In this episode of Outrage Overload, Sean Evans, a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science at Union University, discusses the role of outrage media in the political polarization found in the United States today. He states that outrage media has become a tool for politicians, cable news sites, and internet websites to stand out amongst the competition. The media does this by exaggerating facts, mocking people, distorting information, and creating fear in order to get people to pay attention to them. Evans also suggests that citizens should be more proactive in order to lower the temperature, such as reading media from multiple sources and speaking up against the craziness on their own side, as there are more people who think like them than they think.
The conversation focused on the power of emotions and how they can trump reasoning processes, leading people to worst case scenarios. The speaker attributed the current political polarization to outrage porn, noting how there is more correlation between voting Republican for the House and voting Republican for the President than there used to be. Additionally, elections don’t tend to swing as much anymore and small changes can make a big difference, leading to a lot of money being spent to get that small change. The speaker concluded by noting how politics have changed drastically over the last 30 years or so.
Partisan sorting is a term used in political science circles to describe how people are sorting themselves into parties based on their political identity. This has meant that the coalitions of the two major parties have become more homogeneous, with the Republican Party appealing more to conservatives and the Democratic Party aiming to attract liberals. This has led to a situation where both major parties are running base-oriented elections, focusing on getting out their own supporters rather than reaching out to independents. This has also led to what is known as the Southern Realignment, where the Republican Party, which was the minority party after the New Deal, has been trying to become the majority party. As a result, many people in the South have shifted to voting Republican for President, while still voting Democrat for other races.
The conversation discusses the phenomenon of political polarization and the so-called perception gap between the two major US political parties. It traces the roots of this polarization to the 1970s, when the Republican Party made a strategic decision to focus on appealing to white conservatives in the south, which started to move away from its historical base in the Northeast. This led to the political elites and activists of both parties becoming more extreme, while the electorate itself has not polarized as much. The conversation also highlights that people are sorting themselves into political parties based on various factors such as ideology, economics, culture, geography, and race, which can lead to a perception gap between the two sides. This means that people tend to associate more with people who are like them and less with those who are different, leading to a greater sense of polarization.
0:00:16 Interview with Professor Sean Evans: Exploring the Role of Outrage Media in Political Polarization +
0:04:09 Heading: Exploring the Impact of Emotions and Political Polarization on Elections +
0:06:21 Topic: Partisan Sorting and the Southern Realignment +
0:08:29 Heading: The Impact of Political Polarization on the U.S. Electorate +
0:10:37 Discussion on the Impact of Social Networks on Political Discourse +
0:15:07 Heading: Exploring the Impact of Ranked Choice Voting on Moderates and Accountability +
0:16:47 Heading: The Impact of Geographical Sorting and Primary Elections on Congressional Representation +
0:19:10 Discussion on Polarization in the US Political System +
0:25:08 Heading: Re-empowering the Middle: A Discussion on Representation in the House and Polarization in Politics +
0:26:54 Interview with [Name], on Negotiating with the Other Side and Social Media Outrage +
0:29:25 Conversation on the Impact of Political Polarization on Communication +
This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions.
[0:00:16] David Beckemeyer: Welcome to Outrage overload a science podcast about outrage and lowering the temperature. This is episode four.
[0:00:51] Sean Evans: I think it’s responsible on us as citizens to be more proactive. I think we need to do things like read media from multiple sources so that you can get these different points of view. And I think it’s also your responsibility to speak up against the craziness on your own side. If you are that moderate, surrounded by extremists on the left and right, you have a civic duty on one side to speak up. Because you know what?
[0:01:23] Sean Evans: There’s more people who think like you than you think.
[0:01:27] David Beckemeyer: That’s Sean Evans, professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Union University. I first reached out to Sean Evans because he wrote an article about ways to stay out of the culture of outrage. However, when we met, I got interested in hearing from a political scientist to get the political science perspective regarding some of the themes we often discuss on the podcast, such as political polarization and extreme politics and how outrage messaging plays into it.
