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Is A Dumb Public The Force Behind Partisanship?

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Figures of Grief and History near the U.S. Capitol building. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Figures of Grief and History near the U.S. Capitol building. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Is partisanship a product of a dumber public? According to Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), comity in Congress has reached a low point, and the public’s decreasing intellect is partially to blame.

“It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle,” said Ackerman during a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “It’s not like that anymore. Society has changed. The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber.”

But is society actually getting dumber? Studies show that the average person today would score significantly higher on an IQ test than individuals from past generations. In keeping with these findings, some experts maintain that partisanship is not rooted in a diminishing public intellect, but instead, can be linked to a change in the public’s behavior.

“Public discourse has changed over the years,” said Bill Buck, a Democratic strategist. “Americans have become disconnected with each other. There is really a lack of common experience.”

According to Buck, the fragmentation and frustration of the American people sparks a “vicious cycle,” where voters elect increasingly ideological officials and partisanship develops as a result. Yet, some political consultants believe that this does not make society dumb, but rather, misinformed.

“Voters are much more perceptive than what they are given credit for,” said Abe Dyk, a partner at political media firm Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly, LLC. “But sometimes they don’t get all the information they need.”

Dyk maintains that in recent years, the media has evolved, and today, certain news organizations have a bias and do not always present their audience with the opposing view. As a result, this “media segmentation” fosters political polarization.

“Just look at the comments section, nobody wants to be seen as a moderate,” said Dyk. “Political dialogues get pushed to extremes because of media segmentation. I don’t think the middle of America has changed that much, you just have your activists getting pushed more and more to the left or the right.”

While some attribute the seeming increase in partisanship to certain media outlets and extreme ideologists, others say this polarization can breed intolerance, which can trigger presumptuous attitudes.

“The public isn’t dumber, but with media segmentation and the hyper-partisan atmosphere it certainly makes people less tolerant of different views and more likely to dismiss those people who hold them as dumb,” said Mathews Pierson, Director of Politics at CBS Local.

However, not all strategists believe the media can be blamed for partisanship in Congress. Amos Snead, a Principal at Story Partners, LLC., a political public affairs firm, believes advances in the media have fostered a public that is better educated and more engaged in political affairs.

“I think now there is just more news and information flowing in and out of Congress,” said Snead. “We’re just hearing about it from more directions. You turn on the evening news, it’s politics. You go on Twitter, it’s politics. Social media and digital communications allows the public to play more of a role in the legislative process.”

However, with more access to news comes a greater risk of misinterpretation. For Buck, the media attention surrounding Ackerman’s comment is emblematic of just that.

“[Ackerman] was trying to make a larger point, but people only hear a few words and that’s part of the problem,” said Buck. “Rather than talking about why someone feels that way, or thinking about a problem, it becomes a question surrounding two or three words.”

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