Friday, September 13, 2013

Pop-Politics: Politics In A Fragmented Age

Political Party Sorting And Population Density: IT's Pretty!
They say that whatever music you listened to when you were a teenager is 'your music.' This makes sense to me--The Omnivore came of age in the 80's and ... that's my music (oldies stations, right?)--but things were different then.

Back then the Top 40 was the Top 40 and the New York Times best-seller list was the best seller list. Box-Office grosses were just how much money a movie made--and that was how you knew (adjusted for inflation) which was numero-uno. And TV? The Nelson Ratings, man. That was what made a show popular or not.

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article on what has happened in the intervening decades to 'popularity.'
Now the concept of cultural popularity has been flayed, hung by its heels and drained of all meaning. For example: “NCIS,” the naval-police procedural, is the highest-rated non-football program on television, routinely drawing 17 million viewers a week. By a straightforward accounting, that makes it the most popular show on TV. Yet by a different definition — the extent to which, say, a show saturates the cultural conversation — you could make a case for “Mad Men” as TV’s most popular show, even though it draws only 2.5 million viewers. 
We already understand why this is: it’s a tenet of faith that we no longer experience culture as one hulking, homogeneous mass. Not that long ago, we had “Thriller,” which, at last count, sold about 66 million copies worldwide. Nothing sells 66 million copies anymore. . . . That’s because we’ve turned off Top 40 and loaded up Spotify; we’ve clicked away from NBC and fired up Netflix; we, thanks to the increasingly concierge-style delivery system of the Internet, are each sheltered in our own cultural cocoon.
The underlined area is not just what has happened to entertainment media. It is what has happened to our realities. It is what has happened to politics. In fact ... it started in politics. American political perspectives have been fragmenting for quite some time.

There are two elements to this: Sorting and Polarization. Let's look at each one--with some timelines.

Political Party Sorting
We say politics have gotten more partisan (and it has--see below)--but that may not be the only phenomena in play. One can make a case that the visible difference in political positions is largely due to sorting. This is the case that Morris P. Fiorina (link above) makes: the number of moderates and independents is still roughly the same--they're just differently distributed.
Numbers are Hypothetical For Illustrative Purposes Only
Sorting means this: back in "the day" there were some liberals in the Republican party--hard to believe, I know--but true. There were also some conservatives among the Democrats. Over time though, everyone moved to their respective corners--they 'sorted.' This doesn't mean there are more radical guys on either side: it just means there isn't any mixing. The trend, for the time periods I have, has not only accelerated: it may just have topped out (here are some real numbers for the US Senate):
Where Do You Go From Here?
And a measure of moderates in Congress in general?
What you can see here is that starting in the 90's and bringing us up to today whatever happened to cause this sorting really accelerated.

Polarization? That Too, It Turns Out
But the question as to whether or not whatever is going on is increasing a split in party identification or is actually in increase in the strength of each polar position. There's evidence that has been increasing too. Consider:
That's a Canyon
Basically, the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown as well.
Furthermore the split has increased in speed:

In 1987, midway through Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, party was one among many fundamental cleavages in American society. Republicans and Democrats held different values, but the differences were on par with the differences of opinion between blacks and whites, wealthy and poor, or college grads and those without a college degree.

This is no longer the case. Since 1987 – and particularly over just the past decade – the country has experienced a stark increase in partisan polarization. Across 48 different questions covering values about government, foreign policy, social and 
 economic issues and other realms, the average difference between the opinions of Republicans and Democrats now stands at 18 percentage points. This is nearly twice the size of the gap in surveys conducted from 1987-2002.
What Happened in the Late 1980's?
It's hard to be sure. There are several theories (including geographical migration, religious battles over textbooks and culture, and economic inequality, the price of oil?). I want to advance one that touches on the idea of fragmenting popularity I referenced above.

Our Sorting / Polarization Time Line
I've tried to get some better granularity than the above--but I haven't been successful. Using the dates we have there it looks something like this:

  1. 1980-82 is our "baseline." It is not the most moderate period of history but we can see with the House and Senate it is about 40% integrated.
  2. By 1994 sorting has reduced moderates to 25%. Partisan division is at a high point of +2 over 1988.
  3. Eight years later, by 2002, we are almost rock-bottom at 10% or less. The biggest jump in partisanship happened in 2002 according to the PEW chart above (3pts).
  4. We don't have a good sorting number--but sometime around 2007 the partisan index took off
  5. By 2011? Completely sorted. The partisan index climbs and explosive 4pts to an all-time-high in 2012.
What if what happened was Cable TV?
Below is a graphic showing the evolution of Cable TV:
In 1980 broadband was limited and there were no real other options--no On Demand, no DVRs, and certainly no Internet. The average person had 18.8 channels in their home. Shortly thereafter, though, the 1984 Cable Communications bill deregulated cable TV in the US. This led to "dramatic growth" in the cable industry.

By 1995 the number of channels has more than doubled to 41.1. We see the rise (above) of On-demand programming and Cable Phone. In 1994 Direct TV came into existence.

In the early 2000's (2002-2004) the number of channels has doubled again to 92.6. We now have robust On-Demand, High Speed Internet. In 1999 the TiVO came out allowing personal DVR-style watching (it was some time before we reached DVR from cable companies themselves).

I don't have stats past 2006 but I can see we reach an average of 104.2 channels per household and viewing is now done on multiple platforms (TV, tablet, personal computer, mobile phone, etc.). The amount of visual media--and now audio available is so much richer than ever before that we have almost no shared-media experience except the Super Bowl.

What About Social Digital Media?
The social medial revolution really "happened" around 2008. The 2012 election was the first true social-media one. It was the first where Twitter played a front-and-center role in things like deciding debates and distilling sound-bites for viral consumption. Facebook was used as a significant Get-Out-The-Vote force multiplier. Neither of these things would have been possible even a few years before.

Here is a chart showing Cumulative Twitter users by year:
Mt. Everest.
Note that 2007 and 2008 is a turning point for both of these sites--much like the Partisan graph.

Sorting began in the late 80's--well before social and digital media which has correlations to sorting. The rise of social media does coincide with the large increase in polarization. That's interesting.  I shouldn't have to say that correlation isn't causation--but I think it's interesting to see how popularity has fragmented--and how politics has fragmented as well. These impacts are similar whether or not they are causally related or not.

For my part, I think the Facebook memes and the Twitter-sphere (and blogs--and alternate media) does increase polarization. It may increase sorting as well. We see all kinds of people getting support for things like rare medical conditions ("Wow! I'm not the only one with XYZZY-Syndrome!") or even odd fetishes ("I'm not the only guy into getting hot and sexay with furniture!!")--why not for more extreme political positions? A self-selected bubble of like-minded people on Facebook or Twitter--or any of the many possible Internet outlets makes more extreme behavior seem more acceptable. There is no reason this should not be the same for political positions that are, mostly, not nearly that extreme.

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