[0:02:01] David Beckemeyer: Outrage media typically portrays Americans as either far left or far right. But how accurate is this? We talk about this question and more, including some interesting perspectives about how the parties have changed over the past 50 years, third parties and ranked choice, voting, accountability of our elected officials, and yes, even some optimism. So I hope you enjoyed listening as much as I enjoyed the conversation with Professor Evans.
[0:02:24] David Beckemeyer: Check it out. Thanks for coming on the show, Professor Evans. In this podcast, we talk about kind of the outrage industry, this outrage porn.
[0:02:43] C: Idea, the outrage media media that’s intended to trigger outrage and fear and play off that.
[0:02:49] David Beckemeyer: And I wanted to ask you what role that outrage plays. Outrage media plays in the political polarization we find ourselves in.
[0:03:02] Sean Evans: Yeah, sure, I’ll be happy to answer the best I can. Yeah, I think outrage is a problem in our politics because I think that there are politicians, cable news sites, internet websites which are trying to be extreme just with simple facts so they can get clicks or they can get people to pay attention to them. Because in our world where we are competing with so many different things, they have to stand out on some level.
[0:03:34] Sean Evans: And one way that they have decided to stand out is by being extreme. And so because of this, they’ll mock people, they’ll exaggerate things, they will distort things, they will do whatever they can to make us angry, afraid, discontented, or whatever else so that we will want to listen to them because many times it’s feeding into our own fears. I know you talked a little bit about how emotions can shape things.
[0:04:09] Sean Evans: I think that’s one of the big problems we have here is that people allow their emotions to trump reasoning processes, and this is what leads them to worst case scenarios. In many different things about what will happen or about what to think about their opponents.
[0:04:32] C: Right? I certainly attribute the outrage porn as definitely a contributor to this problem and our current political polarization. And on that issue of political polarization, a couple of things that I’ve read about that you can kind of correct me if I got this wrong, but I’ve read a couple of things that seem to be different over the last 50 years. And one is that there’s more correlation between, say, a House voting for the Republicans, say for the House, and voting save Republican for the President, or vice versa, democrat for House, Democrat for President.
[0:05:09] C: It used to be something like, I think 7.7 or something like that was the correlation. And now it’s almost one. It’s like zero point 96. And another thing that appears to have changed is elections previously did more swinging where we might see a couple of election cycles, we might see a bigger swing, 20 points or something one way or the other. And we don’t tend to see those larger swings anymore. These elections are kind of on the knife edge and it’s a small little input here or there can make a difference. And that seems to be a big factor of spending a lot of money to get that small little change that will give you that power.
[0:05:44] C: These might be really dumb questions but I’d love to get your take on that.
[0:05:47] Sean Evans: Those are not dumb questions because they help explain for people like us who have been around a while, we remember what politics were like oh, I hate to say this 30 years or so ago and what they are like today and they have changed. And so part of this is what we attribute to what in political science circles we call partisan sorting. And this is the idea that people are sorting into parties based on ID.
[0:06:21] Sean Evans: So for example, when we can recall back and say in the 1970s or 80s there were conservative Democrats and there were liberal Republicans. And so what this meant was that the parties were trying to appeal to a broader mass of people to win because their partisan coalitions were much broader than they are today. And so what has happened is that we still have about the same percentage of liberals, moderates and conservatives as we had 40, 50 years ago.
[0:07:02] Sean Evans: But what’s different is all those conservatives are now in the Republican Party and all those liberals are now in the Democratic Party. And so you see much more ideological homogeneity in the heart party. And what this has led them to do is run base oriented elections to where they’re trying to get out their base more because they can go with a more ideological or partisan message and that will get a large percent of the vote out. So instead of going for independence like they used to, they’re trying to drive out their base and the independents are making their choice basically on the same thing that you used to is how well is the incumbent party doing?
[0:07:56] Sean Evans: And so what this means is there could be people like I live here in the city where there were conservative Democrats to where people would vote Republican for President, but they voted Democrat for everything else. And so what people have said is there’s what most people refer to as the Southern Realignment. You had the Republican Party, which was the minority party after the New Deal and after being in the minority for so long, they said that we want to be in the majority.
