By Nadia Tareen
Last October, during my semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I recall my host mom commenting to me as we watched the news over dinner, “Wow, the politics in your country are just as bad as they are here!” The U.S. government had just shut down. At various points during my experience in Latin America, it seemed like Argentina and the U.S. were worlds apart, from language to culture to level of development. However, despite these differences, both these countries are facing a similar challenge: deep political polarization. At home in the U.S., political psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently commented that we are entering a “dangerous era in U.S. politics,” with an increasingly more pronounced split between liberalism and conservatism. Simultaneously, the population of Argentina is fiercely divided over the controversial politics of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, with Buenos Aires and other major cities frequently grappling with city-paralyzing protests from all extremes of the political spectrum. I witnessed for myself how my peers at the Catholic University of Argentina would ostracize the sole student sympathetic to the Kirchner government in our class. Despite many differences between these two countries, a concerning level of division on ideological lines is threatening the future of healthy political debate in both Argentina and the United States. In both cases, this polarization can be traced to the role of the media and its increasingly sensationalist, demonizing reporting.
What exactly does political polarization look like in each of these countries? Here in the United States, many point to the emergence of ideologically extreme movements like the Tea Party as the shift towards deep political division. The Pew Research Center conducted studies in 2012 that indicate a recent nationwide shift towards more extreme, partisan views among the public. In surveys asking about various political, economic, and social issues, the gap between Democrats and Republicans now stands at 18 percentage points – about double the size of the gap found in survey results from 1987- 2002. Few moderate representatives are currently being elected to Congress, instead replaced by representatives from districts dominated by only one party. As a result, the recent levels of polarization in U.S. politics have blurred the lines between campaigning and the logistics of governing. The government shutdown in October 2013 is just one example of a crisis caused by the rising ideological division within Congress.
In Argentina, polarization has manifested itself in the form of disruptive clashes between the supporters and opponents of President Kirchner’s populist policies. Supporters of Kirchnerismo herald la Presidenta and her policies as harbingers of social inclusion, higher employment, and the end of neoliberalism. On the other hand, the anti-Kirchneristas express many complaints about the government, including manipulation of inflation figures, wide-ranging corruption, and anti-business measures that they claim are stymieing the future of the Argentine economy. The Latin American country is currently facing a myriad of serious economic issues, including soaring inflation at 24 percent, and is still recovering from a devastating dictatorship that only came to an end in 1983, in which tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed because of their political views. Even with all of these critical challenges, scholars from the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank agree that one of the most crucial obstacles facing Argentina is the “deep political polarization marked by excessive demonization of the left by the right and vice versa.”
Not surprisingly, political division has taken different forms in the U.S. and Argentina, two very distinct countries. Yet both nations are dealing with the same issue that can partly be blamed for their shared polarization problem: partisanship, bias, and increasing control of the media. Around the world, the average citizen now has access to more options than ever for keeping up with the news. With the shift from the previous generation’s solitary choice for mainstream news to a variety of options in print, 24-hour TV channels, and online, many openly partisan media outlets have emerged. In the U.S., these outlets are represented by conservative voices like Fox News and Wall Street Journal, as well as the leftleaning New York Times and MSNBC News channel. In Argentina, partisan media outlets take the form of progovernment newspapers like Página 12, versus the media conglomerate Clarín, which controls over 150 cable television licenses and is highly critical of Kirchner’s administration. Almost every media outlet in Argentina has a clear political bias, exacerbating the problem of polarization. There have even been direct clashes between these news organizations, with particular hostility between the Kirchner government and Clarín. Reporters Without Borders say this tension in the media “typifies a climate of polarization.”
In the U.S., there tend to be more options for unbiased (at least, on the surface) mainstream news outlets. Nonetheless, increased media choice in America has also worsened political division. Individuals who already have a strong ideology tend to be the most avid viewers of the partisan news channels that are consistent with their views, while more politically moderate Americans are turned off by these partisan channels and often choose to watch a non-political program instead – thus disengaging from political debate altogether. As Penn Political Science professor Matthew Levendusky, author of How Partisan Media Polarizes America, explains, this situation causes only those extreme in their ideologies to be active in politics: “the growth of media choice strengthens the extremes while hollowing out the center, making the electorate more divided.” This effect trickles to who represents the population in Congress. Representatives with extreme views in turn cause crises like the government shutdown, perpetuating a cycle of political disengagement – as Yale Professor Beverly Gage remarked, people “throw their hands up and say, oh, it’s all such a mess. I don’t really want to make sense of it. I don’t want to deal with it.”
The media alone cannot take full responsibility for the current state of political division. In the context of the U.S., Fareed Zakaria of CNN points to changes in Congressional rules that hinder compromise legislation and redistricting as other factors contributing to polarization. In Argentina, the memory of the military dictatorship undoubtedly continues to divide the population on political terms. Nonetheless, the narrowcast and partisan media reinforce, if not cause, the polarization problem in both these countries. Fact checking can help alleviate media bias, with the work of organizations like Penn’s own Factcheck.org and the related Argentine counterpart Chequeado. More importantly, it is up to us – Americans and Argentines alike – to demand fair reporting from the media, encourage healthy political debate, and refrain from demonizing our political “enemies.”