When worlds collide: contentious politics in a fragmented media regime

Political differences—regarding the most important issues facing a nation and the role government should play in addressing them—are part and parcel of democratic systems, especially those as diverse as the United States. Elections are a primary mechanism for debating these differences and deciding, even if crudely, where the public interest resides. For this to work, however, it requires some agreement on the facts, and faith in the process by which those are used to shape debate and ultimately chart a collective course.

For over four years, however, Americans have been living in different political “realities” that work against this process. For some, we are a country whose democratic institutions and norms are under siege, and whose progress towards greater social, political, and economic justice has been lost. For others, we are in the midst of a revolt against global and domestic trends that threaten their values, status, and livelihoods, and of a movement to “make America great again.” While more nuanced, sometimes overlapping camps based on class, race, identity, and ideology exist, the overall result is an unprecedented degree of political polarization, not only regarding opinions, but also the underlying facts themselves. Consider, for example, that Americans are more divided along partisan lines on how their government has addressed the health and economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic than citizens in other advanced democracies, that nearly 40 percent of conservative Republicans believe that the virus was developed either intentionally or accidentally from a laboratory (compared to 15 percent of liberal Democrats), and that over 70 percent of voters who consider wearing a face mask a matter of personal choice supported Trump (compared to the 64 percent vote for Biden by those who consider it a public health responsibility).

While there are many reasons for this bifurcation of beliefs and opinions, crucial is the media regime that has emerged over the last few decades. Consisting of a mix of legacy, partisan, and online actors and media institutions, this regime has blurred distinctions between fact and opinion, news and entertainment, information producers and consumers, and mass mediated and interpersonal communication, creating an information environment that is both “multiaxial” (i.e., in which control of the public agenda emerges from multiple, shifting, and previously invisible or less powerful actors) and “hyperreal” (i.e., in which the mediated representation of reality becomes more important than the facts underlying it).

This information ecosystem has been fertile ground for the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and the selective use of facts from both domestic and international sources, including the President himself. This, coupled with the new media regime’s high choice environment, allows citizens to be selective in constructing their media diets, creating “echo chambers” that largely reinforce existing views and beliefs. The use of algorithms by internet and social media services magnifies the effects of selection bias by foregrounding new information that is consistent with users’ political and ideological predispositions.

The impact of the competing realities facilitated by this information environment is starkly evident in the 2020 election. For example, consumers of different information sources held widely different views on the likelihood of fraud resulting from mail voting, a view that played out in the actual behavior of Republicans (who voted largely in person) and Democrats (who voted largely by mail), and in Trump’s dangerous questioning of the legitimacy of the election outcome. According to exit polls, Trump and Biden supporters differed on the most important issues influencing their vote, with the former focusing on the economy and crime, and the latter on racial inequality, the coronavirus pandemic, and health care policy. They differed on the candidate qualities they deemed most important, with Trump voters looking for someone who was “a strong leader,” and Biden supporters someone who could “unite the country” and “has good judgement” (tellingly, they split evenly on the importance of someone who “cares about people like me”). They differed dramatically on which candidate had the temperament and mental and physical health to serve effectively as president. Perhaps most worrisome, the vast majority of both Trump and Biden voters said they would feel “concerned” or “scared” if the other candidate were elected.

One might argue that the (apparent) defeat of a sitting president is evidence that the walls between mediated worldviews can be broken down. Perhaps. But as of this writing it appears that Biden’s victory resulted from increased turnout (the highest percent since the 19th century), and not the erosion of Trump support. Indeed, more Americans voted for him in 2020 than in 2016.

The implications of this fragmented information environment for U.S. politics and even U.S. democracy are still unclear. But, coupled with the wicked domestic and global issues the new administration faces, there is certainly reason for concern.