We hear over and over again about the growing polarization in America. Pew reported a few years ago that partisanship has grown both more concentrated and more pointed since the mid-nineties—the number of voters expressing hard ideological stances has doubled while those same voters feel more and more unfavorable towards their counterparts on the other side.
This self-sorting is reinforced by an increasingly siloed media—across TV, print, and most especially the internet—that allows citizens to choose their content according to political preferences.
And we know, too, that polarization goes beyond politics strictly speaking. Again from Pew:
“Three-quarters of consistent conservatives say they would opt to live in a community where ‘the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,’ while 77% of consistent liberals prefer smaller houses closer to amenities.”
The patterns of everyday life, which arguably do more to shape social identities than anything else, are increasingly predictable by political affiliation.
Add to this mix now one more piece of evidence: TV preferences. The Wall Street Journal reports on the “stark partisan divide” between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to their favorite shows. To be sure, some hit programs, like “The Walking Dead” and “The Big Bang Theory,” seem to transcend political boundary lines, attracting both loyal Democrats and Republicans. But solidarity quickly unravels after that. Out of the top ten shows identified by both types of voter, seven shows on each list don’t even appear on the other’s list. The most notable example is HBO’s flagship mega-hit, “Game of Thrones,” which ranks #1 for Democrat viewers but doesn’t even show up on the Republicans list. Democrats also tend to draw from a wider range of networks, while Republicans find seven of their top shows on just two channels.
TV has been serious business for a few years now. As shows become increasingly filmic and the quality of writing, directing, and acting on the small screen continues to increase, our TV shows are one of our easiest forms of cultural currency. They constitute the water-cooler chatter on Monday mornings and bring friends and neighbors together for viewing parties.
If polarization has reached such a level that it is now reflected in our television preferences, then it has indeed run rampant. And to the extent that fellow-citizens continue to refer to entirely different sets of cultural reference-points, we lose something essential in the common practice of citizenship.
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