It might seem to be common sense that the central role of media in a democracy is, as two keen observers of journalism once suggested, to provide citizens “with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” This logic emerges from the historical period generally known as the Enlightenment, which saw the concurrent rise of democracy as a system of governance, and science as the means of explaining the workings of the physical world. Those two—democracy and science—emerge hand-in-hand, with the epistemology of one shaping the practice of the other. Both rest on assumptions that humans are inherently rational beings, able, with the right training, to reason from evidence to conclusion, and willing to change minds (and behavior) accordingly.
For political science, this is often called the rational choice theory of democracy—the theory that democracy requires each individual to vote based on a logical understanding of the conditions, causes, and concerns that shape one’s situation in life. Thus the common belief that people should vote with their best interests in mind, using reliable sources of objective information to formulate their political preferences. However appealing that ideal may seem, the empirical evidence in this regard is less than encouraging. Decades of research indicate, not surprisingly, that people are often quite irrational, especially when it comes to making sense of politics. Political decision-making is rarely driven by factual knowledge, and importantly, despite the individualistic assumptions of rational choice theory, it’s something we rarely do on our own.
A contrary strand of democratic thought has long argued that our political behavior is more likely driven by our sense of collective identity than by our individual perceptions. The influential 1960 study The American Voter made the case that partisan identity—often inherited from parents—exerts a much greater influence on voter choice than can be explained by factual understanding of issues. This work introduced the fundamental argument that democratic politics is, at root, less an aggregate of individual-level choices than it is an outward expression of internally felt group ties. That point has only become more salient in our contemporary age. Researchers find both that partisanship sits at the heart of our political worldviews, and that partisanship itself has become more affective than it is ideological. That is, partisan affiliation has less to do with traditional policy platforms or even a necessarily coherent stand on the issues, than it does a sense of belonging and the strength of our emotional ties to others with whom we perceive social solidarity or kinship. At the same time, our dislike for the other—our sense of distance between us and them—has become a primary driver of political attitudes and behavior. That only appears to increase year over year, as we sort ourselves into political communities arranged around a host of social characteristics, including socio-economic status, region, race, and religion.
In turn, contemporary political campaigning is largely about affective representational claims. Candidates often position themselves as prototypes of a particular social group, a living embodiment of its characteristics and ideals, as well as its fears and insecurities. More than simply suggesting resemblance, though, would-be representatives actively work to construct the very identities they then claim to represent. Political representation itself, the theorist Lisa Disch suggests, is the act of providing a potential, but as yet unformed, constituency with “an image of itself”—of encouraging people to define themselves around “a common enemy, a common problem, a common demand” that does not exist outside the representation, but instead is “narrated into being by it.”
From this perspective, the real work of political media is narration—imagining the political world and the groups that inhabit it. This point turns the conventional understanding of the role of media in a democracy on its head. There is little evidence that people attend to news in order “to be informed,” nor that many of us are often persuaded to change our minds. We have long engaged in selective exposure, seeking out likeminded perspectives and following those sources that affirm the beliefs we want to have. So too do we engage in selective avoidance—in a media environment of unlimited choice, many of us simply pay little attention to the news sources that might challenge our preconceptions and ask us to think otherwise.
Instead of information or persuasion, then, a primary outcome of political media becomes reinforcement: not changing attitudes, but shaping and strengthening beliefs and dispositions through continuous priming. Advanced technologies of audience measurement only exaggerate these effects. Fox News, for example, uses data that reveal minute-by-minute patterns of audience attention to manage the topics it presents, the information it provides, and the voices it amplifies. The result is an emotionally provocative daily narrative, one that is interwoven within the wider digital media ecosystem and amplified via the endless scroll of algorithmically constructed social media feeds.
As anyone who has spent time “doom-scrolling” (or watching cable TV news) knows, the symbolic currency of most political media has become outrage, a sense that the other side poses an existential threat. There is method to the madness here. Political scientists have long noted that in a closely divided electorate, elections are won or lost not through persuasion, by winning over some of the other side, but through mobilization, convincing the like-minded of the need to defeat the other. More deeply, political coalitions and constituencies themselves must be mobilized in order to come into being. Theorists distinguish between identification, defining oneself as a member of a social group, and mobilization, perceiving one’s social identity as being in grave enough risk that political action becomes necessary. The Trumpist MAGA movement, for example, has been particularly successful in mobilizing white identity—not simply in appealing to whiteness as a sense of identity and positioning Trump as its representative, but in telling an ongoing story of whiteness-under-threat, and thus activating it politically.
The takeaway here is that political behavior is, and perhaps always has been, driven more by group identity than by individual rationality. Political representation might be better understood as the work of crafting compelling identity claims, while media function to provide the symbolic resources for identity construction. In turn, information and political engagement are filtered through identity frames. This phenomenon is often inaccurately characterized as “polarization” —a conflict between red and blue, between equal and opposite sides. Instead, it is important to recognize that the dynamic is deeply asymmetric—one side of the current divide is at best a tenuous coalition of disparate social groups who attend to a broad range of media narratives. The other is an increasingly homogenous configuration positioned not just against “the left,” but against the very notion of a multi-cultural democracy, and bolstered by an interconnected network of mutually informing media outlets. The real political struggle we face, therefore, is not an electoral contest between liberal and conservative policy preferences, but a deeper definitional fight between democratic citizenship and authoritarianism. For the moment, democracy itself is on the defensive.