[0:08:29] Sean Evans: And they started making decisions about where can they get more votes. And they said it’s more conservative party. The place we can get more votes is in the south, which is historically more conservative. And so they started adopting policies that would appeal to white conservatives and that slowly led white conservatives into the party. At the same time, we call it the Southern Realignment. Actually, it’s much more than that. You’re being to see the Northeast, which is the historical home of the Republican Party, started moving toward the left.
[0:09:05] Sean Evans: And so what has happened is we talk about polarization. That’s the idea that everyone is in the middle and then they move to the extreme. Actually, what we have seen occur is that the party elites and the party activists have polarized, but voters themselves have not.
[0:09:25] C: Well, we have the political elites and the activists have kind of gone to the extremes, but the electorate maybe hasn’t as much. And that gets to this point of this perception gap that’s talked about that we kind of think the other side, or people from the other side are more extreme than they are and they think we have less in common than we actually do. Can you speak to that a little bit?
[0:09:51] Sean Evans: Part of this is we’ve talked about partisan sorting based on ideology. What we have also seen is that people are sorting based on economics, on culture, on geography, and by race. And so by doing this, what it means is that people are associating with people who are more like them and they’re associating less with people who are less like them. So it used to be you would have a more diverse social network to where if you said something crazy, there was someone who was of a different viewer say no, that’s actually crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Have you heard about X, Y and Z? And they’re like, oh, I didn’t know that.
[0:10:37] Sean Evans: Today, when we’re surrounded by people who are just like us, then when someone says something that’s more extreme, there’s fewer people who disagree with you. And those who do disagree with you don’t want to speak up because they fear the social ostracism that might occur from doing something contrary to what the dominant idea is. And so because of that, it’s not just that more and more extreme views are accepted. But it even pushes people further than they would go normally, which leads people to have a growing animosity fear and view the other side as a threat to the nation.
[0:11:22] C: Right? And it also, as you hinted there, kind of creates this self censorship of the more moderate voices. They don’t want that penalty, that social penalty because those extreme voices seem like they’ve taken over a lot of the platforms on both sides. Of course, now we’re heading back into the psychological side of it. But I mean, you start to treat it like a moral issue and then it can be even harder because not only do you think you disagree on issues probably more than you really do, but you also start to see the opposite.
[0:11:57] C: The other side is sort of an evil thing and then it’s very hard to have conversations. And I blame that. I claim that this outrage industry has been too successful. Right. We’ve been telling ourselves for years that the other side is sort of evil and now we kind of believe it. But one thing you also talked about earlier was that we are always in these kind of lesser of two evil kind of problems. By the time we get to a general election and we talk about all the things the Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on, it seems like one thing they can’t agree on is a they don’t want a third party and b they don’t want ranked choice voting.
[0:12:36] Sean Evans: Yeah, well, it’s going to depend upon who you’re talking about. But yeah, they want a third party. The answer is no. What the Democrats and Republicans are happy with, they do opal the fact that they’re in charge, they write the rules. They write rules to make it more difficult for other parties to get on the ballot. But the other thing going on with this is even if they made the rules easier, I think it would be more difficult for a third party to actually arise for a couple of reasons. One, partisan identification is a very strong identity for many people.
[0:13:17] Sean Evans: Would they be able to go against that? Another thing is if a third party has success, well, there’s people in the party who says, OOH, these are people that we can appeal to and they’re going to adopt that message. And then the final thing is, I guess I’d say is if you wanted to go for a third party, the hole that people are not addressing is you would have to move center left on economics and center right on culture and that’s really where most people are in the country.
[0:13:56] Sean Evans: But yet are people going to take that risk on that vote voting for that party, which offers something that may be closer to them when they don’t think that party really has a chance at winning?
[0:14:10] C: Right? I mean, you get that and that’s where something like ranked choice voting can help because you don’t feel like you wasted that vote because even if your best candidate misses out on that round, you’re still in it to help the other candidate.
