Political Polarization: Challenges, Opportunities and Hope

From corporate boycotts in response to changes to voter legislation to the lack of bipartisanship in the U.S. government, many are left wondering if compromise is a thing of the past. What should we make of the ideological differences that not only define the U.S., but also polarize much of the country?

Political polarization, or the marked division in our population, has grown exponentially in the last few years, harming consumer welfare and creating challenges for professionals from elected officials and policymakers to corporate executives and marketers. University of Delaware Professor Meryl Gardner contributed to research in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing (JPPM) that gets to the heart of the rise in political polarization and its far-reaching impacts.

Gardner, who is a professor of marketing at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, studied the role social media and other information outlets played in political polarization and identified opportunities for future research.

The paper’s lead authors are T.J. Weber and Chris Hydock from California Polytechnic State University. Other contributors include Eric Van Steenburg from Montana State University, William Ding from Southern Connecticut State University, Pradeep Jacob and Naomi Mandel from Arizona State University, and David Sprott from the University of Wyoming. JPPM is a journal of the American Marketing Association.

“Three of my research passions are information processing, the role of feelings in decision making and using consumer psychology to make the world better,” Gardner said. “Political polarization touches on all of these aspects and through this paper we are addressing broader and more important issues.

“Basically, everyone wants things that are good; the challenge is that we have different ideas of what is good.”

Gardner spoke with the Lerner College about the importance of understanding political polarization and what it could mean for businesses and consumers.

Lerner: What is political polarization and why is it important to be aware of it?

Gardner: We’ve always had different opinions. But we used to have opinions issue by issue. You might agree with me about climate change, but not about vaccinations.

Now, what we’re seeing are people who are agreeing with each other straight down the line. Part of what happens then is people tend to interact with those who see the world very similarly. It becomes a question of us and them and this other person is going to cause problems, which could be life and death. We are having people say, “whose life matters more?”

It has gotten to a point of asking, “what are the consequences of being open minded and compromising?” Most people are fine with compromise, when all you are compromising about is which movie to go to. Now, the stakes are bigger. Our perspective has changed, our questions have changed. Because these questions have changed, we are changing the way we look at the world.

That’s part of why polarization isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Our choices affect each other. That interdependency causes us to get more passionate about our own entrenched positions and makes it that much harder to take a step back.

How we decide to move forward will most likely have an impact on another group, be it negative or positive.

When I do a Google search, I see completely different things than what you see when you do a Google search. We are seeing different information and we’re sharing different information. And we’re trusting different information.

Lerner: Is political polarization here to stay?

Gardner: Political polarization is not something that is going to go away now that we are in a new presidential administration. We are not necessarily all going to come together and do what is best for the country.

We all want to come together but we want to come together on our terms. We are not saying we want our side to give in and do what the other side is asking.

You think about your frustration when you’re talking to people who see things very differently. And they are equally frustrated with us. It’s really hard. We fight that all the time. We find that when we’re trying to get vaccines distributed but we see so much distrust of the government.

If you don’t trust the government, how can you let them put a needle in your arm? If you don’t trust the process, how can you move forward? Trust is a basic starting point. That’s what we’ve lost. We’ve lost the belief that we all have a basic idea of how to make things good.

Lerner: You studied the role of information in political polarization, what did you find? What were you most surprised by?

Gardner: I looked at where people went to learn and how they used information: what they would share, what they would retweet, what they would read.

One of the things that we talked about in the paper is how political polarization affects our purchases. If we as consumers say, “I’m not going to go eat in this particular franchise because I don’t like their stand on gay marriage” or “I’m not going to go to that hardware store, because they are donating money to a candidate that I think is doing terrible things.” Is that good or bad for me, as a consumer?

On one hand, voting with my dollars narrows my options. I may wind up paying more, having fewer alternatives or needing to travel further to shop. On the other hand, choosing products that meet my needs while considering the implications of my choices for bigger issues enables me to be part of changing the world in ways that I may find important and provide meaning.

Lerner: Another finding from the paper was that political identities such as Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative help determine people’s behavior, attitudes and perceptions. What is the long-term impact on consumer behavior, in terms of products and services consumers engage with?

Gardner: Sometimes companies can choose very neutral causes. They can give food to people who are hungry, and most everyone is in favor of that. But there are a lot of causes that have a political component.

Budweiser chose not to do its big Clydesdale ads this year in the Super Bowl because they said they were going to use that to promote vaccinations. Anheuser-Busch did highlight another of its products with a Super Bowl commercial to promote Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, with a nod to the pandemic without making people uncomfortable. The message was when life gives you lemons, we make lemonade. It was clearly a pandemic reference without being depressing, which worked beautifully and got lots of praise for the commercial and brand.

We can do many things. It becomes a concern, which of the things are going to get some people angry, which are the things that are going to build loyalty. That depends on knowing your customer. Knowing which kinds of positions your customers are going to be happy with.

Lerner: Might political polarization also lead to a lack of trust and growing misinformation? If so, what should companies be concerned about?

Gardner: We each have trust in different things. You may trust the government or you may not. You may trust doctors or you may not. You may trust science, or you may not. You may trust your own sensory experience or you may not.

Relying on different types of information can lead us in different directions. For some people, it’s much easier to trust something if they have a physical, visceral experience, or if they hear of a physical, visceral experience. I read about statistics, and I’m very comfortable trusting statistics. I’m a person who likes to rely upon numbers. But someone else will hear about one person whose child got sick after getting a measles vaccine and decide not to vaccinate their children. We use information differently. We share information differently.

Many people are getting information from comedy channels; they’re getting information from their friends on Facebook. This information is taken at face value; people are sharing this information as truth without vetting the source, either because they believe the person who shared it or it doesn’t matter to them. Often, the information is not true. We are basing our decisions upon the information that supports what we would like to believe. Both sides are guilty of that. We are basing our decisions upon preconceptions and where we get information.

We know that if we want to get many Twitter followers, we need to be sensationalistic. Someone who is in politics or wants to be in politics and tweets things that are very neutral won’t get a whole lot of followers. But if you put things in [your tweets] that are very extreme, you get more followers. It’s viewed as more interesting. The extreme gets more followers, the extreme gets more retweets and the extreme gets more mentions on the news for good or for bad.

Lerner: How do we move forward?

Gardner: Finding common ground is the challenge that the new administration is facing and finding places where we can overlap is important.

We all realize that if we view others as the other we are doing a disservice to them and to us. We all realize that us versus them doesn’t work well. It never did. It never will. Demonizing the other side doesn’t work.  In the paper we suggest that information can be provided that is deliberately apolitical or biographical to take the spotlight off differences.  It is also important to look for common ground and find issues that get us all to think of ourselves as Americans rather than as members of particular parties or factions. The key is finding the first step and getting us to move toward the common good together.

What Business Leaders Need to Know About Generative AI

The recent successes of generative AI models like ChatGPT and DALL-E have left savvy executives wondering how this new technology will revolutionize their industry. No one can predict the impact gen AI will have on an enterprise, but smart executives know that they...

Six Tips for Building Resilience in a Tough Job Market

Article written by Jessica Venturi, a career counselor with the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. Political forces, emerging technologies, and other unprecedented pressures on the job market can feel particularly daunting to job seekers. We can do...