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Barney Frank on Our My Side Echo Chambers and Polarization

In a Q&A interview with Jason Zengerle of New York magazine, outgoing Congressman Barney Frank offers a diagnosis of several of the major drivers of polarization in American politics that fits with much of the political communication work in the area.  Frank focuses on the trend of demonizing the opposition to the point that they are portrayed as “evil,” and the efforts by conservatives and liberals alike over the past two decades to successfully build their own media echo chambers. (HT to tweet by Brendan Nyhan.)

The main reason for the increase in partisanship is Newt Gingrich and the success of his decision [as Speaker] to demonize the opposition as a way to win. That was reinforced by the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party. And finally, modern communications: Twenty years ago, people had a common set of facts that they read. They read opinion journalists, but they got their information generally from newspapers and from broadcasts. Now, the activists live in parallel universes, which are both separate and echo chambers for each. If you’re on the left, you listen to MSNBC, you go to the blogs, Huffington Post, et cetera, and you basically hear only what you agree with. If you’re on the right, you watch Fox News and the talk shows, and you hear only what you agree with. When we try to compromise, what you find is not people simply objecting to the specific terms of the compromise, but the activists object even to your trying to compromise, because they say, “Look, everybody I know agrees with us, so why are you giving in?”


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