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  • Sam Duan

Partisanship and Mass Media in the United States

Updated: May 7, 2021

This is article is a two-part series.

Part I: Education, Party Dynamics, and Mass Media

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 raised the hopes for a peaceful and prosperous world. History had ended, and Liberal Democracy had won. Politics were to be centered around civil discourse instead of violent suppression; peaceful cooperation was to replace show of muscle.

That may have been true two decades ago. Nowadays, politics in the United States -- the Great Democratic Experiment -- albeit not as tense as in the Trump years, is nevertheless still situated on shaky grounds. Immense partisanship on the legislator level ground the legislature to a halt multiple times in the past four years; polarization on the mass level spawned protests, riots, and eventually the harrowing display that was the Capitol Riot this past January. All over the news, people blamed either the radical left or the radical right to such a degree that the two words seemed no longer designations of political leanings, but alternative names for some “boogeyman,” biding their time and waiting for their chance to completely destroy the concept of Americanness and throw life, liberty and pursuit of happiness out into the Atlantic. This begs the question: Where had all the moderates gone?

To answer this question, we must firstly define the word “moderate.” In the literal sense of the word, a moderate is someone who occupies the center of the political spectrum, advocating neither left nor right leaning political views. In Congress, they are the ones who facilitate bipartisan cooperation by reaching across the aisle, looking for common grounds. As opposed to the radicals who vote and behave according to their ideological leanings one way or another, moderate behavior is not completely ideological. In this sense, a radical can also be referred to as an “ideologue,” while a moderate as a “non-ideologue.”

Education one receives contributes to their tendency to become ideologues who behave radically. In 1964, Philip E. Converse, a professor of political science and sociology at University of Michigan, published a study that discovered that the more educated a person, the more likely they are an ideologue: on average, an ideologue or a near-ideologue has three to four more years of education compared to non-ideologues. In other words, the more educated tend to behave in a more radical, no-compromise manner, simply because they understand what the ideology they follow is; conversely, moderates behave moderately, because they do not have an ideology which they understand enough to be used as a guide as to which politicians and policies to vote for.

Undeniably, education in the US has become much more accessible since 1964; and since around the mid-1970s, the amount of people over 25 years of age with at least a bachelor’s degree increased sharply each year. In 2019, almost 200 million people over 25 have received at least high school education. The rise in education coincides with the emergence of ideology-led mass movements, like the Counterculture Movement and the Tea Party Movement, characterized by their lack of a clear structure of leadership and the importance of ideology as a binding power in the absence of leadership.

At the same time, on the legislator level, the political climate had become far more competitive, which prompted them to devote more resources to compete for power against the opposing party, rather than sitting down to cooperatively craft policy. The Democratic Party enjoyed an almost uninterrupted control over Congress since World War II until the 1980s as a combination of factors, primarily the dismantling of the New Deal coalition, the realignment of Southern Democrats, and the Vietnam War, allowed for the Republican Party to once again rise back into prominence, and the political scene had remained highly contentious since. In her book, Insecure Majorities, political scientist Frances E. Lee argued that the competitiveness in the political scene led to both increasingly fierce campaigns and increasingly frequent strategic opposition, in order to identify and make obvious the differences between parties, to cast the opposing party in a negative light, and to attempt for total control after the next election cycle. Strategic opposition eliminates bipartisanship in the legislature, while hyper-competitive campaigns prompted the use of moral and ideological appeals, since they are effective in getting people out to vote.

Increased levels of education prepared the population for ideologue-esque, and therefore radical, behavior, while increased competition between the two parties made them prone to using ideology as an agent to leverage mass support. The emergence of mass media provided the bridge between the power-seeking political elite and the now-educated and readily mobilizable masses.

Media had existed since the invention of the printing press, but mass media -- media that is readily available, easily accessible, and brings in distant topics in a way that catered to the taste of the “masses” did not truly appear until the emergence of cable news and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine -- an FCC rule that required broadcasters to “cover issues of public importance and to do so in a fair manner” -- under President Ronald Regan in 1987.

The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine gave much liberty to the broadcasters like CNN and Fox (worth noting that Fox was founded after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine) in reporting news, and allowed for more significant and obvious ideological leanings in mass communication. Given their ad- and subscriber-based revenue model, the need for a stable viewer base and revenue stream pushed CNN to become a “left-leaning” news outlet, while Fox was founded as a source of “conservative” news. In this sense, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine allowed for the mass media to take on an ideological leaning; and given their opinion-shaping powers from their sheer ability to reach the masses, the post-Fairness-Doctrine mass media allowed for: 1) increasing the amount of people prone to becoming ideologues through (albeit disorganized) ideological education; 2) cementing the positions of existing and future ideologues by repeated exposure; and 3) possible amplification of radical political ideologies by appealing to a cemented viewer base and responding to spontaneous ideology-led mass movements.

