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The Polarization of Politics in America

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The polarization of political views in America

Modern day media has reared its ugly head to make American politics more divisive than ever before. On the one hand, independent media has a more prominent presence which leads to new angles and ideas for those who actively seek them. The flipside is that the internet world is built to be an echo chamber of cognitive bias. Recent studies have shown that our pre-conceptions are not challenged on the web – rather, they get reinforced.

Research from The Pew Research Center confirms that there is growing polarization of politics in the United States, with consensus opinions on both the left and right spreading further apart.

All one has to do to seek proof of this? Take a look at the current outliers in the field of candidates that have announced their US presidential bids: a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, a libertarian-leaning Paul, and a (very) outspoken and often controversial real estate magnate confirm this to be true.

As seen in the above animation, the share of Americans who express a consistently liberal or conservative views have doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. The median positions, which used to overlap relatively closely, have spread much further apart such that the “typical” Republican is more conservative than 94% of Democrats. Two decades ago, this number was only 70%.

Further, there is more hate and blame being passed around these days:

Growing Animosity in United States Politics

It is now true that 43% of Republicans have “very unfavorable” attitudes about the Democratic Party, and 36% of Republicans even go so far as to say that the blue party is a threat to the nation’s well-being. The feelings are mutual on the other side of the aisle as well, with 38% of Democrats having “very unfavorable” attitudes towards Republicans. This animosity of people surveyed has more than doubled since 1994.

The most ideologically polarized Americans are those that are more engaged in the political process:

Polarization is with the politically engaged

Those that were “consistently” or “mostly” liberal or conservative in their views tended to be those that also considered themselves to be politically engaged.

While the polarization of politics in America seems greater than before, the good news is that the addition of people like Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Bernie Sanders to the conversation may help for an escape from the usual carefully-refined rhetoric. Getting politicians outside of their comfort zones is a small win for everyone, and it will at least provide for new ideas along with some popcorn munching styled entertainment.

Original graphics by: Pew Research

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11 Cognitive Biases That Influence Political Outcomes

Humans are hardwired to make mental mistakes called cognitive biases. Here are common biases that can shape political opinion, and even elections.

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Cognitive Biases in the Political Arena

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election fast approaching, many people will be glued to the 24-hour news cycle to stay up to date on political developments. Yet, when searching for facts, our own cognitive biases often get in the way.

If this isn’t problematic enough, third parties can also take advantage of these biases to influence our thinking. The media, for example, can exploit our tendency to assign stereotypes to others by only providing catchy, surface-level information. Once established in our minds, these generalizations can be tough to shake off.

Such tactics can have a powerful influence on public opinion if applied consistently to a broad audience. To help us avoid these mental pitfalls, today’s infographic from PredictIt lists common cognitive biases that influence the realm of politics, beginning with the “Big Cs”.

The First C: Confirmation Bias

People exhibit confirmation bias when they seek information that only affirms their pre-existing beliefs. This can cause them to become overly rigid in their political opinions, even when presented with conflicting ideas or evidence.

When too many people fall victim to this bias, progress towards solving complex sociopolitical issues is thwarted. That’s because solving these issues in a bipartisan system requires cooperation from both sides of the spectrum.

A reluctance towards establishing a common ground is already widespread in America. According to a 2019 survey, 70% of Democrats believed their party’s leaders should “stand up” to President Trump, even if less gets done in Washington. Conversely, 51% of Republicans believed that Trump should “stand up” to Democrats.

In light of these developments, researchers have conducted studies to determine if the issue of confirmation bias is as prevalent as it seems. In one experiment, participants chose to either support or oppose a given sociopolitical issue. They were then presented with evidence that was conflicting, affirming, or a combination of both.

In all scenarios, participants were most likely to stick with their initial decisions. Of those presented with conflicting evidence, just one in five changed their stance. Furthermore, participants who maintained their initial positions became even more confident in the superiority of their decision—a testament to how influential confirmation bias can be.

