Film critic Pauline Kael is often quoted as saying after the 1972 presidential election some variant of “How can [Nixon] have won? Nobody I know voted for him.” The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, paraphrased from a less insular comment.* But that sentiment is no doubt familiar to many Americans today. As politics has become more partisan in recent decades, it gets harder to talk to people across the political divide.
Our research on the 2016 election underscores how common this has become, with three-quarters of voters most often talking about politics only to people who shared their views.
Red feed, blue feed
More and more Americans live in partisan “bubbles,” reinforced by changed news and communications media. A 2014 Pew study found that just over a quarter of Facebook users (including 31 percent of consistent conservatives and 44 percent of consistent liberals) have muted or unfriended someone because of political disagreements. A study of Wisconsin voters also found that nearly a third of respondents said that they had stopped discussing politics with someone after disagreeing about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall election.
Meanwhile, Americans have become better sorted into politically like-minded networks by geography, occupation and lifestyles. Although recent research suggest that Americans are not choosing where to live because of politics, the resulting clustering naturally limits exposure to those of different political persuasions.
Such sorting into “red” and “blue” regions and communities means that, American politics increasingly feels “tribal.” Party competition routinely antagonizes ideological, cultural, and religious differences among factions, whose suspicion and dislike is exacerbated by ignorance about the other side’s motives.
If getting to know one another as people helps reduce stereotypes of and prejudice toward groups different from our own, then the political homogenization of U.S. society bodes poorly for deliberation and tolerance.
But how homogeneous are Americans’ political networks, really?
How we did our research
To find out how much “crosscutting” discussion — that is, conversation with those across the aisle — ordinary Americans had during the 2016 election season, we asked the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) respondents to name the three people with whom they most frequently discuss political matters.