Social media, the newly-emerged form of mass media, would go on to amplify the issues of traditional mass media while creating new ones of its own.

Part II: Social Media and the Loss of “Moderate Voice” Through Sensationalism

The emergence of social media took the issues raised by traditional mass media to a whole new level. Social media is mass media taken to an extreme: it is always available on computers; it is easily accessible by anyone with a phone; it provides distant topics by allowing people to communicate across vast physical distances and social conditions; it caters to a mass audience because the mass audience itself creates it.

The drastically increased connections between people and the rapidity of interactions brought forth by social media occasioned extensive, sometimes irresponsible, exchanges under the veil of anonymity provided by the Internet. Algorithms designed to make users feel good and stay on the platform place similar people together while filtering out opposing voices, consequently creating echo chambers and self-amplifying ideological loops, radicalizing the masses further.

Furthermore, although the capacity for social media to carry and convey information is unmatched, the quality of the information obtained remains questionable. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine encouraged significant media outlets to disregard opposing views, while the “short and sweet” format of social media makes presenting opposing viewpoints almost impossible. Former President Trump’s now-defunct Twitter account serves as a proximate and extreme-case example, where many of his 280-character-long Tweets were filled with short all-caps forceful phrases and ungrounded claims with little regard to opposing views. On the other hand, is it possible to present a view in a full, detailed manner while addressing disagreements with those 280 characters in the first place?

Therefore, social media mobilizes and radicalizes ideologically like traditional mass media and lowers the bar for mobilization and radicalization, so that concrete argumentation and evidence is no longer a necessary condition, and any potentially radicalizing content spreads with rapidity unmatchable by traditional media. Hence the constant battle between claimers and fact-checkers and the now-perpetual possibility of people radicalized and mobilized by false information.

Both mass and social media educate and radicalize moderates, and coinciding with this radicalization is the loss of a strong and clear “moderate voice.” Part of this development can be attributed to the development of clear ideological leanings of mainstream mass media after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of social media. Still, at the same time, the general non-ideologue-esque behavior puts moderates at a disadvantage in terms of media exposure. Rarely do moderates come up with laws or news articles that are glamorous enough to be “interesting.”

An example being President Biden’s response to the recent voting restrictions in Georgia. On the same event, CNN appealed to social justice, comparing the voting restriction bill to Jim Crow laws and focusing heavily on the perspective of one Black voter. Reuters simply described the responses from the Democratic Party and President Biden himself. Fox News started their article with a quote from former President Trump praising the Georgia law before entering into descriptions of Biden’s comment.

Beyond the differences in perspective, the CNN and the Fox News articles are similar in that they both appeal to an ideology -- CNN to Modern Liberalism and Leftism, Fox to American Conservatism and the Alt-Right, and both invoke information that is only obvious to the “initiated” viewer. For CNN, the significance of the one Black voter’s opinion was only given by a preexisting, silent agreement that minority voices are important but not included in the article itself. For Fox News, the significance of Trump’s positive comment juxtaposed with Biden’s negative response is given by a preexisting agreement that Trump is a patriot. Both pieces invoke emotional responses against the other party. The CNN article dedicated a paragraph to the Republican defense of the law immediately after a lengthy discussion related to slavery, posing the Republicans as hypocritical. Fox argued that the bill would “drum up faith in Georgia’s election system” immediately before they brought up Biden’s criticisms, posing Biden, and by extension Democrats, as hypocritical. Reading the two articles, back-to-back was an adventure in itself, one of the faithfulness of the self and treachery of the other.

In contrast, the Reuters article was much more factual and did not depart from Biden’s comments besides context about the Georgian law, a short paragraph about the responses from the Democratic Party, and a line on the stance of the Republican Party. The absence of emotional and ideological grandeur made the piece good journalism but bland to read. Hence CNN’s reach into 92.2 million American households, while Reuters’s pales with a meager 21 million households reached. According to a Pew study, news agencies that appeal to ideologies tend to be more popular and have more devoted readers. The “moderate voice” is simply outcompeted by a sea of sensationalizing but “interesting” information.

So, where have all the moderates gone? Maybe they have been radicalized by the mass media and the parties they vote for, or maybe they have simply lost their voice, as discussions of politics become increasingly sensitive, intense, emotionally charged, and even dangerous under some circumstances. In the American pursuit of liberty, equality, and prosperity, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that democracy is only as strong or frail as the people’s faith in it; and the competitive dynamics of the two parties, working in concert with the newly emerged forms of communication and consequential democratization of information, is gradually eroding this faith in democracy, and pushing the Great American Experiment in a dangerous direction.


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