The Second C: Coverage Bias

Coverage bias, in the context of politics, is a form of media bias where certain politicians or topics are disproportionately covered. In some cases, media outlets can even twist stories to fit a certain narrative.

For example, research from the University of South Florida analyzed media coverage on President Trump’s 2017 travel ban. It was discovered that primetime media hosts covered the ban through completely different perspectives.

Each host varied drastically in tone, phrasing, and facts of emphasis, […] presenting each issue in a manner that aligns with a specific partisan agenda.

—Josepher, Bryce (2017)

Charting the ideological placement of each source’s audience can help us gain a better understanding of the coverage bias at work. In other words, where do people on the left, middle, and right get their news?

cognitive bias in media and politics

The horizontal axis in this graphic corresponds to the Ideological Consistency Scale, which is composed of 10 questions. For each question, respondents are assigned a “-1” for a liberal response, “+1” for a conservative response, or a “0” for other responses. A summation of these scores places a respondent into one of five categories:

Ideological CategoryRanking
Consistently conservative+7 to +10
Mostly conservative+3 to +6
Mixed-2 to +2
Mostly liberal-6 to -3
Consistently liberal -10 to -7

Overcoming coverage bias—which dovetails into other biases like confirmation bias—may require us to follow a wider variety of sources, even those we may not initially agree with.

The Third C: Concision Bias

Concision bias is a type of bias where politicians or the media selectively focus on aspects of information that are easy to get across. In the process, more nuanced and delicate views get omitted from popular discourse.

A common application of concision bias is the use of sound bites, which are short clips that can be taken out of a politician’s speech. When played in isolation, these clips may leave out important context for the audience.

Without the proper context, multi-faceted issues can become extremely polarizing, and may be a reason for the growing partisan divide in America. In fact, there is less overlap in the political values of Republicans and Democrats than ever previously measured.

In 1994, just 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat. By 2017, that margin had grown considerably, to 95% of Republicans. The same trend can be found on the other end of the spectrum. Whereas 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican in 1994, this proportion increased to 97% by 2017.

Overcoming Our Biases

Achieving full self-awareness can be difficult, especially when new biases emerge in our constantly evolving world. So where do we begin?

Simply remembering these mental pitfalls exist can be a great start—after all, we can’t fix what we don’t know. Individuals concerned about the upcoming presidential election may find it useful to focus their attention on the Big Cs, as these biases can play a significant role in shaping political beliefs. Maintaining an open mindset and diversifying the media sources we follow are two tactics that may act as a hedge.

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Chart of the Week

Mapped: The State of Press Freedom Around the World

Global press freedom improved slightly in 2019, but censorship, intimidation, and violence remain a fact of life for many journalists around the world.

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Mapped: The State of Press Freedom Around the World

View a more detailed version of the above map by clicking here

In many Western countries, it’s easy to take press freedom for granted.

Instances of fake news, clickbait, and hyper-partisan reporting are points of consternation in the modern media landscape, and can sometimes overshadow the greater good that unrestricted journalism provides to society.

Of course, the ability to do that important work can vary significantly around the world. Being an investigative journalist in Sweden comes with a very different set of circumstances and considerations than doing the same thing in a country such as Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

Today’s map highlights the results of the 2020 Global Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders. The report looks at press freedom in 180 countries and territories.

A Profession Not Without Its Risks

Today, nearly 75% of countries are in categories that the report describes as problematic, difficult, and very serious.

While these negative forces often come in the form of censorship and intimidation, journalism can be a risky profession in some of the more restrictive countries. One example is Mexico, where nearly 60 journalists were killed as a direct result of their reporting over the last decade.

journalists killed around the world

There is good news though: the number of journalists killed last year was the lowest since the report began in 2002.

Even better, press freedom scores increased around the world in the 2020 report.

