In 2004, Political Scientist Morris Fiorina released the first edition of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America; in 2006, taking into account new information from the 2004 election, Fiorina released a second edition of the book, with a second preface that reaffirmed the book’s original argument: that despite appearances, most Americans are not actually polarized in terms of their political views.
I have to admit, the first time I read Fiorinia’s book I found the argument compelling. The thrust of his premise is that contrary to popular assertions about widespread “culture wars,” the real polarization is at the level of party elites. Among the general population, views are actually more centrist. Reports of rampant polarization are more mythology than reality. Though the choices of the electorate may be more partisan — due to the increasingly polarized party elites — their positions are not.
Beyond the persuasiveness of Fiorina’s argument — replete with mounds of data — on an observational level, to me this just made sense. I had encountered plenty of ambivalent voters in my circle of acquaintances. And yet, there was a seemingly constant media frenzy proclaiming the harsh partisan divides throughout the country. This was a workable theory, to my mind; it explained the current state of American democracy and resonated with my own experiences, too.
But in the years since I first read Fiorina’s book, I became less and less certain that his conclusions remained applicable to the American political climate. A major shift had occurred in those intervening years with the rise of new — specifically social — media. And as I became more and more exposed to the views of my ever-widening circle of acquaintances, it became clear that the partisan divides in the country were not limited to political activists alone.
I’ve written before on what I’ll affectionately term the “meme-ification” of society. Some of the most widespread political ideas in present American culture exist within the space of a single image and a line or two of text. And although I have no hard data to support this claim, I’d venture to guess that relatively few of these memes are crafted with both A) accurate information and B) an honest intent to stimulate discussion.
While I’m admittedly the first person to enjoy a good meme, the virtual explosion of these (pun intended) in every corner of the Internet is a phenomenon unlike anything the political world has previously encountered. And whether the meme-culture has caused, or has emerged out of, more partisan divides among the general public, the conclusion seems to be the same: the people are polarized.
It’s probably a good time to note some kind of disclaimer here. Though I am trained in political science, this post is by no means a formal or even informal study of voter behavior or ideology. I have done no hard research nor have I accumulated any statistical data to support my claims. Thus, unlike Fiorina, my assertions probably don’t bear a whole lot of weight. But what I hope to offer out of my conjectures and speculations is, at this point at least, some food for thought. If Fiorina’s original argument holds true today, the vast majority of Americans are still part of the “so-so nation.”¹ Based on even just the personal observations of our interactions online, can we still qualify this as a fair depiction? At the same time, how accurate are the snapshots of our online personas in portraying our full-scale political beliefs? Does sharing a meme always qualify as an endorsement of its message? Surely not. But how many people are significantly influenced by sound bites and provocative snippets of (mis)information? How effective are these in swaying previously ambivalent voters into more starkly polarized positions? On the whole, do memes act more as reinforcers of already-held political beliefs or stimulators of new/stronger ideologies?
Obviously I have no firm answers to these questions. But my suspicions are that political memes and meme-sharing in today’s culture play a pivotal role in the polarization debates — and that this points to a wide scale cultural shift that is no longer myth, but political reality.
¹Fiorina, p. 77