[0:14:23] Sean Evans: Yeah, I know a lot of people talk about ranked choice voting. I’m not as convinced about that. I mean, I’m fine for trying anything out there, but most of the research has found that ranked choice voting doesn’t always have the impact that we think. Ranked choice voting typically leads people to be nicer to their opponents because they want to get their opponents second choice votes. But it really doesn’t help moderates win unless they’re an incumbent. So take someone like Lisa Murkowski in Alaska or Susan Collins in Maine.
[0:15:07] Sean Evans: They’re an established person, so they can appeal to more people.
[0:15:12] C: Interesting. I appreciate that because like you say, everybody seems to just think ranked choice voting would sort of be an improvement. So it’s interesting to get that perspective. I mean, the downside of the current system, or not the downside, but one of them to me is this sort of loss of accountability to their constituency because it’s sort of like if we’ve really convinced ourselves that the other side is pretty much evil.
[0:15:36] C: A lot of the fight is in the primary. Once whoever wins the primary, it’s highly unlikely based on where we even started this conversation, those correlations of party loyalty. It’s sort of like they don’t really have a lot of accountability to their constituency because what are you going to do, vote for evil? You’re not going to vote for evil. So it almost doesn’t matter what they do once they’re elected because you’re sort of back and waiting to the next I mean, they can get kicked out in a primary. I guess you can have fewer lower turnout, which I guess in these really close elections makes a big difference. But I’m curious to hear what you have to say about that.
[0:16:10] Sean Evans: Yeah, there’s a couple of things there. Okay, we have less individual accountability, but more macro level accountability in the sense of when one party has united control of government, it’s easier to blame or put blame on who was responsible for things. And so we actually do see that when one party gets in power, when they do things that’s too extreme, there is a punishment for it. Now, most of that punishment occurs in those swing districts.
[0:16:47] Sean Evans: The second aspect to it is what you brought up about the power of the primary. Basically because of the geographical sorting, what we see go on is that Democrats live overwhelmingly in urban areas, republicans in rural areas, suburbs a little bit more mixed. But the idea is when you’re drawing lines, the basic criteria is compact, contiguous and communities of interest. And if you do that, you’re having districts which tend to have a lean toward one party or the other.
[0:17:28] Sean Evans: And so what ends up happening is, yeah, if you win the primary, you’re automatically in most cases know who’s going to win the general election. But what’s also important about this is that members of Congress are not held accountable for voting against the interest of the district per se because they are rewarded or punished not by how well they represent the district, but how well they represent the party.
[0:18:00] Sean Evans: And so you have people who can vote against the interest of the district, and people are willing to overlook it because their primary consideration of choosing someone to run is how loyal they are to the party, to where? You even have people running on local offices who run on a national political message when that doesn’t really have much to do with what’s going on at the local or state level.
[0:18:31] C: Right. Yeah. And it seems like all this stuff happens on both sides, but it seems like the Democrats seem to be less able to put their coalition into the same page as quite as much and I could be wrong on that than, than the Republicans do. So that sometimes I think that kind of creates their own problems within the party, that there’s a little bit more party infighting. But I would also say I’ve also kind of felt like to some degree the Democrats kind of loved that situation where they had the House, but Mitch McConnell kind of controlled the Senate in some sense because then they didn’t have that problem as always being blamed. Right. They could blame everything on McConnell. I almost feel like when they won the Senate, they’re like, now what.
[0:19:10] Sean Evans: A couple of points. Yeah, I think you’re right. The Democrats do fight a bit more. One way of looking at this is that Republicans are an ideological party. The party is based around conservatism. The Democratic Party is more a coalition of interest groups. And so the idea is when they are trying to put a policy together, they’re trying to do something that’s going to make everybody happy in the party.
[0:19:41] Sean Evans: And so that means you’re fighting over a scarce resource, which is government money. So think about the bill back better agenda that President Biden presented. It had something for everyone in the party for poor, for environmentalists, for women, for minorities. It’s all there. Let’s try to make everybody happy in that regard.
