This presidential election season has placed an emphasis on the increasing importance of how much media and social media influence and polarize the electorate. Students at the Bliss Institute often discuss the growing sense of incivility in American politics. Graduate student Alex Pavloff and undergraduate student David Matheny recently had a conversation with the Campaign Battleground blog about the lack of finding the common ground in the political discussion.
Unlike what is commonly seen in the press and online, how do Bliss Institute students set aside their political differences?
Matheny: Even during discussions, we have a civil conversation about the issues or what have you and find a common ground.
Pavloff: There’s an element of professionalism as well. I see this also in the professional campaign world. People that do this for a living and people that are even on the level that David and I are on, we get it.
David and I, we study the political process. We worship it. We are always following it and always engaged, which I think allows us to tolerate other opinions. In an increasingly polarized electorate, we’ve got political science that for the past 20 years has been saying the electorate is becoming more polarized for a number of reasons. People that don’t have those opportunities that we’ve been exposed to, I think it’s very easy for them to default to the knee-jerk reactions, the instinctual political reactions of, “This candidate is good; this candidate is bad,” and, “Anything this website says is good; anything this website says is bad.”
How has the rise of social media and the 24/7 news cycle played a role in the increased polarization of political views in the country?
Pavloff: The primary political news source for millennials is Facebook. It’s very easy for an individual to shape their news feed into an echo chamber where you’re only seeing the information you want to see.
Matheny: The polarization has just been getting worse over the years for a number of reasons, and I think definitely the media plays a role in that heavily and social media is starting to play an even bigger role in it.
Pavloff: And if Donald Trump is the barometer of civility of politics…. Clearly, nationally we’re in trouble and there’s a number of factors.
Turns out people click on those Trump stories a lot. The media, much like the political process and the political institutions, are reactive bodies. They react to what the electorate wants to see and wants to hear and wants to read. And so if there is a problem with civility in politics, it is also a problem with the electorate.
How is it a problem with the electorate, and how do you try to overcome that problem yourselves?
Pavloff: So we’ve got political science which shows that even highly educated individuals – advanced degrees, masters, PhDs, law degrees, what have you – when presented with clear scientific evidence to the contrary of one of their own opinions, will disregard the evidence.
It is human nature, when presented with something that does not fit within our own cognitive paradigm, to throw it out. This does not fit with my beliefs; therefore, it must not be true. Can we fault the electorate for subscribing to their own human nature? Maybe, maybe not. Something I try to do is humanize the opposition. That’s important. People don’t do that enough.
Matheny: For me as far as trying to get people to have more civil conversations and whatnot, I do try to not ask derogatory questions or pointed questions that would stir the pot and make the discussion go sour. Even when other people do ask those types of questions, I try to rebut it with, “Why are you asking me that?” There’s a more important question we need to discuss here, the actual issue, and not why I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe. You need to always make sure you come back to the middle and find that common ground, what we so desperately need again in politics.