Press Freedom: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Here are the scores for all 180 countries and territories covered in the report, sorted by 2020 ranking and score:

Rank (2020)Country or RegionScore (2020)Prev. Rank (2019)Change in Rank
#1🇳🇴 Norway7.8410
#2🇫🇮 Finland7.9320
#3🇩🇰 Denmark8.1352
#4🇸🇪 Sweden9.253-1
#5🇳🇱 Netherlands9.964-1
#6🇯🇲 Jamaica10.5182
#7🇨🇷 Costa Rica10.53103
#8🇨🇭 Switzerland10.626-2
#9🇳🇿 New Zealand10.697-2
#10🇵🇹 Portugal11.83122
#11Germany12.16132
#12Belgium12.579-3
#13Ireland12.60152
#14Estonia12.6111-3
#15Iceland15.1214-1
#16Canada15.29182
#17Luxembourg15.46170
#18Austria15.7816-2
#19Uruguay15.79190
#20Suriname17.50200
#21Samoa18.25221
#22Latvia18.56242
#23Namibia19.25230
#24Liechtenstein19.52262
#25Cape Verde20.15250
#26Australia20.2121-5
#27Cyprus20.45281
#28Lithuania21.19302
#29Spain22.16290
#30Ghana22.2627-3
#31South Africa22.41310
#32Slovenia22.64342
#33Slovakia22.67352
#34France22.9232-2
#35United Kingdom22.9333-2
#36Trinidad and Tobago23.22393
#37Andorra23.23370
#38Burkina Faso23.4736-2
#39Botswana23.56445
#40Czech Republic23.57400
#41Italy23.69432
#42South Korea23.7041-1
#43Taiwan23.7642-1
#44OECS23.78506
#45United States23.85483
#46Papua New Guinea23.9338-8
#47Senegal23.99492
#48Romania25.9147-1
#49Guyana26.63512
#50Tonga27.2745-5
#51Chile27.3146-5
#52Fiji27.41520
#53Belize27.50530
#54Madagascar27.68540
#55Dominican Republic27.90550
#56Mauritius28.00582
#57Niger28.25669
#58Bosnia and Herzegovina28.51635
#59Croatia28.51645
#60Georgia28.59600
#61Armenia28.60610
#62Poland28.6559-3
#63Seychelles28.66696
#64Argentina28.7857-7
#65Greece28.80650
#66Japan28.86671
#67Bhutan28.908013
#68Ivory Coast28.94713
#69Malawi29.3268-1
#70Kosovo29.33755
#71Togo29.33765
#72Tunisia29.45720
#73Mongolia29.6170-3
#74El Salvador29.70817
#75Comoros29.7756-19
#76Panama29.78793
#77Cyprus North29.7974-3
#78East Timor29.90846
#79Maldives29.939819
#80Hong Kong30.0173-7
#81Malta30.1677-4
#82Kyrgyzstan30.19831
#83Haiti30.2062-21
#84Albania30.2582-2
#85Sierra Leone30.28861
#86Lesotho30.4578-8
#87Gambia30.62925
#88Israel30.84880
#89Hungary30.8487-2
#90Peru30.9485-5
#91Moldova31.16910
#92Macedonia31.28953
#93Serbia31.6290-3
#94Guinea-Bissau32.0689-5
#95Liberia32.2593-2
#96Ukraine32.521026
#97Mauritania32.5494-3
#98Ecuador32.6297-1
#99Ethiopia32.8211011
#100Paraguay32.9799-1
#101Malaysia33.1212322
#102Lebanon33.19101-1
#103Kenya33.72100-3
#104Mozambique33.79103-1
#105Montenegro33.83104-1
#106Angola33.921093
#107Brazil34.05105-2
#108Mali34.121124
#109Kuwait34.30108-1
#110Guinea34.34107-3
#111Bulgaria35.061110
#112Nepal35.10106-6
#113Benin35.1196-17
#114Bolivia35.37113-1
#115Nigeria35.631205
#116Guatemala35.741160
#117Nicaragua35.81114-3
#118Congo36.56117-1
#119Indonesia36.821245
#120Zambia37.00119-1
#121Gabon37.20115-6
#122Afghanistan37.70121-1
#123Chad39.70122-1
#124Tanzania40.25118-6
#125Uganda40.951250
#126Zimbabwe40.951271
#127Sri Lanka41.94126-1
#128Jordan42.081302
#129Qatar42.51128-1
#130Colombia42.66129-1
#131United Arab Emirates42.691332
#132C.A.R.42.8714513
#133Morocco42.881352
#134Cameroon43.28131-3
#135Oman43.42132-3
#136Philippines43.54134-2
#137Palestine44.091370
#138South Sudan44.491391
#139Myanmar44.77138-1
#140Thailand44.94136-4
#141Swaziland45.151476
#142India45.33140-2
#143Mexico45.451441
#144Cambodia45.46143-1
#145Pakistan45.52142-3
#146Algeria45.52141-5
#147Venezuela45.661481
#148Honduras48.20146-2
#149Russian Federation48.921490
#150Congo (DRC)49.091544
#151Bangladesh49.37150-1
#152Brunei49.651520
#153Belarus49.751530
#154Turkey50.021573
#155Rwanda50.341550
#156Uzbekistan53.071604
#157Kazakhstan54.111581
#158Singapore55.23151-7
#159Sudan55.3317516
#160Burundi55.33159-1
#161Tajikistan55.341610
#162Iraq55.37156-6
#163Somalia55.451641
#164Libya55.77162-2
#165Equatorial Guinea56.381650
#166Egypt56.82163-3
#167Yemen58.251681
#168Azerbaijan58.48166-2
#169Bahrain60.13167-2
#170Saudi Arabia62.141722
#171Cuba63.81169-2
#172Laos64.28171-1
#173Iran64.81170-3
#174Syria72.571740
#175Vietnam74.711761
#176Djibouti76.73173-3
#177China78.481770
#178Eritrea83.501780
#179Turkmenistan85.441801
#180North Korea85.82179-1