[0:20:09] C: Right? Yeah, you do that in life, that’s usually a recipe for disaster. I sent a bunch of fables about that. I think we talked in the beginning about some of the effects of this kind of outrage industry and all the ways that it has affected us. And one of the outcomes is kind of this polarization. And you note that maybe the polarization isn’t bad at those elite levels, but maybe it’s not as bad among the populace or among the electorate.
[0:20:43] C: What’s your take on how dangerous is this? I’ve read a lot of things talking about this polarization situation we’re in is sort of a threat to democracy. And you can go back to things like Ben Franklin talking about this and Hamilton and Washington talking about extreme polarization being a problem for democracy. What’s your take on the state we’re in? What is our danger zone, and how optimistic are you?
[0:21:12] Sean Evans: I’m actually more optimistic than most people on this. I know that there’s a lot of doom and gloom in the press, and I’ll say there’s a lot of doom and gloom in the discipline of political science. But here’s why I say in the end, one is elections are pretty good self correcting mechanisms. I mean, in the simple fact is, when one party goes extreme, they get punished at the polls. And so I think to a certain extent, there is a sign to the politicians that you will be punished for this.
[0:21:49] Sean Evans: Now, they’re not quite taking the lessons that I think they should on that, but I think on one respect, I trust the people in terms of that. They can make good macro level decisions. Second thing is, I actually have more confidence in the stability of our institutions. So I look at things like the 2020 election. So Donald Trump called file. He said that there was fraud. The simple fact is, every time he has tried to challenge that in a legal place, he has failed miserably in each time, whether it is a Democratic judge, a Republican judge, or even a Trump appointed judge.
[0:22:42] Sean Evans: For those reasons, I think our institutions are a little bit stronger than we give them credit. I think another advantage to this is our separated power system. I mean, it is both good and bad. The idea is our founders created a system where it’s difficult to get things done. Now, that’s good when it tries to stop extreme legislation. It’s bad in the sense to where it makes it difficult for us to get things done.
[0:23:16] Sean Evans: I actually think it’s good because our system is designed to actually try to build consensus. Our elected officials aren’t trying to build consensus, and that’s why they’re trying to eliminate things like the filibuster in the Senate so that they can pursue a more partisan agenda. Now, I think, yes, I understand why it could lead to more effective government. I think it’ll lead to a little bit more policy.
[0:23:45] Sean Evans: Ricocheting we go this way, repeal it. We bring it back, we repeal it. And so I think it’s better if we actually try to move toward consensus. Here are some simple things I think that we can do in our institutions, is allow amendments. It seems strange in the House, it’s a majority run institution where the majority prevents the minority from offering amendments. Now, the Democrats won a majority of the vote and a majority of the seats in 2022 to win the House. I understand the right to govern.
[0:24:24] Sean Evans: Republicans won about 40% of the national presidential vote, 49% of the congressional vote. I think they deserve almost 49% of the representation in the house to where the democrats removed the one way republicans could offer an amendment to a bill at the beginning of the congress. If the republicans could offer more amendments, then I think that would force those moderates in the party to say, you know, these ideas my left wing friends or right wing friends want I don’t really want to vote for that if I don’t have to.
[0:25:08] Sean Evans: And so it gives them a chance of trying to empower the middle instead of the extremes. And I think even if they did get rid of the filibuster, the courts are a backstop. The states are a backstop. And so while there are challenges to our institutions, these challenges aren’t new. Polarization is actually more common in our history than what you and I grew up in. And we face challenge. We face challenges, but we have always overcome them.
[0:25:49] Sean Evans: And I remain confident that there are things that we can do to continue to overcome those challenges.
[0:25:57] C: That’s good to hear. It seems like.
[0:26:03] David Beckemeyer: If there is a.
[0:26:04] C: Way to it’s, like this litmus test stuff, it seems like that’s a big challenge now. It’s like if if there is a moderate voice, they’re almost just like people have self centered in social media in places like that. These moderate voices, even in congress, have kind of self centered in a sense that if you dare say, I’m going to speak to somebody on their side and do some negotiation and compromise and things like that, you’re ostracized and possibly kicked out.
