Brookings Papers on Economic Activity

U.S. Public Discourse Not Currently as Politically Polarized as Most Think

Comparing Last 140 Years of Rhetoric Shows Partisan Discourse No Worse over Time

U.S. Not Actually as Politically Polarized as Most Think

SEPTEMBER 13, 2012 -
Partisanship of public political discourse, as measured by use of polarizing or partisan words, is actually lower today than it was during Reconstruction and the late 19th century, according to a new analysis of the Congressional Record and Google Books since 1873 presented today at the Fall 2012 Conference on the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA). The research also shows that partisan language tends to be generated first in printed discourse and then works its way into the Congressional political discourse.

In “The Dynamics of Political Language,” (pdf) by Jacob Jensen of Stanford University, Suresh Naidu and Laurence Wilse-Samson of Columbia University and Ethan Kaplan of the University of Maryland find that today’s level of polarization in public (i.e. non-Congress) political discourse is indeed historically high, but only relative to 30 years ago. Consistent with other measures, the authors find that Congress itself has polarized considerably to historically extraordinary levels in recent years. However, they find that while the level of polarization in public political discourse has increased since 1994, it is well within historical levels. They show that it was higher throughout most of the last century and a half – with it being particularly high during the New Deal, the tax-debates of the early 20th century, and the political violence of the late 19th century.

“The result that polarization of political discourse is not particularly high today relative to the historical record may surprise some,” they write. “However, we believe it is plausible. The New Deal was incredibly politically contentious, as was the introduction of the income tax, the Gilded Age debates about labor, tariffs, and bimetallism, and the Civil Rights period. Gridlock, partisan language and roll-call voting patterns in Congress may only partially reflect the true divisions in political ideas that exist in society. By that score, the 19th -century political divisions appears as not only more polarized in language, but also much more conflict-ridden relative to today.”

The authors also examine the origination of the phrases by looking at the relationship between political leaders’ use of partisan terms and their adoption by wider society via their use in books, newspapers and everyday political argument. “Where these partisan ideas come from, how they are propagated, and whether they matter in shaping beliefs and behavior are important questions for students of politics,” they write. Only relatively non-partisan, non-polarized phrases used by Congress then increased in printed public discourse, the authors find, whereas more partisan phrases tended to originate  in public discourse and then make their way to use by members of Congress. They also suggest that while Congress may take its economic language from public intellectuals, it does not adopt social issues language from the same sources. The role of books in developing somewhat polarizing phrases was more prevalent in the early 20th and late 19th centuries than in the post war period, and is stronger for economic issues than social issues, the research shows.

“Our own intuition is that ideas must have some of their own momentum and power, but that there are likely important background material conditions through which groups and individuals modify ideas, and which make their propagation more or less likely,” they conclude.

Download the paper (PDF) »