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The things we do: How we might address political polarization by looking inward

Roxanne Bauer's picture

If there’s one common theme that resonates across Western democracies this past year, it’s a rejection of the status quo. Some outsider politicians have ridden this wave of populism to political office or to strong second-place finishes, stretching the boundaries of political expression. Frustration, anger with the status quo, globalization and the tradeoffs that come with it, and inequality are all basic concerns of the voters catapulting these politicians to power.

Globally, it also seems that fault lines have been erected between cultures, religions, genders, and so on.

Regardless of where the frustration comes from, though, polarization along ideological lines and negative rhetoric are pervasive. While polarization is a complex issue (and not something we can explain in its entirety in a blog post), how people process information is a significant factor.
If people are not open to other viewpoints or do not think critically about the negative rhetoric they encounter— which often involves self-reflection— then how can change really be achieved?  How can the frustration fueling the polarization be addressed if we cannot compromise?

Labor market polarization in developing countries: challenges ahead

Indhira Santos's picture

There is increasing evidence that labor markets in developed countries are polarizing or hollowing out. On the one hand, the share of employment in high-skilled, high-paying occupations (managers, professionals and technicians) and low-skilled, low-paying occupations (elementary, service, and sales workers) is growing. On the other hand, the share of employment in middle-skilled, middle-paying occupations (clerks, plant and machine operators) is being squeezed. There is ample evidence of polarization in the United States (see Acemoglu and Autor, 2011; Autor and Dorn, 2013; and  Autor (2014) for a less technical discussion), and also in Western Europe (Goos, Manning, and Salomons, 2014). Harrigan, Reshef and Toubal (2016), more recently, document the same phenomenon in France, using firm-level data.

Stephen King Makes a Wish

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Political polarization is one of the most worrisome phenomena even in established democracies—or perhaps especially in established democracies. With a divided electorate and a legislature unable to compromise, the business of governing essentially comes to a standstill. And damage will be done. There is little doubt that the media plays a significant role in confirming people’s political views, forming them, and eventually cementing them. Novelist Stephen King recently had a brilliant idea for countering polarization of the media and the audience—force people to watch media from the political side that is opposite their own.

The Spiral of Extremism

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Recent events made me think about a particular chicken and egg problem: What comes first, political polarization or media polarization? And how much damage can media polarization do in a political system? The answer to the first question is probably: they’re mutually reinforcing, but the media wouldn’t be polarized if there wasn’t a polarized audience to begin with. The answer to the second question is less obvious, but relevant to all political systems where the media can tip the scales toward one side or the other, or possibly one extreme or the other.

It is a commonplace by now that the fragmented media landscape in many countries, much amplified by online media, allows members of the audience to get exposed only to political content that they actually agree with. There is so much out there, you never really need to listen to the other side. In the recent Presidential elections in the United States, this led to a curious phenomenon. The media on the right, and also voters on the right that mainly focused on those media, were convinced that their candidate would win and were genuinely surprised when he didn’t. The media on the left played the same trick on its audience. The media in the middle covered the election as if it was a close race, which it wasn’t, in order not to scare part of their audience away. Overall, one had to turn to foreign media to lose some of the bias.

Polarization and Accountability: An Unlikely Pair?

Antonio Lambino's picture

Listening to at least two sides of an argument is usually a good thing.  But when it comes to sustaining mass public action, this may not be the case.  For most people, the willingness to take a stand in the public arena, despite the risk of injury or death, requires clarity, courage, and the dogged pursuit of a vision shared with like-minded others.  If saddled with the weight of competing considerations, people might just decide to stay home.

Segregated, Ghettoized, Polarized and Insular? Who, Me?

Naniette Coleman's picture

A few weeks ago David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, unearthed the roots of an important discussion that began with Cass Sunstein’s 2001 essay entitled “The Daily We: Is the internet really a blessing for democracy?” Brooks’ take on Sunstein branches in two directions:  tension and composure. Tension because “the internet might lead us to a more ghettoized, polarized and insular electorate”. Composure due to recent work by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro called “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline” which presents a different take on our what Sunstein called “personalization”.