As commentators have reminded us throughout the last decade, the information age has catalyzed unprecedented cultural and political polarization. With the increased use of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging platforms over the last couple of years, this trend has intensified in a startling way. Young people have more ways than ever to express their feelings, affinities, and discontents. With social media, they are also able to connect with like-minded individuals across the nation in real time.
From listservs to message boards, self-selecting virtual communities can mobilize movements, but also create political echo chambers where cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives is abandoned for one-sided debate. While these spaces can provide opportunities for affirmation, they also intensify partisanship and can obstruct the democratic process. With an array of digitally constructed communities to choose from, Americans are more likely to engage with members of similar ideology on most political issues.
This doesn't come as a huge surprise — it also reflects our national politics, as the recent decades have seen the disappearance of prominent moderate figures in national politics. From the mid 1970s to the mid 2000s, the number of House members who self-described as moderate plummeted from 30% to 8%, as the great compromisers of the House have been succeeded by rigid ideologues and their filibuster-happy counterparts in the Senate. With heightened tensions in the Red vs. Blue dynamic, it’s no surprise that the millennial generation has used the technology at their disposal to reflect their partisan personal politics.
In an era where we form our identities based on preferences, objects, and affiliations, what one reads about says a lot about who they are. Long gone are the days when ostensibly objective outlets have the last say in delivering the news to the American body politic. If you frequent Fox News or the Drudge Report, chances are you weren't too disappointed by the midterm elections. On the other hand, if you're an avid reader of the Huffington Post or follow Rachel Maddow on Twitter, you probably didn't make the trip to Glenn Beck’s Rally to 'Restore Honor.'
With more reliance on slanted news, young people are tuning out traditional outlets in favor of sources that reflect their personal brand. A Pew study found that more 18-24 year old Americans watch The Daily Show regularly as an information source than all major network evening news shows combined. While entertainment-oriented approaches to engaging the citizenry may attract a wider audience, they can also damage the quality and accuracy of news coverage.
Although many bemoan the troubles of a highly polarized political environment, few take steps toward bridging the gap in their own lives. By detangling our personal identities with how we stay informed and engage in politics, our generation has a unique opportunity to leverage the aforementioned resources into an asset for democracy. However, without more of a discussion on how to overcome the challenges of isolated political discourse, we could see a different outcome entirely.
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