Which countries stood out in this year’s edition of the press freedom rankings?

Norway: Nordic Countries have topped the Press Freedom Index since its inception, and Norway (Rank: #1) in particular is an example for the world. Despite a very free media environment, the government recently mandated a commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the conditions for freedom of speech. Members will consider measures to promote the broadest possible participation in the public debate, and means to hamper the spread of fake news and hate speech.

Malaysia: A new government ushered in a less restrictive era in Malaysia in 2018. Journalists and media outlets that had been blacklisted were able to resume working, and anti-fake news laws that were viewed as problematic were repealed. As a result, Malaysia’s index score has improved by 15 points in the past two years. This is in sharp contrast to neighbor, Singapore, which is ranked 158th out of 180 countries.

Ethiopia: When Abiy Ahmed Ali took power in Africa’s second most populous country in 2018, his government restored access to over 200 news websites and blogs that had been previously blocked. As well, many detained journalists and bloggers were released as the chill over the country’s highly restrictive media environment began to thaw. As a result, Ethiopia (#99) jumped up eleven spots in the Press Freedom Index in 2020.

The Middle East: Though the situation in this region has begun to stabilize somewhat, restrictions still remain – even in relatively safe and stable countries. Both Saudi Arabia (#170) and Egypt (#166) have imprisoned a number of journalists in recent years, and the former is still dealing with the reputational fallout from the assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

China: Sitting near the bottom of the list is China (#176). More than 100 journalists and bloggers are currently detained as the country maintains a tight grip over the press – particularly as COVID-19 began to spread. Earlier this year, the Chinese government also expelled over a dozen journalists representing U.S. publications.

2020: A Pivotal Year for the Press

As the world grapples with a deadly pandemic, a global economic shutdown, and a crucial election year, the media could find itself in the spotlight more than in previous years.

How the stories of 2020 are told will influence our collective future – and how regimes choose to treat journalists under this atypical backdrop will tell us a lot about press freedom going forward.

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