Media and Polarization: Evidence from the Introduction of Broadcast TV in the United States
Media, politics, and polarization were never strangers. But at a moment when the partisan divide in the United States appears to be widening—note the vicious debates in recent years over issues such as health care reform and the debt ceiling—it is important to understand how those forces interplay.
“Polarization is associated with gridlock, reduced rates of policy innovation and an inability to adapt to changes in economic, social, or demographic circumstances,” write Filipe Campante and Daniel Hojman, associate professors at Harvard Kennedy School, in explaining what is at stake.
In their research paper, “Media and Polarization: Evidence from the Introduction of Broadcast TV in the United States,” Campante and Hojman seek to shed light on how the media affected political polarization during the introductions of radio and television in the United States. According to their research, changes in media technology can directly impact political polarization—but, the authors found, not in the ways one might think.
Campante and Hojman found that “the penetration of radio in the 1930s and the introduction of broadcast TV in the post-war period seem to have contributed to the substantial reduction in partisan polarization.”
“We show in particular that places that got TV earlier saw their U.S. representatives moderate faster in terms of their voting behavior in the House,” Campante says.
“Radio, in contrast, seems to have helped depolarization in the 1930s by increasing the political engagement of previously demobilized, relatively moderate citizens,” the authors write. “A natural interpretation is that radio worked in favor of depolarization by bringing new, more moderate voters to the polls. When TV arrived, that effect was somewhat exhausted, but depolarization was further enhanced by the new medium’s direct impact on citizens’ ideological preferences.”
Campante and Hojman distinguish between ideology and political motivation. “These give rise to two separate channels through which changes in the media environment affect the polarization of politicians,” they argue.
The ideology effect, they write, comes from changes in the media environment that may affect the distribution of citizens’ ideological views, with politicians moving their positions accordingly: It “induces polarization and turnout to move in the same direction.” The authors found that both polarization and turnout decreased with the introduction of TV. “The evidence on the negative impact of TV on turnout would suggest a prevalence of the ideology effect in driving polarization to fall,” they argue.
The media affect citizens’ political motivation by “changing the ideological composition of the electorate and thereby impacting elite polarization while mass polarization is unchanged.” This effect causes polarization and turnout to move in opposite directions, as happened with the introduction of radio.
“I would say that polarization is as high as it has ever been in modern U.S. history, and it is not hard to hear people arguing that recent media developments (cable news, talk radio, Internet) have contributed to that,” says Campante. “Our research suggests that media innovations have affected polarization in the past, and the mechanisms we study could very well be part of the story we see today.”
—by Jenny Li Fowler