What’s So Bad About Polarization?

The increasing use of the internet as a communications tool has fundamentally changed the way Americans discuss politics. Whereas once people used to bash politicians in local barbershops, now people have the ability to do so on social media sites with people around the world.  Some have posited that this will naturally diversify citizens’ political networks, thus enhancing the democratic process. A review of the literature, however, casts doubt upon this optimistic view. Instead, the future looks much like the past: research indicates that the internet likely increases polarization by allowing citizens to more easily self-select into ideologically homogenous groups (Bienenstock et al., 1990; Garner and Palmer 2011).

Take for example Facebook, America’s most popular social network site. Facebook is designed so that you only see content from people whose pages you visit the most, i.e. your closest friends. Your closest friends tend to be very similar to you, including in their political beliefs (McPherson et al., 2001). As such, if it is true that people self-select into homogenous networks on Facebook, online political discussion will lead to greater partisanship and polarization.

But could increased polarization actually be a positive development for American democracy? While closed discussion among a partisan, polarized group of people might seem like a negative thing, studies indicate that polarization actually leads to more informed and consistent voters (Levendusky 2010). Despite its negative connotations, polarization motivates citizens to become more politically engaged and knowledgeable; it also serves as a powerful heuristic that allows ordinary citizens to easily understand complex political issues. Perhaps the danger to our polity lays not so much in polarization itself as it does in broken political institutions that are unable to accommodate polarized parties. Unfortunately, that is a problem whose solution can only come from political imagination and will; an internet connection will not suffice.