Polarization in US Politics

In mid 2014, the Pew Research Center published an article titled, “7 things to know about polarization in America”. The findings were the following: First, over the past twenty years, the percentage of Americans who express consistent ideological views has doubled. Second, partisan animosity has increased. Third, people surround themselves mostly by people of the same political views. Fourth, communities from the left and right differ drastically in terms of religious and ethnic affiliations. Fifth, there are fewer moderates. Sixth, the most ideologically extreme people get most involved in US politics. Seventh, compromise means getting more instituted from one’s own ideology.

Unsurprisingly, the 2016 election has so far exhibited an affinity for extremes. Yes- primaries have always been less moderate than the general election, yet presidential candidates have not before called to ban all Muslims from entering the country…. While many sociologists have blamed factors such as the two party system and the media for the phenomenon of polarization, Jon Evans from TechCrunch has offered us a new way to think about this polarization: power laws.

As we learned in Chapter 18 of the class, empirical studies on web pages have shown popularity follows a power law due to correlated decision making across our populations. We like to copy the decisions of others because doing so may be the rational thing to do. This same logic can apply to political choice, which is clearly correlated across populations.

So why has polarization increased then? In an age of social interconnectedness, social networks have facilitated the display of other peoples’ beliefs and ideas. As the article emphasizes, Facebook has greatly contributed to this divide. Since people of the same regions and political parties tend to be friends, “conservatives see conservative stories, and liberals see liberal ones […] liking opinions that tell us we’re right instead of engaging with viewpoints that make us question our assumptions”. In so, “filter bubbles” are created and precipitate extremes.

Whether this is good or bad is still up for debate. However, an awareness of the perpetuation of power laws associated with social networks will hopefully give us greater insight into how to deal with the changing face of US politics (and other spheres) in the upcoming years.

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