[0:26:38] C: We’ve seen the enemy of ourselves, right? I mean, that’s us sort of pushing our politicians to do that, but it seems like that’s something we need to bring back. It’s okay to talk to the other side, and it’s okay to negotiate and do that.
[0:26:54] Sean Evans: I think a lot, as you said, we’ve met the enemy, and it’s us. I think it’s responsible on us as citizens to be more proactive. I think we need to do things like read media from multiple sources so that you can get these different points of view. And I think it’s also your responsibility to speak up against the craziness on your own side, right? If you are that moderate surrounded by extremists on the left and right, you have a civic duty on one side to speak up because you know what?
[0:27:34] Sean Evans: There’s more people who think like you than you think. And if you do it, there’s going to be more people who are going to rally to your side, and I think we can push them back as individuals on the macro level. I know this sounds bad, but just like we have people bankrolling these super PACs for the ideological streams, we need some people bankrolling some super PACs to promote moderation so they can support candidates and primaries and general elections and other kinds of things to where we can make it.
[0:28:15] Sean Evans: We are creative creating incentives for people to run and propose more moderate type policies.
[0:28:26] C: Interesting. Well, I really appreciate all your insights. I can’t thank you enough for joining me today, and thank you again.
[0:28:36] Sean Evans: Well, it’s my pleasure. And best of luck with your podcast. I hope your podcast does a lot to try to minimize the outrage we see in our culture.
[0:28:49] C: Well, thank you. Now it’s time for our Street Outrage segment.
[0:29:03] David Beckemeyer: In today’s Street Outrage, we speak with Cheryl about social media and outrage porn.
[0:29:18] D: My sense is we’ve sort of created this monster, right?
[0:29:22] E: Of course we did. Well, you more than me, but me.
[0:29:25] D: More than you, but I mean, I think that people said, oh, this thing of making the other side, making people hate the other side is kind of working, so let’s keep doing it. And then they just have done it so much that we just now totally believe it, and now it’s just created this crisis situation that we can’t get anything done. We can’t talk to each other, and we can’t solve any big problems because all we want to talk about is, I don’t know, little stuff, stupid stuff about somebody has the wrong color hair or whatever.
[0:29:55] D: So it’s like we can’t even talk about big issues because we can’t even talk at all.
[0:30:02] E: Well, and I guess my hope would be, although probably a little optimistic, is that people would burn out on it, right? Because you’re getting so much of it, and it’s so pervasive, and it’s just so constant, and you see people go, oh, I’m taking a break from social media, whatever that means. I don’t know if that’s because they got upset or pissed off or you don’t know because it’s sort of Abating thing about, well, why are you doing that? What happened?
[0:30:30] E: It would be a typical Facebook kind of exchange. I have a cousin back in Minnesota who does that, and it’s very provocative. It’s like, well, what happened? Are you okay? It’s like, stop. She’s back in within 24 hours anyway. I guess maybe that’s what she considered her break.
[0:30:49] D: Yeah. Well, I definitely know people that have either completely pulled the plug, or they pull the plug for like a few weeks or a month at a time.
[0:30:58] E: But then they want to go back again, I think, going back to why you use it, I mean, I like those vacation pictures. Kids, right? First day at kindergarten. I like that. And the rest. You don’t have to read it. I guess that’s the other thing too, right? I mean, you don’t have to open stuff. You don’t have to read it.
[0:31:17] C: You don’t have to respond.
[0:31:18] E: You can snooze it. You can do whatever else you want to do.
[0:31:30] C: That is it for this episode of the Outrageoverload podcast.
[0:31:34] David Beckemeyer: For links to everything we talked about.
[0:31:36] C: On this episode, visit outrageoverload.
[0:31:39] D: Net.
[0:31:40] C: You can follow me on Twitter at mr blog. You can follow the show on Twitter or Instagram at outrageoverload. We have a Facebook page outrageoverload and a Facebook group.
[0:31:51] David Beckemeyer: You like the show? Tell your friends about it. Maybe think about giving us a review.
[0:31:55] C: On Apple or your favorite podcast player.[0:31:59] David Beckemeyer: And check back in a couple of weeks for a brand new episode.