This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.
“Political polarization” refers to sharpening contrasts between political parties, groups, and individuals. The 2016 U.S. presidential election catalyzed a wave of research about political polarization, filter bubbles, and echo chambers. With this rise in polarization research, it is important to distinguish between ideological polarization, people having more extreme political views; affective polarization, people having negative sentiment toward other political parties; and party alignment, people affixing strong party labels to themselves. Being clear about the differences between these forms of polarization adds a layer of nuance to research on whether polarization is rising and what drives such changes.
The three types of polarization don’t always go hand-in-hand. For example, social science research shows rises in affective polarization and party alignment, but the same isn’t necessarily true for ideological polarization.
- Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood. 2015. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59(3): 690–707.
- Delia Baldassarri and Andrew Gelman. 2008. “Partisans without Constraint: Political Polarization and Trends in American Public Opinion.” American Journal of Sociology 114(2): 408–46.
Political polarization exists within journalistic and social media contexts, as well; especially around topics like “fake news” that became buzzwords during President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. In this context, scholars have found that Americans are more likely to gravitate toward national media outlets that align with their political affiliation and often discuss political topics with people who share their same political views.
- John Brummette, Marcia DiStaso, Michail Vafeiadis, and Marcus Messner. 2018. “Read All About It: The Politicization of ‘Fake News’ on Twitter.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95(2): 497-517.
- Andrea Wenzel. 2018. “Red State, Purple town: Polarized Communities and Local Journalism in Rural and Small-town Kentucky.” Journalism.
While social media sometimes forces people to confront conversations they would have otherwise avoided, studies have also found that exposure to opposing political viewpoints on social media can actually increase polarization rather than facilitating bipartisan dialogue. While polarization is evident in online spaces, there is evidence that individuals who are most likely to be polarized are older than 75 and are the least likely to use the internet and social media.
- Christopher A. Bail, Lisa P. Argyle, Taylor W. Brown, John P. Bumpus, Haohan Chen, M. B. Fallin Hunzaker, Jaemin Lee, Marcus Mann, Friedolin Merhout, and Alexander Volfovsky. 2018. “Exposure to Opposing Views on Social Media Can Increase Political Polarization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(37): 9216–21.
Several authors and scholars are skeptical of whether polarization can be overcome or will shrink; the research above suggests that polarization is entrenched in this contemporary moment. Nevertheless, understanding the sources of polarization and its different dimensions allows us to pursue bipartisan solutions that facilitate cooperation rather than contestation.