basically tired of politics. That that’s where they’re directing a lot of their frustration.
Does the other divide help to explain why the traditional divide stays close to 50/50, and we never seem to have a sustained majority on either side?
John Barry Ryan:
In one way, I think it does, because there are opportunities for political entrepreneurs to look at issues that a lot of the people who are not involved care about, that are non-ideological, and to propose solutions to them. That can say … A Republican politician can say to democratic voters, “Your party doesn’t care about crime. Or it doesn’t care about, currently, inflation.” And I’m going to solve that for you. Now, at the same time, that Republican politician who does that can offer certain solutions that the involved people on their side might really like, that this potentially open-minded person on the left will find unacceptable.
So the entrepreneur can only go so far before either hurting themselves or their own party, or turning off this other person. But you can imagine that that’s how you get in a world in which you’re able to get yourself to 45% constantly, and then hope you can get that last five over the bar to get you an office. Because there are these opportunities where people would say, even if it’s not saying, “Oh, now I’m going to vote Republican.” You’re right. Democratic party doesn’t care about crime and inflation, so maybe I won’t vote democratic this time, or maybe I won’t encourage others to vote, even if I’m going to vote.
And so I think that’s this opportunity to remember that not everybody is so die hard that they are going to support you regardless of conditions, even if that doesn’t mean they’re going to go to the other side. Right. The other party and vote the other way. They can dampen their enthusiasm, which can have negative effects. And when you get people who are a little bit lower down on that involvement scale, be 0.3, maybe they typically don’t vote. But you talk up your party so they do. Or maybe they’re really ambivalent about who to vote for, and you say, “I don’t know. I don’t know this time. Our guys, we’re not doing it this year,” or whatever. Then they go the other way, and that’s a small group that’s swinging, but it’s enough to tip the election.
And I think more generally, the more involved you are almost definitionally, but if you put in dollar models and all these sorts of stuff and motivate reasoning, they’re going to be less likely to move, and so people lower on the involvement scale would be more likely to swing. And so in that sense, that could explain it, explain why you do get some movement.
There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center, and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman.
If you like this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes. “Are Americans becoming tribal with identity politics trumping all: How online media polarizes and encourages voters.” “Compromise still works in Congress and with voters: Reducing polarization with shared values.” And, “How political values and social influence drive polarization.”
Thanks to Yana and John Barry Ryan for joining me, please check out the Other Divide, and then listen in next time.