Partisan media’s role in the polarization of Americans has been exaggerated, ­associate professor Markus Prior says.
Partisan media’s role in the polarization of Americans has been exaggerated, ­associate professor Markus Prior says.

We often hear that political partisanship is on the upswing, with Congress deadlocked because of deep splits between left and right and the electorate seemingly divided into hostile camps. 

Cable television often is blamed, and, more recently, the Internet. It’s become a ­truism that Fox News and MSNBC, in particular, have helped make Americans more polarized.

But political scientist Markus Prior casts doubt on this premise. An associate professor of politics and public affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Prior has spent several years studying the effects of partisan media. The influence of Fox News, he concludes, has been exaggerated — and the same is true for other more-or-less extreme outlets on both left and right. We need to look elsewhere for the wellsprings of polarization, he says.

Prior shows that fewer citizens consume partisan media than usually is thought. In a recent article in the Annual Review of Political Science — which builds on his 2007 book Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections — Prior uses Nielsen ratings to show that partisan media such as Fox or MSNBC reach only 10 or 15 ­percent of American voters, not enough to make a huge difference in national attitudes. “Most voters are centrist,” he says, “and most avoid partisan media.” Those few who do watch were polarized to begin with, he adds.

So what accounts for the increasing polarization we have seen in recent elections? Prior points to a different culprit: the explosion of media outlets and the exit of many moderates from the political process. Back in the 1970s, a great many more Americans paid attention to politics and bothered to vote — because, Prior argues, they regularly were watching network news. 

But no longer, he says: In today’s media-rich environment, these middle-of-the-road types need never watch the news at all — and they typically don’t because of myriad entertainment options. At the same time, many moderates have quit voting out of disinterest. “So you are left with more supporters of the two extremes,” Prior said. 

Hence the polarization we see, as moderates abandon the political process, turning the field over to ideologues who still care enough to vote. Never especially interested in politics, moderates now show virtually no interest at all, being busy consuming entertainment, not news. “Proliferation of media choices lowered the share of less-interested, less-partisan voters,” Prior concludes, “and thereby made elections more partisan.”